RADical Change: The Economic Story of Asheville’s River Arts District

♪ [opening music] ♪ ♪ ♪>>Leah Greden Mathews: Alright. So, let’s go ahead
and get started. Thank you so much
for joining us today. My name is Leah Mathews and I
am one of four presenters today. Thank you in advance for your
willingness to be flexible as we switch around our presenters. We’re going to be talking
today about a project that is in process, that is embedded in
community and that is I would say sort of a way of looking
at a neighborhood through an economic and sociological and
community lens that is really a new opportunity for me
after living in Asheville for over 20 years. It’s really fun to sort of
have this sort of in-depth neighborhood study in process. My co-authors are Dr. Melissa
Mahoney and 2 students; Holly Fraser-Corp and Mary
Stapleton who you will meet during the course
of the presentation. So, we wanted to start by
talking a little bit about our motivations for the research. How many of you
have been to RAD, the River Arts District?
Awesome. We sort of assume that folks
in Asheville have been there. So, you know that it’s a lively
neighborhood for both locals and tourists. It as a neighborhood provides
connection both to local history and to cultural heritage
both through objects and through experiences. The neighborhood itself like
many in our community has been impacted by gentrification. And, if you go back a little bit
further looking at the history of redlining and urban renewal
there is an important legacy there that has sort of
shifted, who lives in, who works in this
area over time. And of course, the
injection of tourism. Asheville’s a very popular place
for tourists in part because of places like the RAD. And so, one of
the curiosities is, “Well how does that
change things,” both for the neighborhood,
for physical infrastructure, and also for artists in
terms of who is there, how they make a living, what
objects they’re actually making, the interactions they’re having
with visitors and each other. And then of course the
River Arts District, if you’ve been there you
know is in the flood plain. And so, there are some questions
about long-term environmental sustainability with routine
flooding and especially as we have significant changes in
rainfall events there are some questions there as well. And, some of that’s being worked
out and some of it is to be determined long-term. So, for all these reasons and
others we find it an interesting place and a perfect sort of a
little microcosm of many issues; environmental, economic,
sociological, political sort of in a neighborhood. So, the project overview is
similarly sort of multifaceted. And, if we had to sort of put
a one-tag line on our primary objective, it’s really to sort
of look at the sociocultural and economic change that’s occurred
in the River Arts District. In particular, we’re interested
in how artists are affected by new audiences. We’re interested in how artists
respond to changes in demand, studio availability,
and changing markets. All of these are economic
factors as well as social and community factors. And, one of our first steps was
to really think about doing what we’re referring to as a census
of properties and artists in order to understand sort of some
of the history of change before we delve deeper
into the next phases. So, that’s what we’re going
to be talking about today. I’m going to toss the talk over
to Dr. Mahoney who will present the next few slides.>>Melissa Mahoney:
Hi everybody. So, my name is Melissa Mahoney. I’m a professor of economics
here at UNC Asheville. And I’m tasked in this
presentation to give you a little bit of history
on the RAD. So, keep in mind I’m an
economist giving you a history lesson, alright very short
history lesson and also a little bit about the location. Everyone here has
been to the RAD. Everyone’s hand went up
when we asked this question. But maybe the folks who are
going to watch on YouTube later may not know this. So, the River Arts District
is located in the heart of the City of Asheville. Just to kind of position
a little bit more, it’s to the west and slightly
south of the downtown area. And like Leah just said, it’s
located along the flood plains of the French Broad River. Moving on now to
this brief history, so the RAD is lined with a
number of industrial buildings that were once serviced by
the Norfolk-Southern Railroad beginning in the late 1800s. However, a major flood of the
river in 1916 left many of these industrial buildings abandoned
mostly due to water damage. In the 1970s business person
Bill Goacher purchased several of these buildings in the River
Arts District as an investment and began renting space in
them to artists as studios. This effort helped begin the
development of the area as an arts district. Eventually, Goacher sold some
of the buildings he owned to interested artists. This trend of repurposing the
industrial buildings as artists spaces continued over the next
decades, next few decades. The first Studio Stroll in the
area was in 1994 marking the establishment of the district
that we now know as the RAD. These strolls continue
to this day. The number of artists working in
the area has grown substantially over the last 22
years from 45 to 210. Moving forward, just to
highlight some of these industrial buildings that were
repurposed as artists spaces, first we have the
Pink Dog Creative. So, that’s spot 14 on this map
that we have which is from the River Arts District
Artists Association. So, the Pink Dog Creative was
built in the 1920s as a textile warehouse and was repurposed
in 2010 for artists’ studios, restaurants, and retail stores. Next, we can look at Space 10,
so that’s the Wedge Studios. Those in this room are probably
very familiar with the Wedge. This building was built in 1916. It was originally the Farmers
Federated Ag. Co -op. It was repurposed in 2002 by a
legendary sculptor John Payne as artists’ studios. So, that just gives you a little
bit more detail about some of these industrial buildings and
how they were repurposed to become part of the
River Arts District. So, that’s my piece of our
presentation and next we’ll pass it on to Mary Stapleton.
