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.