SmART Initiative: River Arts District
River Arts District, Asheville.
Photo courtesy of Hedy Fischer, Pink Dog Creative.
Nestled alongside the French Broad River just minutes from downtown Asheville, the River Arts District can boast a nearly twenty-five year old history of artist-initiated development. In the late 1980s artists began renovating vacant riverfront properties to transform them into studios, live/work spaces and a music venue. This homegrown process of artists developing buildings for adaptive reuse accelerated in the 1990s, and in 2004 local stakeholders and artists officially branded the neighborhood the River Arts District. Today the district is notable for the high percentage of artist-owned properties as well as the independent and organic nature of development, which has resulted in a coherent and sustainable community identity and character.
The City of Asheville, the N.C. Department of Transportation (DOT), and the Tourism Development Authority have contributed to the district’s growth through the Clingman Streetscape Project and a way finding program, but resident artists and local businesses have provided most of the vision and resources to define their own neighborhood. The active River Arts District Artists manages artist membership, local programming, and other civic issues for residents, working artists and businesspeople. The Asheville Area Riverfront Redevelopment Corporation was formed in 2010 to help guide district development into the future.
The River Arts District now features over 150 artists working in two dozen open studios and galleries, particularly active on Second Saturdays; a letter press printer; furniture, metal, landscape and interior design and fabrication firms; the Asheville Area Arts Council; a brewery and several popular restaurants and cafes; numerous teaching facilities; two cinemas and a theater; and the Grey Eagle, one of the city’s foremost independent music venues.
Asheville has long been home to one of the state’s most vibrant artist communities. It is also a base for residents and travelers drawn to the significant natural and recreational resources of the Blue Ridge Mountains, so this cultural district’s location on the world’s third oldest river is a natural fit. The neighborhood’s unique coincidence of remarkable landscape, robust arts assets, historic architecture and artist-initiated development makes it a singularly attractive and compelling arts district.
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