Thank you.>>Mary Stapleton: Hi, I’m Mary
Stapleton and I’m a student here at UNCA and I’m going to
tell you a little bit about the project stages that we’ve
been doing for this. So, first we started looking at
the economic background of the buildings in the RAD and also
creating an artist’s census over a period of years just to see
how the makeup of artists have changed. And, the next piece we’re going
to move on to will be interviews and oral histories with the
people who currently make art in the RAD. So, our methods for making
the background census. For the property census we went
to the Buncombe County GIS. We gathered accessed values
for each parcel of land that’s in the RAD. We found ownership histories
and acreage histories for each parcel as well. For the artists census we got
our data from brochures from the River Arts District Artists
Association and maps from there as well. We got our artist names, medium,
and their tenure from those. So, we found that there are
169 parcels of land in the River Arts District. The average size of each
parcel is around 1.45 acres, which is pretty small. 117 parcels are owned by
Asheville locals and the rest are owned by either others
from different parts of North Carolina or different states. Most parcels are owned by LLCs
or private individuals and the average accessed value for every
parcel is over $800,000 in 2018. So, over time in RAD the average
accessed value increased by 87% since 2001 which is the earliest
year that we have data for. The average accessed value in
2001 was over $100,000 and now it’s over $800,000. The average percent change
in parcel value per year was about 19%. So, here we have a graph from
Mosaic Realty here in Asheville. This a graph representing the
medium home sale price in Asheville and in
Buncombe County. We put this up here to act as
kind of a comparison to the medium assessed
value in the RAD. However, it’s not a perfect
representation because in the RAD those are commercial
buildings and these are residential buildings. However, we think it’s a pretty
good starting point for where we want to move in the future. And, as you can see in 2018 in
Asheville the average sale price for a home was over $300,000
which is significantly less than what it is in the RAD. So, next I’m going to hand
it off to my colleague Holly Fraser-Corp and she’ll
tell you about the artists.>>Holly Fraser-Corp: Hello,
my name is Holly Fraser-Corp. I’m an economics student
here at UNC Asheville. So, the next thing that we
did that Dr. Mathews and Mary mentioned was that we created
an inventory of artists based on these brochures that we were
able to access from the River Arts District Association
brochures that went back to 1995. So, we created a census of
artists and their corresponding mediums and the changes in their
tenures and mediums over time. So, this first graphic, we have
both medium representation and just the number of artists
present in the River Arts District from 1995 to 2018. And, that number as Dr. Mahoney
I believe said has grown from 45 in 1995 to over 200 in 2017. It dropped back down a little
bit I believe to 192 in 2018. So then, we also have
medium growth. So, the red line is painting and
we’ve seen strong and steady growth in painting
representation in the River Arts District as well as in ceramics
which is that gold line. And, we’ve also seen recent
pretty strong growth in mixed media representation. One comment about the data
is that many of the artists identify themselves with
multiple mediums and that’s been a growing phenomenon. So, in 1995 only about 20
artists identify themselves with multiple mediums and in 2018
about 48% of them identify themselves with
multiple mediums. So, when creating this graphic,
any time a medium was mentioned in the given year,
it was counted. So, although these medium lines
make not be representative of the total number of artists, we
believed that they were an accurate description of the
mediums represented in the River Arts District in a given year. Just to zoom in on a few of the
mediums that were showing the most movement. Painting is one and we see this
dip in 2001 and then it shoots back up around 2002. That could be due to this
increase in the number of artists and then drop back
down from 2001 to 2002. But, this also something that
