Talk About the Passion

Insiders and outsiders ponder Arrowmont's fate and what it means for the future of traditional crafts in East Tennessee

If you are bent in the least toward regional arts and crafts, you are no doubt aware that the fate of Gatlinburg's storied Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts is soon to be decided. The school is a lease tenant on land owned by the Pi Beta Phi fraternity for women, which actually founded the school that led to Arrowmont in 1912. That land is about to change hands for an undisclosed sum.

Pi Beta Phi has pledged $9 million of their proceeds from sale to Arrowmont for relocation and/or adapting. But Arrowmont's board of governors insists that that amount is inadequate for the realities of moving a sprawling 14-acre campus of offices, libraries, dormitories and state of the art clay, glass, metal, wood, textiles, and painting and printmaking studios. Emblematic of the school itself, perhaps, is an enormous, decades-old outdoor Anagama kiln at Arrowmont that has more or less become part of the mountain there.

Roughly a month ago, Pi Beta Phi announced that the real estate deal was in progress, and likely to be final in September.

Marcia Goldenstein teaches drawing and painting at the University of Tennessee, and sits on Arrowmont's board of governors. Goldenstein and her husband, Tom Reising, who also teaches painting and drawing at UT, taught Arrowmont's first non-craft classes back in the '70s, and continue to teach there.

"It came as a shock," says Goldenstein of the fraternity's announcement. "It blindsided the director and the board."

David Willard has been Arrowmont's director since May 2001.

"It's the last we thing we expected," says Willard. "The options are yet to be determined. There are a lot of forks in the road before us. As things develop, that will enable us to make a plan. It's not as fast as we'd like it to be. There's not a lot to talk about yet."

Arrowmont's lease extends through 2011, and the school has engaged legal counsel to pursue possible options. But Willard says that process is not far enough along to offer encouragement.

Both Willard and Goldenstein say that while the aesthetic disparity between Arrowmont's pastoral campus and the over-developed adjacent strip that runs through Gatlinburg has grown steadily over recent decades, there was no sense among those at the school that it would come to this.

"When the school was put here, there was nothing here," says Willard. "Now you can see neon on the strip from campus. Arrowmont is not the property. That doesn't mean we don't want to be here. We have the will and determination that Arrowmont is going to continue. We're currently booking classes for next summer and those classes will take place here."

Arrowmont has always, justifiably, stressed its history in Sevier County. And a passion for the handmade, shared by staff, faculty and students, is one of the things that makes the school unique internationally. But the school is not a Luddite throwback. Willard and Goldenstein contend that Arrowmont has made every effort to stay innovative and inventive.

"I'm interested in sustainability and the next generation," says Willard. "One of the long-term issues is reaching the more non-traditional audience.

"There are a lot of things going on not in the typical tradition of the handmade as we think of it at Arrowmont. It is important to understand and know that things are changing. There are so many different ways that the creative communities are creating and presenting their work. The Internet is providing an alternative to the traditional gallery, for example."

While traditional crafts consistently get the spotlight at Arrowmont, the school also provides advanced studies for fine artists of all levels and many disciplines. Some area artists think that is the school's most valuable contribution. Any student who can scrabble together the tuition, or qualify for financial aid, can spend an extremely intensive week or two with an accomplished, professional artist such as Goldenstein—even though the same student might not be able to study with her at UT due to program prerequisites or the fact that a full semester would be time- or cost-prohibitive.

"A lot of people who come there just need to be revived or refreshed," says Goldenstein of Arrowmont, "whereas a course at a university would take too much of their time. The last course I taught there was watercolor. I had everyone from retirees and hobbyists to professional artists and teachers. They want to know everything you know and they want to gain that in one week. It's very demanding for me."

Willard and Goldenstein and others there measure their words and emotions. (Goldenstein begins her conversation frankly: "I will not be able to answer all of your questions.") Off campus, however, it is possible to find people who are well-informed and impassioned on the relevant issues, and who are not so bound by legalities or tact.

Penland School of Crafts is just over the hill in North Carolina, about three hours from Knoxville and even closer to Arrowmont. The two schools have much in common, from program catalogs to histories. Penland was founded in 1929 by Lucy Morgan, who had connections with Berea College. Both schools enjoy and endure some rustic and charming buildings that are going on 100 years old. Both schools offer many-disciplined arts immersions of varying lengths in a distinctly Appalachian setting. And both schools play host to endangered traditions, techniques, and methods of teaching.

Robin Dreyer is communications manager at Penland, a position he has held since 1995. He is also a photographer, and has both taught and taken courses at Penland. His photography can be seen throughout the school's website (penland.org) and its richly illustrated publications. Dreyer is quick to stress that he does not intend to speak for Arrowmont or anyone there who has chosen not to speak freely for themselves. Nevertheless, he says that there are useful parallels between the two schools. And he says that those things may not be immediately apparent to everyone affected by the possibility of a diminished or defunct Arrowmont.

"It should not come as a surprise to anyone that art education—or even education in general—is not a money-making venture," says Dreyer. "Nor should they be.

"I think that cultural heritage, education in general, the possibility of ongoing lifetime education, these things have value to our society that cannot be assessed in terms relative to development. It is unfortunate if Arrowmont is in this situation where it is being evaluated in comparison to commercial concerns."

Roughly 45 percent of Penland's budget is raised through fees and tuition. The balance comes from an endowment, individual gifts, grants, and sundry government channels, both state and federal. Dreyer says that consultants tell Penland that getting 33 percent of its budget from fees and tuition would mean a better balance between solvency and affordability. According to Arrowmont's website, Arrowmont receives 60 percent of its annual operating funds through tuition and fees.

"This has no bearing on whether Arrowmont or condos are a better investment," Dreyer says, "but schools like ours have an economic impact that is difficult to quantify. We do have hobbyists who come to take our classes. But we also have artists-in-residence and professional artists who are trying to advance their careers. People who are building a life. In that sense, these schools are small-business incubators. That's almost invisible. In addition to the loftier goals related to art and art-making, these are space-based businesses that cannot be off-shored. They tend to not make much pollution. And they tend to not abuse or take advantage of their employees."

Although Penland owns its campus, people there have cause to be sympathetic to Arrowmont. The centerpiece of Penland's viewshed, a 400-acre high, green, wooded peak, was sold to developers in recent years. Development has stalled due to legal complications. Dreyer says it was extremely frustrating to learn that the most obvious solution—Penland buying the land—was not a possibility.

"The presence of Arrowmont in Gatlinburg is not something on which you can put a dollar value," Dreyer says. "They've done a good job of giving people access. People on the strip can walk into their gift shop and bookstore, their exhibition spaces, and even some of the studios. For the people who do that, Gatlinburg is a different experience. It's safe to say that Gatlinburg would suffer from a loss of diversity if that were to go away."

On the subject of going away, Willard says, "I went to graduate school in Philadelphia. We used to travel to the art enclaves in New York that at that time were located in places like Soho. But those places became gentrified and changes in real estate values forced them to other places like Tribeca, and from there to Brooklyn. There is an unfortunate precedent for this kind of thing."

Both Willard and Goldenstein are grateful for the recent outpouring of public support, and say that financial support remains the best way to express a desire for Arrowmont to continue. Willard suggests enrolling in a course or responding to the Friends of Arrowmont's current annual fundraising campaign. He also says that next spring and summer promise themed auctions of artwork.

Asked how those who are not moved by art or craft might be moved to support such an important pillar of the regional community, Goldenstein says, "This has been life-changing for people. Isn't that enough? It's about the passion."