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Haywood County Arts Council celebrates 30

By Julia Merchant • Staff Writer

When Paula McElroy is asked about the art scene in Haywood County when she moved here in 1966, she chuckles.

“There wasn’t any — it really started in 1973 in one of my best friend’s living rooms with about four or five people who were really interested in getting an arts community going, and it went from there,” remembers McElroy, who served as executive director of the Haywood County Arts Council for seven years.

That small, informal meeting of Haywood County residents was the seed that would become the arts council, which today is celebrating its 30th anniversary as a formal organization. It’s almost unimaginable that one of the most defining forces for the arts in Haywood County began as nothing more than a grassroots effort by a small group with a big idea — and even bigger determination.

“When you look back in the early years, it was a group of peers and friends who said, ‘You know, we need to have a real artistic life here that has sort of a social feel to it,’” said Betsy Wall, who today serves as head of the arts council’s long-range planning committee.

The carefree and welcoming spirit of the council drew Betsy and her husband Dr. Stephen Wall, then new arrivals to Haywood County, to try out for the play “A Christmas Carol” being put on by the arts council.

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“The thought was, in the early days (of the council), let’s have fun. Let’s stage some shows, have some readings, bring in some authors. There was a real emphasis on performing arts and fine arts, and marrying that with traditions of the county,” Wall remembers.

The Walls and their children all scored parts in the production, and are still devoted to the organization today. The arts council has come to define much of the Walls’ life over their years in Haywood County – and they’re not alone.

It’s impossible to tell how many lives the arts council has defined, influenced and touched since its inception. There’s the high schooler who was so moved by watching the Atlanta Ballet perform at his school that today he’s a dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. There are the countless children who have learned to play traditional Appalachian string instruments in the JAM program, including the Inman family, who are now so good at banjo, guitar and fiddle that they perform at functions around the region. Then there are those who’ve heard stories, watched musicians and been involved in or watched drama productions, all the while having their lives shaped by exposure to the arts.

Many of the kids of Haywood County wouldn’t have been able to experience cultural events if it weren’t for the arts council working to bring them to the area.

“I think it’s one of the most important missions in my opinion of any arts organization, exposing kids to art, because a lot of children, especially in our rural area, don’t get the opportunities that children in the cities get. I think it’s very important to bring outside entertainment in to let them broaden their horizons, whether they ever go out of the county or not,” says McElroy.

The arts council hasn’t just influenced a few lives but given birth to other organizations and the careers of countless artists.

“We are not just an organization that does performances, but an organization that facilitates other organizations to grow. We’ve given several of the premier artists around here their first grant to get started,” McElroy said.

The arts council passed the drama torch along to Haywood Arts Regional Theatre or HART, which was started by members of the council. With the creation of HART and other area art organizations, the arts council has been responsible for broadening the range of opportunities for art in Haywood County.

“There is a presence of so many more opportunities than 30 years ago,” Wall says.

A new future

The current variety of options for experiencing the arts in Haywood County has prompted the arts council to re-examine its role in the county’s art scene. Once, the arts council was the only sponsor of dance, theatre, music and fine arts in Haywood County. Today, residents have a range of choices within the county and can also travel to Brevard, Asheville or Cullowhee to see performances.

“I think there’s going to be some exciting things that will spin off into visual arts and crafts, because there’s been such growth in this region with the number of venues now doing a great job with the performing arts,” Wall says. “That’s not to say we’re not going to continue to have some performing arts in our county. (But) in the past three, four years, there’s been a recognition that we really need to develop our programming around visual arts.”

The need to re-examine the Arts Council’s offerings became increasingly evident this year when two major performances – the Alison Brown Quartet and classical pianist Jiayin Shen — failed to draw the crowds that were expected.

“We did two new concerts this year that didn’t have very much support. If you start getting into that sort of stuff, it’s very risky. I was just banging my head against the wall saying, why aren’t people here?” said Executive Director Kay Waldrop.

The arts council is still struggling to recover from the loss of the Atlanta Ballet, a popular series that performed in Haywood County for 14 years until 2004. The event is almost synonymous with the art council’s name, and Wall and McElroy both listed it as the council’s biggest accomplishment in the arts.

Mary Alice Lodico, a long-time arts council board member, said union rules would no longer allow dancers to stay in local residents’ homes — a major facet of the program.

“It’s just not the same if they can’t stay in homes and have that connection to the community. It wasn’t as fun for some of those involved,” Waldrop agreed.

“But the financial and human resources it took to pull it off ... the county has grown to offer different art things. Ticket sales were down, and we were losing money,” Waldrop added. Bringing the Atlanta Ballet to Haywood County took almost a quarter of the art council’s annual budget.

The loss of the ballet, coupled with the increasing number of venues for performing arts, has led the council to consider a focus on showcasing visual and fine arts.

That focus has been partially aided by the council’s opening of Gallery 86 on Main Street.

“They sort of headed in a different direction with the studio and gallery, and we’ve never had much of a gallery — just a hallway. So I’m just thrilled that they have that space to work with,” McElroy said.

“They have their own space, and we’ve never had that because we started in a tiny room in the federal building. The purpose has always been to be more visible on Main Street,” she said.

“If I can say there’s a current direction for the arts council in this period, it’s the development of the gallery and a space for local artists to exhibit their work and work reflective of mountain life, culture and values,” Wall agreed.

The gallery also provides a space to offer classes to both children and adults, continuing the tradition of exposing the youth to art on a first-hand basis. The council will additionally continue to emphasize bringing art into local schools.

“I think the emphasis will be on fine arts for children and infusing them in schools and having independent things in schools,” Wall said.

It’s important to note that the Haywood County Arts Council isn’t dropping the performing arts altogether — far from it. Instead, it’s learning to evolve with the times and the demands of today’s audiences.

“The arts council evolves into different stages to meet the needs of the county at different times,” McElroy said.

“It’s always good to entertain the idea of change,” Waldrop agreed.

While times may change, the arts council remains steadfast to its mission of fostering a rich artistic life in a small mountain county.

“”Life would be pretty drab and soulless without music, dance, drama, visual arts and literature. Supporting artists is always a good investment,” said Lodico.

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