we are interested in talking to members of the
River Arts District, getting some oral histories
and kind of backing up their experiences with some of
the data that we’ve seen. Ceramics and sculpture, I kind
of wanted to present together because I saw an interesting
thing when I was digging into the River Arts District website. Ceramics is usually hanging out
around 20 to 50% of all of the mediums represented in the
River Arts District between 1995 and 2018. While sculpture has never been
more than about 20% of all of the mediums represented. When kind of digging into some
of the ceramicist’s artwork, a lot of them make sculptures
and very few of them consider themselves both ceramicists
and sculptors. They typically only identify
themselves as ceramicists. And, that’s another thing I
think we’re kind of interested in asking some members of
the River Arts District about, if there’s value in identifying
oneself in the River Arts District as a ceramicist and
maybe considering some of the history and tradition
of ceramics and clay in Western North Carolina. This is mixed media
representation and I also thought this was interesting
because in 1995 it was barely represented at all and in 2017
it was about 45% of all mediums represented in the
River Arts District. So, whether this is another
factor of self-identification shifting or just more actual
mixed media representation in the River Arts District is
something that we’re planning on looking into. The average artist tenure, we
wanted to see if that’s changed in the recent years. So, over 1995 to 2018 the
average artist tenure in the River Arts District was
about two and a half years. And, when we looked at just
current artists from 2018 they’re average tenure
was roughly 4.7 years. So, we are seeing an increase in
the amount of time artists are staying in the
River Arts District. And, then we wanted to look at
tenure of current artists by their mediums to see if there
was any variation in artists tenures using different mediums. And, we created this graphic on
the right here with sculptors staying in the River Arts
District roughly 8 years, ceramicists about 6.2. And, going in descending order
until about- people who make jewelry which is
about 2.7 years. So, our next steps that we’re
planning for our research as both Dr. Mathews and Mary
mentioned is taking some of this raw data and the analysis that
we’ve created and bringing it to members of the River
Arts District and kind of ground-truth findings- or
grounding some of that with their experiences. We wanted to interview artists
and association members and create a little bit of an oral
history to either corroborate or maybe challenge some of
the findings that we have. We believe that this might
create you know a more whole picture for our story. I’m going to pass this next
part on to Dr. Mathews.>>Mathews: Alright, so we have
many people to acknowledge including Dr. Karin Peterson who
when we began this project was a full partner. She’s a sociologist of art who
is currently serving as interim provost at the university. And, certainly many of her ideas
and questions are embedded in this work. Pattiy Torno who’s the owner of
Curve Studios in RAD generously offered us on loan copies of the
original RADA maps so that we could copy and digitize them,
make copies of them basically so that we would have a complete
data source since she had hard copies going back
to the originals. Our funders of course, we
couldn’t do this without our great student workers. The UNC Asheville Student
Employment Fund provided funding as has the Interdisciplinary
Distinguished Professorship of the Mountain South. And, in addition to the 2
research assistants who presented today, there have
been 3 other students that have worked on this project so
far; Tuscan Harrington, Metis Meloche, and
Savannah Adams-Clark. So, now we are interested to
hear your questions and in particular we are interested
in your suggestions for other questions we might
add to our work. And, thinking ahead in
terms of dissemination to different communities. Of course, in addition to our
ground truthing with RADA members and other artists we’re
interested in thinking about other constituencies and so
we welcome your suggestions. Thank you. Alright, yes.>>Leisa Rundquist: One thing
