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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

Kingsport's Renaissance: What Others Are Saying

 Patti Lawrence, who owns The Gallery of Local Artists in Kingsport, thinks places like Asheville, N.C., where people go specifically for cutting-edge music and art, seem to attract people of a higher socio-economic background.
Patti Lawrence, who owns The Gallery of Local Artists in Kingsport, thinks places like Asheville, N.C., where people go specifically for cutting-edge music and art, seem to attract people of a higher socio-economic background.

'I Think of Our 'Region' as the Next Asheville.'


Fine Art Photographer Jeff Stoner: I think of our "region" as the next Asheville — an arts region that would tie together, at a minimum, Abingdon, Bristol, Kingsport and Johnson City. The more galleries there are in a town, the more reasons there are for people to make it a destination to shop for art. What makes Kingsport especially attractive is that the galleries are concentrated within a few blocks of each other. Many are located close to the downtown shopping district and buyers can not only enjoy the galleries but can also stroll to restaurants and other retail venues. * Editor's Note: See the August edition of A! Magazine for the Arts (, search "Doors of Opportunity"). EDITOR'S NOTE: See the August edition of A! Magazine for the Arts (search "Doors of Opportunity").

While Kingsport has a long history of supporting the arts, it is the culmination of more recent efforts by city government, businesses, community groups and private individuals that is turning Kingsport into a thriving arts-centered community. However, I believe "the next Asheville" will be our region and not a particular town. There is a resurgence of arts in Kingsport, Bristol, and Abingdon. My fine art photography is represented in new galleries in each of these cities. These galleries are working together to promote each other's events, shows, openings, etc. They realize that by doing so they give art buyers not only more galleries to visit, but also the opportunity to experience the unique flavor of each city.

Visual Artist Cindy Saadeh, who shares a studio/gallery space with Michael and Talina Ripper:
Competition is not always a bad thing, especially when it comes to art. People have varied tastes and the more the better! If Kingsport can establish itself as an arts destination, this will spur other types of businesses that cater to tourists, which will be great for our economy. We have such a wonderful infrastructure here, with beautiful bones in these old buildings, so much potential in the downtown area — it is just a diamond in the rough, waiting to be polished.

Patti Lawrence, who owns The Gallery of Local Artists in Kingsport:
I think places like Asheville, N.C., where people go specifically for cutting-edge music and art, seem to attract people of a higher socio-economic background. If we can get that kind of thing happening in Kingsport, then we'll be seen as a hip, cool place to be and be seen — and spend money.

More Q&A

What is spurring arts-related growth in Kingsport?

Jeff Stoner
believes there are three factors:
• The city of Kingsport is committed to the growth of the downtown district and promotes the arts through its Cultural Arts Division.
• Companies are rehabilitating Kingsport's historic structures, bringing back the charm of these buildings and creating unique spaces for both businesses and residents wishing to move into downtown Kingsport.
• People with vision are recognizing this opportunity and opening new restaurants, art galleries, retail stores, etc., which, in turn, fuels more growth.

Cindy Saadeh
says, "I think people understand that bringing arts to a community will bring in folks from other places that are used to a certain amount of cultural activity — it's a way to grow the area as well as draw outside visitors and overall make for a nice place to live, not to mention a wonderful catalyst for economic growth."

Bonnie Macdonald
adds, "What you see in Kingsport is truly grassroots. The City of Kingsport has done everything in its power to nurture and encourage these efforts, but there are many individuals behind each and every great thing that is happening. That momentum of effort will insure that tasks are completed and can continue to grow."

John Vachon states, "The focus of the city's Cultural Arts division, the Arts Council, and the revitalization of downtown have caused interest in a cultural and creative economy to soar. Also, the creation of urban lofts, which can be considered a form of architectural art, is creating an appreciation for living in the cultural center. More residents + more employees + more restaurants + more boutique retail shops + more concerts/events = more people exposed to the arts and culture that is abounding in revitalized downtown Kingsport."

How did Kingsport's elected officials get on board?

Macdonald says, "The Kingsport BMA unanimously approved the Public Art Committee in 2006 and the subsequent Percent for Art funding. They generously approved arts support in FY10 without any cuts."

Vachon made a laundry list of items approved by city government officials: "Funding fa┴ade grants and redevelopment grants to help developers preserve several century-old buildings; funding the Percent for the Arts program; installing 'art pads,' historic/period lighting and stamped crosswalks; planting trees and stringing them with lights; and supplying incredible Christmas decorations. All this gives the downtown a welcoming feel and invites people to come and explore downtown Kingsport all year long."

Is a thriving arts community more likely to attract large employers to the region through traditional economic development?

