WV Nonprofit Scales State’s Artisans as Economic Development Strategy

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September 25, 2016; Register-Herald (Beckley, WV)

In West Virginia, a state rich in artisans including fashion designers, leatherworkers, and furniture makers, the Tamarack Foundation for the Arts offers business help meant to bring that local work to a more national market.

“We get artists’ work into major markets outside the state,” CEO Alissa Novolselick said. “We help them get in front of power buyers, big art institutions or really high volume galleries, or different sorts of market opportunities.”

Success in this larger arena is completely possible, she says, pointing to Blenko Glass and Fiestaware as West Virginia–based businesses with a “hugely diversified portfolio.” She calls this part of a strength-based community economic development strategy, rather than just support for artists: “We really believe that art as economic development can be part of the total answer to working on a more diversified economy for West Virginia.”

Novolselick adds that arts-rich communities attract residents that value the development of culturally strong places. “Art just can’t be reduced to a commodity good,” she said. “We also know that artists and creative placemaking have to be at the core of what we’re doing to rethink our economy in West Virginia.”

Indeed, art can create more than a visual; it can create a place. And the richness goes both ways, says Novoselick, who contends that the rural nature of the settings of many of these centers of arts development informs the art.

“According to the 2013 Census, 25 percent (of West Virginia residents) live in towns with 2,500 or fewer people,” Fayetteville Coalition board president Ginger Danz said. “Building those small towns, getting people there to visit, to live is a hugely important thing for West Virginia. The arts really attract people and also revive jobs.”

A recent study of five hundred West Virginia art entrepreneurs found that they felt the low cost of living and doing business in the state helps lower the risk of what would otherwise be a chancy endeavor. Tamarack further helps offset that risk, and it intends to address the rest of that study’s findings, which surface barriers like a lack of Internet connectivity in some areas and stereotypes about the state in larger markets by pushing harder on the levers for change.—Ruth McCambridge