that I’ve noticed in the River Arts District over the last 10
years or so since I’ve been in this city is that the- when you
have conversations with artists and they get more and more
tourists in they tend to do less work. So, that I think the original
idea is it’s a working studio that’s open to the public. So, I think the studios
themselves have been changing somewhat and that some artists
I think shifting over to just having it as display and not
working in there because they can’t get the work done because
they’re talking to people a lot. Or, it might also affect how
much square footage they can afford so- and it’s also
dependent on their medium. So, if they’re ceramicists a
lot of them tend to have wheels there and work and so it’s a
fully encompassed kind of studio for them and others that are
painters some of them paint there but I think because
that’s more portable they can paint at home. So, they may just have a wall
somewhere as opposed to a full walk-in studio. But that might be interesting to
ask them how they’re- because that’s also kind of
economic how much>>Mathews: Absolutely.>>Rundquist: As rents go
up afford how they use their studio. What’s
the goal for that? And, as it becomes more popular
it’s good because they want to talk to visitors but it
disrupts their artmaking, their practice too. So,
how does that kind of->>Mathews: Absolutely.>>Rundquist: Change how
they use that studio, yeah.>>Mathews: And that’s
definitely on our radar. I know that antidotally you know
we’ve had conversations with individuals who have said, “Oh I
had to move out of that building because I wasn’t getting
any work done.” And so, different studios have
different requirements for the number of hours that any artist
might be there in production or interacting with visitors in
a given month for example. And so, that’s
definitely part of it. How much work are
you getting done? Do those interactions
lead to sales? Or are they- as some have
maybe jokingly indicated, “Am I just sort of like a caged
animal in the zoo on display. And so, I’m there for the
performance not necessarily to inform consumers about my
production practice you know why I make this art and
what it means to me.” And that you know sort of
value making conversation. So, those are definitely things
that we hope to sort of tease out through conversations both
with people who have been there for a while and maybe moved
around and also some folks who have left completely in
addition to those that are sort of new, yeah.>>Rundquist: Are you interested
in finding out how many UNCA alumni->>Mathews: That would be
lovely, yeah there are many.>>Rundquist: Have maybe
more [indistinct] that kind of started and have stayed-
some have stayed and some have come back.>>Mathews: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah so, if you’re willing to
help us with that investigation at some point that
would be lovely.>>Rundquist: Because I think
for our department we would be interested in how many stay or
it seems to us you know what kind of package do we deliver
for students in terms of, “Are they fully ready to setup
their studio when they leave.” And, often times the ceramicists
are because they really know how to do the kilns and all that. It’s a matter of funding but
ceramicists do tend to kind of be in pods, they share things,
sculptors do that too because it’s expensive. But to us it would be
interesting how many of our students stay and then prosper
you know in the RAD.>>Mathews: And excuse me,
how are they- are they using that space differently
over time? Yeah, exactly. Yeah, Colin.>>Colin Reeve: You looked
at who owns the studios, but do you know the ratio of
artists who rent space compared to- who actually
own their own studio?>>Mathews: That’s a great
question and we don’t have that information right now though I
imagine that a great majority of the artists there are renting at
this moment especially given the escalation in prices, yeah. And, most of these spaces as was
mentioned are large industrial spaces that, I mean you wouldn’t
need the entire space for yourself which is part of what
makes it attractive for sort of like an artistic community
feel for sure, yeah.>>Reeve: Because I would guess
as well if you owned the studio, you’re more likely to stay
longer than if you just rent the space.>>Mathews: Absolutely.
