Building Creative Economies

The Arts, Entrepreneurship, and Sustainable Development in Appalachia

Betsy Peterson

April 28-30, 2002, Asheville, North Carolina

In her welcoming remarks to participants attending the conference "Building Creative Economies: The Arts, Entrepreneurship, and Sustainable Development in Appalachia," Becky Anderson, executive director of HandMade in America, observed, "Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come." Judging by conference attendance alone, she just might be right. Over three hundred people, nearly twice the projected attendance, gathered in Asheville, North Carolina, April 28-30, to discuss and share information about success stories using the arts and cultural heritage to revitalize Appalachian communities and funding sources at local, state, and national levels for sustainable development. The event was hosted by HandMade in America and co-sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Appalachian Regional Commission, with the Kenan Institutes, the World Bank Institute, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Heinz Endowments, North Carolina Arts Council, Southern Arts Federation, MidAtlantic Arts Foundation, Americans for the Arts, George Gund Foundation, Kentucky Foundation for Women, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), and the Rural Policy Research Institute.

Over a day and a half, a combination of keynote speeches and panel presentations, break-out sessions, and breakfast roundtables explored and discussed economic strategies to strengthen local cultural heritage and opportunities for artists in rural areas and small towns throughout Appalachia. With much of Appalachia's historic economic base — extractive industries and textile mills — now dwindling, the conference organizers issued a call for asset- and place-based regional development strategies that recognize and support the region's natural and home-grown strengths — that is, its arts, cultural heritage, and natural beauty. Accompanying programs, including a film screening of a new Appalshop film about country/bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens and an evening concert of mountain music including flat-picking guitarist Wayne Henderson and storyteller and seventh generation ballad singer Sheila Kay Adams, underscored how deep, true, and immense those strengths really are.

Working Papers, prepared by conference organizers and distributed to participants in advance, gave attendees a common set of concrete examples to consider beforehand. Keynote speeches, most notably by Chuck Fluharty, executive director of the Rural Policy Research Institute, and Jesse White, federal co-chair for the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), provided a common conceptual framework for the conference. While cultural tourism, the strong presence of the National Park Service, and the development of heritage areas were recognized as influencing forces throughout the region, they were by no means the only development models discussed. Micro-enterprises and the incubation of small, entrepreneurial businesses were topics for many of the break-out sessions, most of which focused on “nuts and bolts” such as private and public funding, crafts entrepreneurship, life-long learning programs, and arts-business incubation.

In keeping with the place-based emphasis of the conference, the conference closed with a series of break-out sessions by state, encouraging participants to consider lessons learned and to determine the next action steps for continuing the work in their home states. NASAA's Kimber Craine facilitated the session and the results of these state calls to action will be available soon, along with the Working Papers.

Although I went to the conference to participate in the funders' forum, I had planned to attend anyway. The topics were of great relevance to the work supported by the Fund for Folk Culture. More importantly, from the outset the conference seemed to be a collaborative effort between the ARC and the NEA. I took that to be a sign of real interest on the part of both development and arts sectors. I was not disappointed. Participants included two congressmen, foundation representatives, representatives from state arts agencies and tourism departments, city and county government officials, local, state, and regional development representatives, public policy researchers, arts and heritage organization representatives as well as individual artists and craftspeople. At the federal level, representatives from the Small Business Administration and departments of commerce, agriculture, and labor were present, as were the ARC federal co-chair and the current (and a former) chair of the NEA. People were literally meeting each other for the first time and, while the lack of a common language or set of expectations are obstacles to be overcome, the conference sparked a hopeful enthusiasm among many.

The success of “Building Creative Economies,” or any conference that aims to be a catalyst, is best measured in the long-term by the programs and activity it engenders. Already, the ARC is working with the NEA to consider the development of an e-commerce initiative and other strategies designed to promote the arts and heritage of the region. The complexity of the challenges raised by this conference and the holistic solutions suggested are beyond the scope of any one field or discipline. Clearly, there is a great hunger and need for cross-sector dialogue and collaboration. This conference was a great first step. I hope it is not the last.

Betsy Peterson is program director, the Fund for Folk Culture.

For more information, contact Anthony Tighe ( or Molly Theobald ( Thanks to Kimber Craine, Ray Daffner, and Lee Kessler for information in the preparation of this report.