Rich Answers Questions: Asheville Area Arts Council

1. Name

Rich Lee

2. What do you think are the biggest issues facing Asheville’s creative sector? What do you propose to do to address these issues?

My biggest concern is the affordability of housing and artist studio and retail space. Far from being a city that supports a thriving, diverse arts scene, artists are increasingly pushed out of the city. Many working artists in Asheville hold second and third jobs in the service sector, so issues around chronically low wages and poor working conditions in these positions affect them doubly. 

To address this, I would support the creation of permanently affordable artist “live-work” space in the River Arts district as quickly as possible. The city controls property in RAD earmarked for affordable housing and studio space, and is in the beginnings of a deal with a national nonprofit – Artspace – specializing in protecting affordability for artists in gentrifying areas to build on it. But it’s holding off while affordable housing work proceeds in other parts of the city. I don’t think we can wait. I think keeping footholds for a diverse community of artists in Asheville is a vital economic-development interest and a big part of maintaining our culture. It’s also what tourism-development funds are meant for: making Asheville attractive and vibrant for tourists and locals alike. I would argue strongly that hotel-tax money should be used to support arts and artist living and working spaces. Additionally, I would work to diversify the economy and boost wages across all industries, holding the service and gig industry to a living-wage standard by incubating small, local, independent businesses with grants and city resources normally reserved for large outside corporations. A stronger economy more generally means more locals able to buy and participate in arts, and less dependence on tourism for patronage.

3. What role do you see the arts sector playing in our city or county?

I would argue that, more than our architecture and mountain scenery, arts and artists are what make Asheville feel distinctive and vibrant. If a lot else changed, nourishing our arts scene could keep us feeling like the quirky, progressive, exciting arts town we love.  Artists are canaries in our affordability coal mine, too. A city that prices out its artists is on the verge of pricing out all low-wage workers, entrepreneurs, young people and retirees.

4. Do you support the proposed renovations to Thomas Wolfe Auditorium? Why or why not?

Of course I support them. Thomas Wolfe has needed repairs for a long time. The designs shared last month look good and could put the auditorium on its way to being a new arts centerpiece for the South. I’m reluctant, though, to say the renovations should be funded by the TDA at the expense of other local needs, and there’s no way city taxpayers could bear the $100 million price tag. If I were on council, I would help lead a capital campaign bringing in area industries like GE, Biltmore Farms and others. And I would support revenue bonds to cover part of the cost. We need the renovations done. They’re long overdue. I just want to be creative and wise about budgeting for them.

5. The City of Asheville’s Public Art Masterplan was created in 2001. Would you be supportive of a new city/county public art masterplan? What would you like to see included in this plan?

Yes, I would. I would like to see renovation and updates of city hall included, as well as provision for public art in more neighborhoods than downtown. I’d like advice on how the city can better support community-led public-art initiatives like murals artistic elements incorporated into public works like sidewalks and retaining walls. A few years ago, as a board member of the East West Asheville Neighborhood Association, I helped lead an effort to place artistic markers in a sidewalk being poured in my neighborhood. The bureaucratic processes became overwhelming, and we eventually abandoned the project. A clearer and more streamlined process would have gone a long way to getting more public art in West Asheville. I’d like a Master Plan to set out more options like that.

Rich Lee for Asheville City Council climbing tree