Absolutely, yeah. Great question.>>Gene Hyde: Sort of following
up on Leisa’s question more about the tourism element. Your antidotally talking about-
people have said it’s changed their process whether
they’re working or whether they’re just talking. But, I’m also more interested
with the growth of tourism in Asheville how the
numbers changed. Are these people seeing
more tourists than locals? You know, is it changing
what they’re producing? Is it changing how landlords
feel about who they’re renting to? There’s all that tourism,
how does it impacting this arts community?>>Mathews: Absolutely. Those are great questions and
things we’ve been thinking about and again antidotally we know
that some locals used to go to the Studio Stroll every time it
was offered and now they just don’t go because there’s so
many visitors there and it’s so crowded that if they actually
want to engage with artists, they go some other time. I’m
one of those people, right. I no longer- I like kind
of avoid the RAD during the Stroll weekends. And, one of the things we hope
to do in talking with artists is if some are willing to share
sort of look at their share of sales over time and the
individual patterns and whether they can identify whether those
sales came from visitors or locals. And so, we’ll see. But we may have the opportunity
to do that with a couple of folks. Yeah.>>Hyde: One other question.
This is a flood plain.>>Mathews: Yes [laughing].>>Hyde: An eight-fold increase
in assessment value since 2001 in a flood plain? How does that- you’re an
economist, how does that->>Mathews: Yeah, so to
be clear not all of the River Arts District as defined
by the city is in active flood plain, right. Some of it is kind of
like upslope a little bit. But, that is a very serious
problem and as you know if you are a local and you’ve driven
through the area recently they are working on putting in a
greenway and renovating the road infrastructure there. That said, it does still and
certainly has in the last year flooded significantly, some
of the highest floods that we’ve ever seen. Part of that is a function of
the increase in the amount of built infrastructure we have. And, some of the changes are
designed to help mitigate some of that flooding with
more gravel parking lots instead of paved. Although some of the other
changes seem to be sort of exacerbating some of the
potential for flooding on the roadway. So, excellent question and yeah,
it’s a challenge because what happens when it floods, the road
closes you know you can’t drive through there which means of
course you’re not getting to your studio. You’re not getting any visitor
traffic and so I think that is a challenge long-term for sure.>>Hyde: And you mentioned
Asheville defining it as a flood plain. Is that a FEMA
designation?>>Mathews: It is, it is. And so, the River Arts District
I guess is what I was referring to. The actual
district, the area. The physical area that we sort
of identify for this research as part of the district. Not all of that is officially
in the flood plain, yeah. Though most of it is. But that would be something we
should maybe add in to our to-do list in terms of look at the
percentage of land area that is officially in the flood plain. Of course, there are other
activities going on there, right. It’s not just art, right. There’s other industry there and
New Belgium Brewery is across the river and for most folks
they would sort of consider that all part of the same
district, yeah. Yeah.>>Robert Tatum: To come back to
the conversation about tenure. Do you have sense of
where artists are going? Are they leaving the area? Are they going out to
say Madison County, to the old high school there? Is there a sort of flow back
in at different times and what explains all that?>>Mathews: That’s a
great question and we don’t yet know that. But we hope to also get some of
that antidotally again we know that some people that
have been there have left. They’re still in the area but
they’re not either displaying their wares or producing
art in the district anymore. You know I know some folks who
have studio space in their home and they just have a display
area sort of the hybrid changes in that way. But, that is another question
that we’re interested in. And that’s why looking at the
UNCA graduates might be an interesting little subsample to
see what those trends are within that population, yeah. And I also know just antidotally
there are people coming from out of state who are now in the
River Arts District, you know. And from sort of a newbie
outsider perspective you know they see this as just
you know like solid gold, you know. So, there’s also a little bit of
an insider/outsider dynamic too as is true with a lot of
gentrified areas whether they’re arts districts or others.