Vachon says, "Absolutely! Kingsport's downtown revitalization and examples of arts, culture, education, and medicine all speak to the level of intellect and quality of life that we have in this region. Excellent schools, affordable cost of living, great climate, and accessibility make it a very attractive choice for businesses looking to relocate from Florida, the Northeast, or California. We have the total package here, and with the thriving arts community and downtown revitalization, we offer that much more."

Lawrence adds, "I think so. A thriving arts community indicates a more highly educated community that, in turn, demands better employment opportunities, cultural and shopping/dining experiences."

notes, "Often we hear, 'it's a global economy.' Well, when you can work from anywhere in the world, you might want as many amenities as possible. We know we live in a beautiful region, with a great climate, conveniently located. Add an excellent educational system AND the access to diverse quality cultural activities, and why wouldn't you want to live in our neck of the woods!"

How can you attract people to arts-related businesses so they survive and thrive?

Lawrence says, "I wish I had an endless supply of money to put towards marketing my gallery. It is a huge expense, but one that is necessary to attract new customers."

Macdonald notes, "Promoting the arts is a constant challenge in this very information-saturated world. You have to work at it. Overall, the arts participation in the U.S. has declined in recent years, according to the Arts Participation 2008 National Survey by the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Literary pursuits are the only art media that has seen an increase in its audience participation. But the good news is that folks who read literature are also likely audience members for theatre, ballet, music, and art galleries."

She adds, "In Kingsport, we are excited that we have been selected to receive a Big Read grant from the NEA. In April 2010 we are going to encourage everyone in our area to read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. We'll have free books, reader guides and teacher guides, and we will also have a long list of cultural activities that everyone in the family can participate in. After reading this fun book, we hope people will then go to a play, a movie, or a book reading to hear Mark Twain himself expound upon the mysteries of the universe!"

Saadeh states, "I believe that in a place that is just beginning to see a metamorphosis, marketing is a key factor in thriving. People aren't used to having the artistic venues here so they need to be informed, then word will get out in the surrounding area to sustain them."

Vachon says, "The best way to attract customers is by word-of-mouth and the positive experiences that people have when they come downtown. Also, these types of businesses attract and support one another, so it's really just a matter of getting the first 'trailblazers' established. They have their finger on the pulse of what is happening and what it takes to bring other niche businesses downtown to create more of a draw."

Will the process continue to bring development to downtown and in the arts?

Vachon says, "Absolutely! In Charleston, S.C., art galleries and antique stores want to be near each other, so the area continues to draw in more — more artists, more visitors, more investors, more money. Kingsport is seeing this happen as well. Sculptors throughout the Southeast want to bring more art to Kingsport because they see that the community supports and appreciates it. Galleries continue to open. Concerts and events draw larger crowds. Lofts are being created to meet the demand for urban living."

How is Kingsport attracting creative people?

Stoner says, "I can speak from personal experience. My wife and I moved from Pennsylvania to Kingsport in the spring of 2007. We looked at properties in North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee before deciding upon Kingsport. The deciding factors were Kingsport's commitment to the arts and Tennessee's more affordable cost of living."

Vachon sums it up in two words: "downtown revitalization — art galleries and studios, loft apartments, restaurants, and retail gift shop options that were not available five years ago. Urban lofts in the downtown area are attracting residents with disposable income who have an appreciation and desire for art. For example, Michael and Talina Ripper moved their young family from Johnson City and eliminated a long daily commute to Banner Elk, N.C., by opening their studio and gallery in downtown Kingsport, just around the corner from their new loft residence."

What about the potential to transform Kingsport's economy?

To answer this question, Stoner referred to a report issued earlier this year by the National Governors Association. In "Arts & the Economy, Using Arts and Culture to Stimulate State Economic Development," the opening paragraph of the Executive Summary states:

"Arts and culture are important to state economies. Arts and culture-related industries, also known as 'creative industries,' provide direct economic benefits to states and communities: They create jobs, attract investments, generate tax revenues, and stimulate local economies through tourism and consumer purchases. These industries also provide an array of other benefits, such as infusing other industries with creative insight for their products and services and preparing workers to participate in the contemporary workforce. In addition, because they enhance quality of life, the arts and culture are an important complement to community development, enriching local amenities and attracting young professionals to an area."

Chris McCartt, Assistant to Kingsport's City Manager, says, "The Sculpture Walk has had a tremendous impact on the transformation of our downtown district. The downtown revitalization began with the public-initiated streetscape improvements, which laid the foundation for the sculptures. The sculptures, along with the summer concerts, have put 'feet on the street,' bringing folks downtown who may have never come downtown before. As a result, they are eating in the restaurants and shopping in the stores on a regular basis."

Vachon agrees: "Without a doubt, a strong arts community plays an important role in attracting companies, employees and their families, entrepreneurs, and of course, other artists. The two go hand-in-hand, and once you reach a critical mass, the momentum keeps going on its own."

Renaissance Center a Home for the Arts