Story by Jesse Wood
April 14, 2012. In what could be considered a coup by the Boone Town Council, the Watauga Arts Council will move to an undecided location in July after occupying the Jones House Community Center on King Street for more than 20 years.
This change comes after a April 2 vote by the Boone Town Council to create a Cultural Resources Board, which will manage the Jones House and other related entities under the control of the Town of Boone.
This development isn’t surprising to anyone who has followed the rocky relationship between the Boone Town and the Watauga Arts councils over the last year that flared up last spring and soured to the point that the Watauga Arts Council will lose its home in a prime downtown spot at the beginning of July.
In May of last year, the Boone Town Council moved the current downtown development coordinator’s office inside the Jones House, even though Watauga Arts Council officials said space was already tight and wouldn’t be able to accommodate another person without losing gallery space.
“The Jones House just doesn’t belong to one person. It really doesn’t. It belongs to the whole community,” Mayor Loretta Clawson said last May at a Boone Town Council meeting. “I want to ask you to share a bit of space. I know we’re all selfish. But we can’t have everything we want. We have to all share some time.”
During the same heated discussion, Council Member Jamie Leigh said, “I’m not getting the feeling of partnership, and that really bothers me. I’m getting the feeling that we’re forcing something down [Watauga Arts Council’s] throat.”
Then a few weeks later during the budget process, the Boone Town Council denied the Arts Council’s request of $7,000 for the current fiscal year. At the time, Arts Council President Mike Wise said that this would be the first time in 20 years that the Arts Council received no funding from the town.
“I’m not sure what this indicates about the relationship between the Arts Council and the Town Council,” Wise said.
And in August of last year, two months after the budget was approved, it became more apparent that the relationship was only getting worse, when the Boone Town Council discussed for 20 minutes the location of a copy machine inside the community center after Jones House officials placed it in the Serendipity Gallery.
A three-page list of pros and cons for locations of copy machine was presented to the Boone Town Council with the Serendipity Gallery presented as the most ideal space, and a separate meeting was scheduled solely for the purpose of finding a new spot for the copier.
“This is a power play is what this is,” Leigh said at the August meeting. “We’re talking about a copier but this is not a copier. It’s a ‘who’s going to win on this?’”
This February, the Boone Town Council considered establishing a Cultural Resources Board, which would oversee the Jones House, the old Appalachian Twin Theatre, Horn in the West, two other buildings near Rivers Street that were donated to the town, and other entities. One of the council members was reported as saying in February that the Cultural Resources Board could absorb some of the Jones House Advisory Board’s duties.
In April the Boone Town Council voted to establish the Cultural Resources Board. The motion stated, “The goal in creating a Cultural Resources Board, supported by a director of cultural affairs employed by the Town, will be to promote cultural programs that improve the quality of life in Boone, and also encourage tourism and economic development. It will accomplish this goal by recommending policies and programs to Boone’s Town Council that support, coordinate and evaluate Town-supported cultural activities and facilities.”
The Boone Town Council will appoint nine members to the Cultural Resources Board that will become effective July 1, the same date that the Watauga Arts Council must move out of the Jones House.
Cherry Johnson, Executive Director of the Watauga Arts Council said, “This, for all intents and purposes, ends the role of the Watauga Arts Council at the Jones House since we have occupied and managed that facility on a contractual basis since the mid 1980’s.”
She added, “We’re not taking this personally, we don’t want the community to think there has been a fight. But we feel like there were a lot things going on that were primarily due to a lack of communication. And we hope that we’ve gotten past that point.”
Though the Jones House will no longer house the Watauga Arts Council, Johnson wants to assure members of the community that the Watauga Arts Council is still alive.
“If you look at the Arts Council as a family and that family is moving to a new house, it’s still going to be a family,” Johnson said. “I want the community to understand that the Arts Council still exists, we are strong and we are going to continue to work.”
To date, the Watauga Arts Council has not found its future home.
Statement Released by Watauga Arts Council President Mike Wise and Executive Director Cherry Johnson
The Arts Council and the Jones House
In 1983 the Town of Boone acquired the Jones House. Mazie Jones Levenson stipulated in her sales contract that the Jones House be used as a cultural, historical, community center, and park for the citizens and visitors to Boone. The Town Council at that time established a committee of local citizens to decide how the Jones House could be used as a cultural, historical, community center, and park. This committee did a very thorough job of developing possibilities, but finally came to the conclusion that the charge given the community could best be served by our Watauga County Arts Council. The Arts Council’s vision for the Jones House was that it contain three art galleries for showing the talents of local artists. It also saw the potential of the building as an attractive site for meetings and celebrations for members of our community. It further saw the potential as a venue for programs highlighting the talents of local musicians, dancers, and authors to present their works. Without it being required, the Arts Council felt an obligation to the Town to turn the Jones House into its cultural and artistic center. Over the last twenty-five years, the Arts Council has brought you a variety of interesting and often beautiful programs. These have included readings from local authors, music ranging from our traditional Appalachian sources through chamber concerts featuring the works of classical masters. This has even included a performance in the Mazie Jones Gallery by the North Carolina Dance Theatre. We are proud that the Arts Council has presented these programs over the years. And we have been equally proud as we have watched attendance at these events increase almost tenfold. We have done our best to make Boone and the Jones House a focal point of cultural activity in the High Country.
We are, however, the Watauga County Arts Council. And as the Watauga County Arts Council, we also have a mission beyond the Boone town limits. In partnerships with the county schools and the university we have developed programs that allow our children to experience the arts in ways that have not been possible in many other counties. The Arts Council sponsors a touring arts program, offers artistic residencies, and direct musical instruction to help preserve our traditional art forms. During the summers we present the Summer Arts Camp in which children experience and participate in a broad array of arts activities.
We also help local groups through our Grassroots Grants as they develop their own artistic and cultural programming. We participate with our neighboring counties in the Regional Artist Project Grant Program where we assist individual artists in refining their craft.
The mission of the Watauga County Arts Council is “To sponsor and encourage the cultural arts in Watauga County, North Carolina, with an emphasis on arts in education and the traditional arts.” While we will no longer be involved in serving the mission of the Jones House Community Center, we have a continuing commitment to the people in our county. We are a dedicated group of individuals who believe that arts and the appreciation of arts reflect the soul of the community. We will continue to pursue our mission for the benefit of our county.
For the near future, we will continue to operate from the Jones House. But as the spirit of the Tao suggests, in change there is opportunity. There are services and projects that we have been unable to offer at the Jones House, but which could be developed in another space. We are actively exploring new venues and the creative opportunities that they may offer.
As always, as an organization dedicated to serving our community, we value your advice and encourage you to offer your suggestions and, more importantly, we value your support.
Mike Wise, President and Cherry Johnson, Executive Director