Did you want to follow up?>>Tatum: Yeah, it’s
tangentially related but related. Community, is there any sense of
how community has changed there particularly when you were just
talking about some folks are now just using it as
a display place. I can imagine you know sort
of the not just now networking effects but learning that
can go on in the community. Is there any sense from the
artists themselves of the change in community over time?>>Mathews: Yes. We don’t have that documented
very well at this moment but certainly we’ve heard stories
about how that has shifted. And still, there are sort of
these major figures shall we say that sort of continue to be
long-standing mentors for whole groups of folks. So, I don’t know, I mean it will
be interesting to see as our work evolves to be able to
identify if that has- if there’s been a perceived
shift in that over time. But, that’s a logical thing to
think about because proximity matters, right both for creative
processes and troubleshooting, infrastructure and things
like that. And, yeah.>>Rundquist: I had a
few other thoughts. So, the breweries also show art
and so they’ve kind of become some gallery spaces
for artists too. And a lot of times they
commission artists to do bars and you know everything like
the new Wedge comes to mind.>>Mathews: The new
Wedge, yeah at Foundation.>>Rundquist: I also saw a
recently in the Wedge building, someone had a table on the first
floor with their prints out and there was an honor box to
just put in like 10, 20 bucks and take a print. I thought that was
really interesting. So, I wonder if they pay rent or
you know how- that seemed to be the entrepreneurial spirit there
that comes out of driving around in the country and someone has
apples or tomatoes- it made me think of that. It was
very different. There’s also stories of people
that squatted in the those and some of our students did back in
the day I guess and used some of the buildings and made art in
them and used them as studios. I don’t know if that’s- how that
might pertain to what you’re doing but that’s kind
of interesting too. I sure anyone today would
be moved out in a hurry.>>Mathews: Absolutely.>>Rundquist: It would be highly
illegal but back then it was just kind of vacant buildings
and I don’t know if it was encouraged but it happened.>>Mathews: Right, it happened
and nobody kicked them out, yeah. That would be an interesting
thing to also make sure that we get and I imagine that if
we look at that UNCA student population or alumni population
we’ll be able to get some of those stories.>>Fraser-Corp: There’s an empty
kind of- it’s not an empty lot but it’s a lot that’s still has
kind of- it’s on that corner right by, right kind of in front
of the Wedge by the Soapy Dog. And it has just a building
without really a roof but there’s like still slats and
inside there’s a bunch of graffiti and there’s cloths and
blankets and sleeping bags in there. So, I’m sure there’s
still a little bit of that. And, also in the District Wine
Bar they have artists work up and when I spoke to the owner
about what that process was like, how they chose people. They said it’s just a rotating
monthly- so every month they exhibit a new artist. And I was interested and I’m
sure we’ll get into it is trying to figure out what that
selection process is like. You know, what it’s like to get
on that list and it lends itself more to certain mediums also.>>Mathews: And then of course
the other big change that’s coming in addition to the road
infrastructure and the greenway are new developments, right. So, a recent approval of some
new live/work spaces and so again like this is going to be
an innovation for the district. And so, it will be interesting
to see sort of what those rents are, what the process is, if
people will see that as a good thing like, “Oh yeah I
would love to both live and work there.” Or is it maybe going to be less
appealing for some and it might not be as attractive as
one might think initially. All interesting questions. So,
we’ll see how that evolves.>>Rundquist: There’s some
condos kind of south of The Pink Dog and that butts up to an
economically challenged part of the city.>>Mathews: Absolutely.>>Rundquist: To me that’s
always been an interesting like you drive over and it changes
quite rapidly in terms of- even just visually what the
landscape looks like. Yeah, the whole
thing where that is, the location and then the flood
plain and then there’s still places that are in disrepair
just like falling down. So, it’s in this strange
transitional period of it could take off and be very prosperous
or it could kind of take a bad turn. One big flood
could change a lot.>>Mathews: Like 1916, right. Yeah, and I think some would
argue that they want the district to maintain
its gritty feel. The want it to remain industrial
in nature even though there isn’t much industry there
now rather than sort of an entertainment district, right. And, for a lot of people that
study tourism there are some pretty interesting distinctions
between people that are attracted to the sort of
glossy you know beautified entertainment districts versus
those that are interested in engaging in sort of a gritty industrial artistic
neighborhood. So yeah, I think we’re not sure
what will happen and there’s probably a wide diversity
of opinions about how the neighborhood will
evolve for sure. Any other questions or comments?>>Hyde: It’s a great project.>>Mathews: Well, thank you
for your interest and for your comments and questions and I
have no doubt that we will have more to report. Check back. Stay tuned and be
in touch. Thank you. [applause] ♪ [closing music] ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪

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