Saturday, July 15, 2023 / by Amy Brown
Asheville has always been a haven for the creatively inclined. With over 50 galleries inside the city limits alone there are endless possibilities for study or appreciation no matter what the medium. The only problem is where to start. My recommendation is always to start at the beginning at the Asheville Art Museum located on Pack Square. This is the third oldest art museum in the state dating back to 1948. The museum’s collection concentrates on 20th and 21st century American art from the Southeast, mainly crafts of Appalachia and handmade Cherokee artisanry. They also host several rotating collections, most with themes of an environmental, conservational, or spiritual nature.
Any artistic journey through Asheville would be a waste without visiting the River Arts District. This 1 mile long stretch of converted textile mills on Riverside Dr. is the home of over 165 artists and craftsmen. Expect to see amazing projects in progress as these are working studios with artists in residence. Any and every medium can be explored here from glass blowing to metal craft, weaving, potters, sculptors, and furniture makers. Studio spaces date back to 1887 and many are close to their original condition with a few modern updates. While many studios welcome visitors daily a special effort is made on the second Saturday of every month when the District holds gallery walks with demonstrations, food, music, and workshops.
The city itself is a living museum with one of the largest collections of Art Deco, Art Nouveau, and Beaux-Art architecture in the country, second only to Miami’s South Beach. At the time of the city’s birth in the 1920s we were blessed with grand master architects such as Richard Morris Hunt, Frederick Law Olmsted, Richard Sharp Smith and Raphael Guastavino. The easiest way to view their works is to walk the Architecture Trail. Approximately 15 blocks long, the trail will take you to some of the most classic works of architecture in the city such as Douglas Ellington’s S&W Cafeteria building and Ronald Greene’s Westall Building. You also will not want to miss Guastavino’s Basilica of St. Lawrence, the largest free standing elliptical dome in North America.
The Biltmore Estate is also a prime example of architectural and historical significance with the French Chateau drawing over 1.4 million visitors per year. But what most don’t realize is that the Biltmore Estate has a strong hand in the arts hosting several exhibitions throughout the year illustrating concepts from art to music to science. Though the home itself is an incredible marvel and always worth a tour, the estate is committed to scientific and artistic education with some of its most notable exhibitions being Legends of Art and Innovation featuring the great masters of the Italian Renaissance, Chihuly glass sculptures, and Glamour on Board: Fashion from Titanic. Exhibitions remain for approximately four months giving visitors plenty of time for scheduling and allowing up to three private collection rotations annually.
Many years ago, Asheville decided that in order to be all-inclusive it must also be all accepting, especially if it was going to identify itself as an artist’s haven. So instead of disdaining the urban art movement, city planners decided to embrace it in 2000 with the implementation of The Public Art Master Plan whose goal was to transform the city itself into a work of art. Since then the city has come to life with colorful murals, sculpture, and ever changing facades painting the urban landscape with color, movement, and at times, controversy. Opening its arms to artistic expression in whatever form that takes shape has created a community alive with integration, possibility, and diversity. Locals commonly watch the water tower seen on your right from the Smoky Park Bridge freeway for its ever changing catch phrase on the dynamics happening in the world today. Graffiti art from Lords Crew, Yatse, and Roar are most commonly seen along the abandoned mill fronts of Riverside Dr. running parallel with the greenway. Evocative murals by famous artists like Molly Must, Alex Irvine, and Jimmy O’Neal can be found on almost any vertical structure with some of the most notable being Must’s historical depiction of the poultry industry of the 1920s in Chicken Alley and Alex Irvine and Ian Wilkinson’s collaboration, Daydreamer, a tribute to Art Deco on the side of the Aloft Hotel. One of my favorites are the flying squirrels underneath the overpass on N. Lexington Ave. For visitors, the easiest way to get a taste for urban art is to take the South Slope Mural Trail, a two mile long walk along Coxe and Hilliard Avenues, or what is known as Asheville’s motor mile. Here you will find tributes to our African American communities, industrial history, and whimsical pieces as well. For historians and sculpture enthusiasts, the Urban Trail will be more rewarding with a tour through time of the history of Asheville in the making depicted through sculptural context. While many have debated artistic contribution from an economic perspective, art has only increased the city’s coffers creating over 14,000 jobs and bringing in over $76M in art sales annually ranking Asheville as the second best small arts destinations in the country. Asheville has made a profession in the arts not only rewarding but profitable as well changing a dilapidated urban landscape into a center of beauty and creativity welcoming any with the passion to share it.