Welcome to the Cultural Plan Blog Series!
The series seeks to raise awareness around the Create Charlottesville/Albemarle cultural plan, a comprehensive study of the local arts and culture sector that affirmed community value for the arts, took stock of local arts and culture assets, and identified need areas to focus attention and resources.
Through this series, we will highlight community initiatives that respond to and build off of cultural plan goals. For this month’s post, we spoke to Sherri Smith, the woman behind the Artisans Center of Virginia (ACV) Artisan Trail Network.
Initiated in 2009, the Virginia Artisan Trail Network currently hosts 24 active Artisan Trails, representing 31 counties and 9 cities, with many additional localities in the early phases of development. With a firm commitment to economic vitality and community engagement, the Artisan Trail Network embodies Goal Three of the Create Charlottesville/Albemarle cultural plan: Cultural Tourism.
The interview has been edited for consistency and conciseness.
How and when did the Artisan Trail Network program get started? How has it evolved since then?
In March of 2009 the Artisans Center of Virginia (ACV) expanded its statewide scope with a clear objective of creating opportunities and collaborations to strengthen Virginia artisan businesses where they live and create. The ACV Artisan Trail Network was formed as a distinctively innovative program in fulfillment of our mission: The Artisans Center of Virginia develops and implements systems and strategies to improve economic outcomes for Virginia artisans and their communities while assisting them in promoting their local artisan culture.
What unique assets does the program provide that other local cultural tourism programs do not?
While the stability of a community is built upon the backbone of their small businesses, Virginia communities depend on their character, charm, and regional context in attracting visitors. Embracing both entrepreneurial enterprise and the visitor experience, artisans and the businesses they establish are an essential component to any community’s creative culture, relying on the patronage of their local residents as well as visitors from outside the state. ACV works in public-private and cross-industry partnerships to expose and elevate the authentic work and cultural contributions of Virginia artisans through the development of regional, community-connective Artisan Trails. The Artisan Trail Network offers a unique opportunity to form strategic alliances with Virginia Artisans, i.e. craft & fine artists as well as Agri-Artisans, venues, galleries, markets and retailers by actively connecting them with their local points of interest, restaurants, recreational and lodging businesses in order to enhance their exposure through regional tourism activity. Bringing an economy of scale to the marketing efforts of individual artisans, their studios, farms and venues, ACV connects communities, large and small, with consumers, businesses, counties, cities, and visiting tourists. Additionally, entrepreneurial education and business development opportunities are available to help Virginia Artisans aquire the skills to advance their operations and visibility.
What have been some of the advantages and challenges of the program?
A primary advantage of the program is how it elevates the awareness of a community’s cultural and creative assets among the community itself. During the implementation of a trail a realization evolves as the people within the community-at-large discover the existence of the many talented artisans and related businesses in their midst. Each trailsite’s “story” is woven into a much larger tapestry of sights, sounds and an experience, instilling a community-wide sense of pride and connectedness in support of one another. This awareness from the grassroots of the community itself becomes the strongest vocal advocate and consierge for their local businesses.
Of challenge, is quantifying the value of the “return on relationships” that is perpetuated through grassroots momentum and business connectivity. Bottom line return-on-investment statistics, although more easily tracked and measured, often overshadow the entrinsic value and benefit of relationship-based growth which contributes to entrepreurial sustainability and “quality of life” stability of a community. We strive to substantiate annectdotal notations and compel decision makers to understand the value of the slower-to-prove community development process in economic terms so that they will continue to invest in resources that support creative entreprenurial efforts, particularly during the start-up years.
What other organizations and community groups does the program partner with? What further collaborations would you like to see happen?
In addition to the participating trailsite businesses, each Artisan Trail Management Team works collaboratively with their respective community government, tourism and economic development departments as well as local community foundations, their business community and patroning individuals. Additional ACV program partnerships include: the Virginia Tourism Corporation, Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development, Virginia Commission for the Arts, the Appalachian Regional Commission, American Craft Week, several Virginia Community Colleges as well as numerous local Planning District and Tourism Commissions and the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
In the future we would like to develop more retail opportunities for hand-crafted Virginia Artisan products in the traditional retail venues, perhaps working with an organization such as Virginia’s Retailers Association. We would also be interested in initiating a conversation with the Virginia Department of Transportation regarding the wayfinding aspects of the Artisan Trail Network program given it now expands across the entire state, and thereby makes a strong case for Virginia as “the” Artisan State of the United States.
What inspires you personally about the program?
Meeting the most incredible individuals all across the state and experiencing their communities through their eyes! Each community is uniquely different because of the people who make it that way. Although creative and steeped in rich cultural histories, they are often challenged by change. I am invigorated by their stories of strength and fortitude and am completely jazzed when they put aside their differences to collaborate and connect to help sustain one another amidst great odds. There is nothing more exhilarating as when people put aside the institutional barriers, entrenched interests and break out of lax-comfort zones to work together around unifying principles/practices/projects. On a community level this is good for everyone and it is essentially entwined with strengthening the individual artisan and related businesses as we invoke ACV’s mission. I get to experience potential first-hand all across the Commonwealth, and it is vast… this is inspiring!
What would you ideally like to see happen to further strengthen cultural tourism opportunities in the area? What have you seen elsewhere that you would like to bring to Charlottesville?
I would like to see the growth of micro-funding and low-cost insurance opportunities for the creative entrepreneurial small businesses in communities all across the Commonwealth, Charlottesville not excluded.
For more information on the ACV Artisan Trail network, visit the website. And be sure to visit one of the trail sites, as well!
Stay tuned for the next post in the Cultural Plan Blog Series, which will focus on Goal 4: Artists & Creative Workers.
If you are involved in a community project that responds to cultural plan goals, we want to hear about it! You can visit the cultural plan Tumblr to submit your project or send images and a description to firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are not involved but would like to be, we encourage you to read over the plan and think about what particular goal areas you or your organization can respond to. The cultural plan is a community vision and needs your support in order to be successful!