By Joe Johnson
50-60 people attended the Watauga County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday, February 4, to support the Watauga Arts Council in their endeavors to attain a new lease for the Blue Ridge ArtSpace property off Shadowline Drive. The arts council was successful in receiving a new four-year lease for the ArtSpace property at the price of one dollar per year.
The Watauga Arts Council first moved into the Blue Ridge ArtSpace in 2013; they initially had a two-year lease from the county that served as a sort of interim period to see if the arts council would thrive in that location. Sure enough, the arts council feels right at home in the ArtSpace as it is a location directly central to Watauga County with ample space to conduct its day-to-day activities. “There are people who use the ArtSpace as their connecting point to the arts,” said Cherry Johnson, Executive Director of the Watauga Arts Council, “It’s the way that people are able to experience and attain art in the county. It’s important that we have a space that’s accessible, easy to locate, and welcoming for anyone to be a part of.”
The arts council returned to the county commissioners before their initial lease ended in 2015 in order to receive another five-year agreement on the ArtSpace property. The commissioners voted to grant the arts council another five-year lease, which is set to expire in April 2020.
The arts council was under the impression that receiving another five-year lease before April would be a simple process, however, the council was met with opposition during the Watauga County Commissioners meeting on Feb. 4. Commissioner Larry Turnbow felt that the ArtSpace location on Shadowline Dr. could be used more responsibly to house another governmental organization such as the Board of Elections. Turnbow put emphasis on the arts council finding a permanent location outside of the current ArtSpace and proposed a three-year lease renewal rather than a five-year one.
Johnson elaborated that it has always been in the Watauga Arts Council’s long-term vision to secure a bigger and better performance and studio space. The original concept of the arts council included those two components in addition to what the council is already doing today. The council simply does not have enough square footage in the ArtSpace to achieve those goals, nor would it be fiscally responsible for the arts council to pursue a permanent facility at this time.
“It is not at all uncommon for county arts councils to occupy buildings that are either donated to them or leased to them by the local government for a dollar a year. That is a very common scenario,” said Johnson, “It is a location that is geographically central to the whole county, which is a big deal. It’s also a big deal that we have parking; to force the organization to leave the building at this point would practically kill the organization as a whole. It just would not work.”
Additionally, the arts council will soon be going through a transitional period as Johnson is set to retire this August; new candidates for Executive Director are being considered and the arts council plans to start advertising the position in March, with a new candidate being chosen for the Executive Director position by the end of June. Johnson will spend July smoothly initiating the new Executive Director into his or her new role. Pat Lano will be volunteering to mentor the new director in their first year of being executive director, just as Mike Wise did during Johnson’s first year.
Commissioner Perry Yates proposed a compromise between the three-year and five-year lease in the form of a four-year lease, which was accepted by the rest of the commissioners during the Feb. 4 meeting. The new lease for the Blue Ridge ArtSpace will last until the spring of 2024.
“We are very appreciative of the support the county gives to the Watauga Arts Council and we are very happy they gave us four more years at our current location,” said Ginger Bryant, president of the arts council’s board of directors, “It is my hope that the county will continue to support the arts council because we do feel we are a vital part of this community. We hope that the support will continue!”