Western North Carolina Woman

adrienne crowther:
executive director, asheville area arts council

by arlene winkler

“Oh, the times they are a’changin’…”

I sing along with the man on my car radio. The sun is shining in downtown Asheville when I turn off the ignition, but there is an eerie prescience to the only verse I’ve managed to hear:

Come gather ‘round people
Wherever you roam And admit that the waters
Around you have grown And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone...”

Make no mistake, this is not about art studios in the flood plain. This is about the sea change in arts funding—and I brace myself for a little whine with my lunch—with the new executive director of the Asheville Area Arts Council.

As usual, I’ve left out something important. The silver lining factor. What the rest of us see as a gloom and doom scenario, Adrienne Crowther sees as burgeoning opportunity. And it's obvious from the positive energy she generates, that she not only has a strategy, she expects it to succeed.

“The Arts Council has always been a funding organization,” she opens, “All of our resources went to raising money to give it away. We were a dependable funding source for theatre groups, dance troops, art programs—you name it—but as a result, it severely limited our ability to do any programming of our own. Now, however, everything’s changed."

We go down the list of the drivers of change: the outsourcing of manufacturing and the negative impact on the North Carolina economy, reductions in state and federal funding for the arts, and the growing trend towards results-oriented philanthropy that wants a measurable bang for its buck. The good news is…”

She waits politely while I let down my whine guard and switch to Sauvignon Blanc.

“The good news is the Arts Council has started to do some programming. Our Arts in Education program has been very well supported and tremendously successful—with excellent buy-in from the school systems.”

Essentially, the council works with artists, who have the appropriate skills, to go into the schools and teach the required curriculum through their art form. They must be approved by a panel of educators in order to be in compliance with school regulations, and everything they do in the classroom must address the standard course of study (a requirement of “No Child Left Behind"). Thus, a teacher might say to Adrienne, “I want to bring in an artist for 5 days and my school has approved $300 towards the $1000 fee.” And the Arts Council is willing and able to be the resource for the other $700.

“There are so many reasons to do this,” she continues. “And so many ways. For example, last week a wonderful teacher suddenly died…a real champion of the arts at Claxon Elementary School. It was totally unexpected and terribly upsetting for the students. Since the principal knew that we’d worked with her, she asked if it was possible to have artists come in every day the following week to do process work. I had to scramble to get that many artists on such short notice. But we did, and I was happy to do it because I really believed it would help the kids process their loss.”

Her sadness passes, and she is literally aglow with enthusiasm. “A lot of studies are coming out now, that show how the arts really reach kids—the clear connection to better attendance, improved comprehension, a lower drop-out rate. Now that the proof is out there, there is even more we can do in the way of programming and support.

“But what about the other artists, the singers and dancers and actors who lost their funding?”

“If we really believe,” she replies, “That the arts are central to human life— which I do— as they are in every other culture in the world except ours, then our real job is to get out there and partner with a lot more non-arts organizations. Whether its health care or social services or job training, we need to make the arts part of what they do.

I’m dubious. After all, I graduated with honors from the “Easier Said than Done” school. “So, let’s say … a hospital, how would you partner with them?”

“We just did that with Mission Hospital and Anna Vogler, the founder of Arts for Life. She works with pediatric oncology patients and provides the guidance and the skills for these kids to express what they’re experiencing. Actually, it was my wonderful predecessor, Barb Lathrop, who invited them to have a show in our gallery. The opening was packed, not only with doctors and nurses, with all kinds of people. We had tourists coming in off the street, and telling us how moved they were.

“I was too,” I admit. “But that one’s a natural. Could you partner with a department at UNCA?” The words are no sooner out of my mouth than I realize I’ve handed her another slam dunk.

“Sure. We work with their Arts Education and Education departments. We got a grant to do a three year teacher training institute for arts integration. It was gigantically successful. It started we were approached by the chairman of the Education Department, and a professor of drama who had been co-teaching an arts integration course in that department for years. They said to us, we have a great idea, we want to expand this course into a full week summer institute for teachers.

We started working together and set up five teams, each with two classroom 3rd grade teachers, an arts specialist, an administrator and an artist partner. They had pre-selected a unit of curriculum that they wanted to arts-integrate and were able to incorporate the techniques they learned into their lesson plans — which will soon be available on-line.

That project was funded through the Susanne Marcus Collins foundation, a major supporter of the arts and education here. They were able to leverage that money and get a grant from the North Carolina Arts Council for additional artist residencies and other support.

“Now we’re collaborating on how we can expand that program into a statewide, and possibly nationwide program.

“That’s fine for kids in the classroom,” I say. “But how about kids who are at risk?

“I think any opportunity for self-expression can be life-changing for At-Risk youth. One way is through interactive arts opportunities, such as Playback Theatre. Another is through KidTix, which is funded by an anonymous donor in the private sector. It makes tickets to all cultural events available to a student and a mentor; a big brother or sister, or a parent, even a teacher. It promotes the mentoring as well as exposure to the arts.

“These are the kind of things that really can be done. It’s especially encouraging because it shows me that if we come up with a great service for the community, the supporters will follow. It means I’ll be able to say, “Mission Hospital, YWCA, Teen Crisis Center—this would be a really great program for you and we can put you in touch with the right people.”

I hate to do it, but I can see it’s time to get down and dirty. “It takes time and money to find the right people. How will you make it happen?”

“First of all, we need to do some serious outreach into the artist community. I get calls all the time, like, “I inherited a painting, do you know someone who can repair it?” Or the woman who called yesterday who wants to hire a mural artist to paint a wall in her house. Hopefully, if we identify ourselves as the resource in the community we’re going to get a flow of that information and have a place on our web site where artists can list themselves. We have some amazing artists here - more than a few of them are world class.”

“You planning to share some of this with the grown up public?” I grumble. I’ve had all the blue skies I can take.

“If we get the kids involved, we can get their parents involved. Look at the Art Museum boat making event, in the fountain at Pack Square. Everyone tries their hand at it. Any time you can get all kinds of people together and have them use their creativity to work on a communal project you’re successfully reaching out, having fun, partnering.”

Which still leaves us with the money question. But even here the news is promising. The Arts Council is about to sell a unit in one of the buildings it owns, which will put them back on a positive financial footing. Another impending change is their plan to go to a membership format, with varying levels of membership, and corresponding benefits.

“For example, an artist member might have access to our office equipment, or to the arts library I hope to establish. Eventually I would hope to add affordable healthcare and legal assistance for the artists. Obviously we’re not going to be the ones who provide that help. My plan is to be allied with the kind of people who do. That kind of alignment would be so much more useful than a handout.

“You realize,“ I point out, “It’s going to fall on you personally to be the magnet for all of this.”

“Yes a lot of my role is being out there, talking to people. It’s about building relationships, gaining trust, and having that contagious enthusiasm that makes people want to join you in your mission."

I know when I’m out of my depth. I take out my checkbook. “So, how much for a membership?”


Arlene Winkler is a freelance financial writer, specializing in institutional finance. Her articles are published in financial trade journals all over the world. But don’t bother to GOOGLE her; they’re all credited to the executives who employ her. A former ad agency president and enthusiastic participant of life on the New York fast track, she moved to Asheville in 2002 with her sculptor husband, Robert Winkler. A mother of three, a grandmother of four, and the author of three screenplays, she is dealing with her culture shock by writing a North/South novel under her own name.


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