By Ilana Fiorenza, AVL Watchdog
The pandemic that left thousands of Asheville workers unemployed has been particularly hard on the artists, musicians and performers who help define the city’s character.
“Lots of people have been broken by this — people that live day to day, week to week, month to month,” said artist David Achenbaugh of Blue Ridge Gems, who has been selling his jewelry at the Grove Arcade Outdoor Maker’s Market for 17 years. “I worked my whole life. Every day, I’d go out and go to work, and I can’t even provide for myself or my family now.
“All my street artist people are hurting,” he said.
The long-term impact could alter the very fabric of Asheville.
The soul of the city – its many talented and quirky artists and small business owners – are fighting to survive. Some have folded, like the River Arts District’s Soapy Dog and Addisae Ethiopian Restaurant or shifted to online only like Purl’s Yarn Emporium. Artists have picked up work offloading trucks at Walmart and bagging groceries.
“We’re all just people trying to make art and have fun,” said Brayden Dickerson, lead singer and guitarist for Smooth Goose, a funk and blues fusion band. “But it gets harder and harder to live here.”
Summer should be the peak of festival and tourist season in Asheville, a time when Pack Square is filled with tents displaying art for sale, and music wafts through the streets on Friday evenings from Downtown After Five concerts. This is the time when artists and musicians make the bulk of their annual income, but the festivals are canceled, the concerts on hold.
“Most people are not treading water right now,” said Andrew Montrie, who runs the Asheville Art in the Park market. “They are more like sinking because everything just stopped, and the money turned off.”
Montrie, a lampworker and potter, has turned to restoring antiques to pay the bills. What the future holds for Asheville’s creative side worries city leaders.
“When it comes to things like the impact on artists, is going out and buying art as essential as buying groceries? No,” said Mayor Esther Manheimer. “We know that is going to be a terrible challenge for many of the businesses that are unique to Asheville.”
Before Covid-19, Asheville was social, friendly and weird, a place where hippies, buskers, millennials and retirees peacefully coexisted. The vibe attracted visitors and permanent residents relocating from across the U.S., all drawn to the natural beauty and an economy built on independent and small businesses. The city’s workforce included 10,000 self-employed people, many in the arts.
“It’s a scary time for everybody,” said Rose Feldstein, manager of the Kress Emporium, a local handcrafted arts and crafts gallery featuring nearly 100 artists. Kress did not charge monthly booth rents during the closure and has now reopened at 50 percent capacity.
“It’s slow,” Feldstein said. “I feel like any one sale we can make for that artist is important, and we take that very seriously.”
Asheville had been increasingly difficult for artists before the pandemic with pricey rents and an affordable housing shortage.
“I remember when it was mainly artists,” said Dickerson, an Asheville native.
“When you went down the street, there were way less bridal parties yelling about which brewery they wanted to go to. There were people painting on the street, and those people have slowly been pushed out.”
Achenbaugh said the city had grown “less supportive of the arts and local artists.”
“The arts were dying and struggling before this happened,” he said. “This thing just hammered more nails into the coffin.’’
When the LEAF or Lake Eden Arts Festival scheduled for May was canceled for the first time in its 25-year history, Director Jennifer Pickering knew it would be devastating to artists.
“Some of our very first thoughts were for the artists, handcraft artists, the healing artists, the culinary artists,” she said. “For many of them, having LEAF two to three times a year is one of their stable incomes, and they depend on it.”
The event shifted to VLEAF, a virtual version consisting of mostly pre-recorded musical performances, a few live streaming events and links to artists’ web pages.
Kari Nidy, an artist who goes by Mixed Media Mamma, and her boyfriend, also an artist, already left Asheville and moved to Murphy, North Carolina in March. “At first, I kept telling myself this was just temporary. Stay positive,” said Nidy, who made her living traveling to art fairs. “As shows began to cancel, my hopes began to fade. It was beyond heartbreaking to give up my studio apartment in Asheville.”
Nidy and her boyfriend are now working at Walmart, where she unloads groceries from delivery trucks.
“Everyone on Facebook kept saying, ‘Make your art so you will have a great inventory once shows start up again,’” said Nidy, 51.
“I tried one of my first days off and I was in so much physical pain and exhaustion, I just broke down and went to bed, knowing there was another truck to unload tomorrow.”
The government has offered financial assistance to artists and self-employed workers hurt by the closures, but it has been difficult to access.
“The CARES Act is very specific with what it cares about, and it’s not small business,” said Go Local Director and small business advocate Franzi Charen. “For the few that have gotten it and can use it great, but it’s far too little and it is also too late.”
Artists can tap into the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance – if they can navigate the bureaucracy.
“I was calling every day and getting hung up on, and it was impossible to find anyone to talk to,” said Feldstein of Kress Emporium.
Asheville’s artists are muddling through, always on the lookout for new opportunities. Dickerson’s band Smooth Goose had about 15 gigs canceled.
“Those all sort of disappeared and vanished in an instant,” he said.
Now the band streams on Instagram and Facebook. “We’ll just livestream music and throw up a Venmo and we do make some money off of that,” Dickerson said. “It definitely warms your heart a little bit to know that people are still supporting music.”
Stina Andersen of ARTeries by Stina, a seamstress whose mobile boutique featured repurposed clothing, switched to producing face masks. And Black Mountain glass and tie dye artists Matthew and Jennifer Etner are making masks out of old festival wristbands and selling them on Etsy under the name Ticket2Rage.
Charen of Go Local hopes Asheville will retain its identity and redirect the economy away from out-of-town businesses and investors looking to capitalize on the city’s charm and appeal to tourists.
“I would go back to the fundamental need to expand local ownership and control,” she said. “And that means more and more people owning their own property and land that live and work here.”
Feldstein was worried about downtown even before the virus.
“Asheville has been at a dangerous tipping point with people from out of town buying up property and making it hard rent-wise for locals,” she said. “This is going to give them more of an opportunity if smaller places can’t float and have to close down. We will see a shift with big-business people who have money coming in and buying up property, which I’m scared about.”
LEAF’s Pickering is hopeful that the pandemic unites Asheville. “Whether it’s an organization or an artist, we are starting from some fresh places,” she said. “This is an opportunity to look at what was working really well and …where we want to adjust.
“We all do well, if we all do well,” she said.
The pandemic has hit minorities and lower-income people the hardest, exposing gaps in healthcare and opportunity and the need to address longstanding problems like income inequality and racial disparities, said Buncombe County Commissioner Al Whitesides.
“Coming out of this gives us a golden opportunity to come back and correct a lot of things that should’ve been corrected in the last 100 years or so,” he said. “It’s going be a new day in America. It’s going to have to be.”
Whitesides said Asheville may have to resurrect the Bele Chere Art and Music Festival, an event that drew big name performers and up to 350,000 people downtown each year it ran from 1979 to 2013.
“I was on the original board for Bele Chere for 30 some-odd years, and we did that to bring people into the downtown, and then later we created a monster, it got so big,” he said.
“I hope we won’t have to bring Bele Chere back again, but we’ll see.”
Residents like Catherine Frank, executive director of the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at UNC Asheville, worry about whether the city will retain its diversity and character. “The mission has to be saving what makes Asheville unique, not what makes the city marketable.”
AVL Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Ilana Fiorenza is a freelance investigative reporter and producer in Asheville. Contact us at [email protected].