Insufficient Funds: Can public money grow Charlottesville’s arts scene?

Insufficient Funds: Can public money grow Charlottesville’s arts scene?

It seems like an absurd plan to grow a city’s art scene: take the cultural community, run it through two years of focus groups and surveys, and publish six long-range goals (diversity and inclusion, arts education, cultural destination, creative workers, creative placemaking, and cultural infrastructure). It’s a wonky, almost anti-artistic approach. Doesn’t such an effort simply underscore Charlottesville’s willingness to obsessively reformulate intellectual problems rather than to roll up its sleeves to fix them?

“The Charlottesville/Albemarle arts community rests on the backbone of two or three people, and it’s not really sustainable for that reason,” said Sarah Lawson, executive director of Piedmont Council for the Arts. Photo: Elli Williams.

Not according to Sarah Lawson, executive director of Piedmont Council for the Arts (PCA). The non-profit arts council used a variety of grants to pay an amount The Daily Progress estimated at $112,000 to an outside consulting firm to generate the Create Charlottesville/Albemarle: A cultural plan, unveiled during a brief ceremony at The Paramount Theater last month. What Lawson and her predecessor Maggie Guggenheimer saw was a lively arts community living hand to mouth on generous, likely unsustainable donations from a small group of patrons.

“The Charlottesville/Albemarle arts community rests on the backbone of two or three people, and it’s not really sustainable for that reason,” said Lawson. “Increasingly, many of the people who founded the arts community and make it so vibrant either passed away or moved away or, for whatever reason, got uninvolved. It’s a very real life cycle, and we wanted to make sure it didn’t result in killing off organizations that we all know and love.”

In 2011, PCA participated in a study conducted by Americans for the Arts called Arts & Economic Prosperity IV. It revealed that the arts and culture industry in Charlottesville and Albemarle generated $114.4 million in annual economic activity, resulting in $9.2 million in local and state government revenues, 1,921 equivalent full-time jobs, and $31.2 million in household income for local residents.

“The study completely shut up anyone who said the arts don’t matter economically,”  said Live Arts Executive Director Matt Joslyn. “We’re a huge industry with a massive economic impact, and Charlottesville and Albemarle would be fundamentally different places if you took us away. It showed that we’re worthy to be at the table.”

Create Charlottesville/Albemarle takes the Arts & Economic Prosperity study one step further by outlining the lifestyle impact and goals of our cultural scene, not just its influence on the local economy. The process, an investment in long-term alignment between the arts community and policymakers, included input from over 1,000 citizens and community leaders and spanned the better part of two years. The 32-page final document is a vision for the future for arts organizations and a well-formulated plea to local government to formally commit to providing funding and infrastructure to the arts community.

It’s as much an inventory as a plan, designed to empower struggling cultural institutions at a time when some high-profile smaller players are feeling the pressure. Vinegar Hill Theatre closed after 37 years of foreign and independent film screenings, citing competition from multiplex conglomerates and increased interest in streaming media. Random Row Books, the dynamic independent bookstore and performance space, had to close its doors to make way for a hotel. Chroma Projects Art Laboratory, a gallery and studio space on the Downtown Mall, closed just a few weeks ago when a confluence of rising rent costs and lessening tourism rendered the for-profit gallery unsustainable.

“I do think the city could have helped a little more,” said Deborah McLeod, the curator at Chroma. “Helping to promote fine art places or giving more opportunities for free parking to encourage tourism. I feel like they could have helped me more, because I feel like I was giving something important to Charlottesville.”

All three organizations were for-profit and therefore ineligible for non-profit funding, but they also, as Lawson put it, suffered from a lack of governmental response.

“We need to recognize certain resources as cornerstones of the community,” Lawson said. “And help either relocate them or integrate them into the planning process rather than paving over them.”

But not every leader in the local arts community thinks more infrastructure is the answer. Some are simply worried that as the city becomes more expensive, it’s pricing out its creative class and turning towards art tourism instead of creativity for answers.

“I think Charlottesville lost sight of how important it is to maintain a creative base and make damn sure that artists can be a part of the community,” said Greg Kelly, the former executive director of The Bridge Progressive Arts Institute. “LOOK3, the Virginia Film Festival—those large scale productions are great, but the underground DIY thing was slowly being tapped.”

Maintaining a thriving arts scene outside an urban center appears incredibly difficult. It’s a competitive, subjective, and bootstrapping world that thrives on energy and the willingness of artists to live on the margins of the economy. In a way, subsidizing the arts is counterintuitive, even problematic. If the scene can’t survive on its own, the reasoning goes, perhaps it shouldn’t exist at all.

On the other hand, art has never existed without patronage to support it. Those who remember the early days of the art scene in Charlottesville know it was based on cheap rent and benevolent landlords. The independent bookstores and contemporary galleries helped to yield the area’s current quality of life and revitalize its Downtown. Without a vibrant art community, its reputation as a cultural center and artistic haven will evaporate.