Reality bites

The grand experiment called Blue Ridge Creative is no more, an aborted three-year attempt to become part of Floyd County's growing, but not yet thriving, artistic community. The last evidence of the studio we operated in Floyd's Jacksonville Center for the Arts is gone - most of it now occupying our garage while we decide what to do next in what we saw as relaxing retirement years in the county.

The grand experiment called Blue Ridge Creative is no more, an aborted three-year attempt to become part of Floyd County’s growing, but not yet thriving, artistic community.

The last evidence of the studio we operated in Floyd’s Jacksonville Center for the Arts is gone – most of it now occupying our garage while we decide what to do next in what we saw as relaxing retirement years in the county.

We really didn’t know what to expect when we opened Blue Ridge Creative in studio #2 of the old Diary Barn now known as The Jacksonville Center on January 1, 2004. As part of an anchor group of tenants that included two photographers and an artist, we shared a desire to try something different in our retirement years.

I’m the last of the anchor tenants to leave. The others departed long ago. But I held on, thinking that maybe, just maybe, things might work. I’m stubborn that way.

But I wasn’t cut out to run a photographic gallery or digital printing business and there wasn’t a market here for one anyway. I’m a journalist at heart, not a studio photographer. I like to shoot events, not flowers and landscapes. I prefer to write about things that affect life, not my muse. Instead of trying to sell the photos that hung on the walls, I wrote stories for the local paper and covered high school sports. Instead of marketing the studio, I wrote about politics for web sites.

By the end of last year, economic reality set in. I spent more money in a month keeping Blue Ridge Creative open than the stuido brought in during the entire 36 months of operation. The federal government can run forever on deficits. I cannot.

I have other business enterprises and investments that pay the bills. I had hoped Blue Ridge Creative might, some day, become self-sufficient but that hope was based on the illusion of Floyd County supporting an arts community.

Floyd has a growing arts community that is gaining a reputation. But that community is based on a flawed economic model that cannot, and perhaps never will, support the artists who come here.

The Jacksonville Center opened its doors in the same year traffic on the nearby Blue Ridge Parkway nosedived. High gas prices and other economic uncertainty cut tourism on the Parkway by 60 percent over the last three years. Floyd depends on the Parkway to bring out-of-town business to the galleries.

While there’s no doubt the Jacksonville Center has grown over the past three years, including becoming the home of the state’s first resident crafts school, much of that growth was driven by grabbing available grants rather than by any solid, long-range planning. The Center, for the most part, was driven by a “if we build it they will come” plan that might make a good story about baseball in Iowa but doesn’t pay the bills for an arts center in a small town in the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Now the Center is struggling to pay its bills and went to the Floyd County Board of Supervisors last month with hat in hand to ask for financial assistance. The Jacksonville Center is not alone. Few arts centers support themselves, depending on contributions and benefactors but while others boast massive fundraising operations and active leaders who know how to milk a community for money, Jacksonville never developed a comprehensive fundraising plan or a core group of contributors to help keep the doors open.

Hopefully, the Center will survive its current financial crisis and emerge healthier and wiser but the problems faced by the management of the Center should serve as a warning call to all who buy into the fantasy of Floyd County as an artistic and musical Mecca. Few artists make a living entirely on the art they produce and sell in the county and I don’t know a single musician here who supports him or herself simply by playing or singing. All have other jobs or depend on other sources of income. That’s the reality of life in a small town.

Music has long been a driving force for Floyd County and will be the centerpiece if and when the long sought economic and tourist boom arrives through the Crooked Road and related ventures. If that happens, the other arts will be the beneficiary rather than the catalyst for such a boom. But that boom may never come. When economic reality sinks in, the dream loses its luster. A dozen writers, photographers and artists who lived here when Amy and I moved to the county in 2004 have left for greener pastures. Others talk of leaving in the near future. We’re not going anywhere because we didn’t come here to make a living.

Now, as I look over the remnants of Blue Ridge Creative that now clutter our garage, I’m glad we didn’t need to.

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9 Responses

  1. It’s probably been the same thing ever since somebody yelled at the guy at the cave in France, “Will yah stop fooling around with those drawings on the wall of the cave and go hunting for some food, dammit!”

    But the artistic/creative impulse can never be completely stifled in human beings, and alternatives will be found. In a way, it may be better that the artists stay closer to the lives of ordinary working people.

    Success and money can corrupt artists, writers, musicians, just as much as other people,
    but I think it affects their souls more. The things of this
    world can be very dangerous indeed, for is it not written that we are to be in this world, but not of it..

  2. Too bad it didn’t work out the way you had hoped for Blue Ridge Creative. As I thrash about trying to build River Voices into a viable utility for and about the creative community here in Fredericksburg, I have wrestled with some of the same questions and same problems. My goal is to make the web site the ‘go to’ source for info on what the local creative souls are doing. AS that happens the plan is then to monetize it (really hate that term though) so that it pays its own way.

    Never anticipated what a yawning, sucking maw it would be. Info is old almost as soon as it is posted and the inflow of fresh stuff is totally up to me so far. In many ways it reminds me of the plant in “Little Shop of Horrors. I am seeing some reaction from the people featured there so my hope is that it just hasn’t quite reached critical mass yet.

    Stay tuned…film at eleven.

  3. My friend….Money does not a mecca make. And Floyd certainly is a mecca for the arts, music, healing arts and even farming. A mecca is a place that generates enough activity and energy that it draws others to it. And in the 30 years I’ve lived here that has been steadily happening.

    I am a grass-roots sort of person. Somewhat unfortunately, I’m not much motivated by money. I am much more motivated by my passionate conviction that it is crucial to preserve and cultivate living art, music and joy in a society that is losing touch with a simple honest life, right before my eyes.

    In 1976 I helped open and run the Roxy Music, Arts, and Crafts Center in Greenville, NC. In public schools I have clogged, played music, gotten kids to write letters to their government about harp seals, and handled snakes. I worked for two summers with the Haw River Festival in NC, an educational fair for 4th graders. I was musical director for a samba ensemble that marched for 4 years in the Chapel Hill Christmas Parade. I made a 12 person dragon costume for the Earth Day Parade. I volunteered in Floyd at the Old Church Gallery for two years. I started a neighborhood circus and taught kids to juggle and trained Harry to jump thru a hoop. Then we did a play. I choreographed an all women’s dance and we performed it in the bottomfield at Riverflow. And…I directed an all-women show called Sister Spirit that played three nights in Chapel Hill.

    This list goes on and on…and it is not a resume. I am just trying to point out that I made not a dime for 90% of the above….but boy did I have a good time.

    I, too, am worried about the future of Floyd. This place is truly my heart of hearts. I love it beyond words.

    It’s interesting to me because I thought Floyd was already a mecca before Woody sunk I can’t imagine how much money into the country store or before Jacksonville got it’s mega-grants….or before the very up-scale (and beautiful and unique) Hotel Floyd was built, or the Harvest Moon, or we landed the block grant.

    It is not money that brings the people. It is the people.

    I could say so much more but this is not the plac.
    Thanks for listening. Really.

  4. Doug, here’s a friendly cyber-pat on the shoulder. You’re going to be fine, even though I know you must feel sad.

    You and Amy will get through this, and I’m sure you’ll find something better to keep you busy, happy, and healthy. You’re creative, and intelligent. What more can you ask? Celebrate just breathing, and being able to take moon photos. 🙂

    Hang in there, big fella. We’re here to listen and encourage.

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