By: Ivy Brashear
The City of Berea in Madison County, Ky., hopes the Berea Artist Accelerator, an innovative new program born of a unique set of partnerships, will help plug the leak of Berea College graduates fleeing town after graduation, and in the process, become a model example for other eastern Kentucky communities.
The idea for the Berea Artist Accelerator was developed after city officials approached the Mountain Association for Community Economic Development (MACED) with a desire to retain freshly graduated artisans and fill empty buildings in Berea’s Old Town, an historic neighborhood whose storefronts have been typically occupied by local artists.
They wanted to play to Berea’s strengths and assets as an artisans’ town – a moniker backed by decades of craftspeople living and working in the small town in the Appalachian foothills – and increase local tourism. City officials and MACED approached Berea College with their idea, and the Artist Accelerator was born.
“The effort is to really grow businesses locally, develop young talent, and hopefully grow and retain local businesses,” said MACED Enterprise Development Project Specialist Danny Isaacs. “It’s a long term solution to the local economic development problem many small rural communities face.”
Once the plan was hatched, a vacant building in Old Town was renovated into a gallery and studio space for participating artists: Gallery 123. Artists can create in the back of the building and sell their work in the front of the building. Artist and program participant Jonathan Clark said this space, coupled with the program, is a great way for artists who are beginning their careers – and who oftentimes have little upfront capital to afford gallery and studio space on their own – to get started.
“The artists I know aren’t able to afford a place by themselves, and people demand a lot of money out of renters these days. By teaming together, you can afford a space a lot easier,” Clark said.
The artists still needed basics business training – like how to do taxes and how to price their art – to become successful entrepreneurs outside of being talented artists. MACED’s Isaacs facilitated FasTrac New Venture training to the Artist Accelerator participants to help with these necessities. He was able to help them identify needs, like website development, e-commerce and financial accounting systems, and then provide them with skills to address those needs.
“The ultimate goal of the Artist Accelerator is to create this pipeline of locally grown entrepreneurs that will help with Berea’s desire to enhance and grow Berea tourism,” Isaacs said.
But MACED has other, larger goals in mind, too: replication of the model in other eastern Kentucky communities to grow the base of local, young entrepreneurs across the region, and contribution to developing an entrepreneurial environment for small business owners and those wishing to start their own business in the region.
“Berea has an emphasis on working artists as its niche for tourism,” Isaacs said. “But there are other areas that have unique qualities as well.”
He gives the example of eastern Kentucky’s first officially designated trail town, Livingston, where the local government is hoping to grow local entrepreneurs out of that designation. The model that birthed Gallery 123 in Berea, he said, provides a unique, but effective, system of support for those in any community who want to start a business within that community.
“This is a model that was built around the unique assets a specific community has,” Isaacs said. “It’s important because this is one of the options to addressing the declining economy many of our small rural communities of southeastern Kentucky have to deal with, and a model that shows it’s possible to create your own businesses and empower your own talent as opposed to the traditional model of recruiting it in.”
Building a connection to the community and owning a local business is definitely a reason why Clark and another Gallery 123 artist, Silvia Calderon Laiton, wanted to be a part of the Artist Accelerator. They both want to play an active role in the larger Berea community, rather than simply create art for profit. They both praise MACED, the City of Berea and Berea College for their initiative and willingness to create a “totally unique experience” for working artists.
“The connections are really in integral part of what we’re doing here,” Clark said. “Not just the facility and the (business) knowledge, but they’ve actually given us jobs. It gives us a connection to the history of this place and the legacy of Berea and Old Town, which is good, because it’s a really cool and totally unique American art experience.”
Laiton had previously participated in an artist internship in Baltimore that allowed her to connect to the community, and use that connection as a catalyst for community development.
“We could use art a little bit more to build community and bring people together (in Berea),” Laiton said. “When they were explaining the program to me, that’s what kept coming up for me.”
Clark is originally from Tallahassee, Fla., and said other places where he’s lived and worked as an artist do not as heavily encourage artists to be active members of the community, but that this is simply a part of being an artist in Berea.
“Artists that I know and that I’ve met since I’ve been here in Berea really have to be a part of the community if they’re going to make it,” Clark said. “You have to not only be functional in an artistic sense, but you have to have an actual function in the community where you’re at.”
Ultimately, developing connections to community in young entrepreneurs, and the local partnerships that create spaces in which those connections can take place, is what rural economic development is all about according to Isaacs. He believes the key is to create a system and infrastructure in which people with potential business ideas feel they have all the resources within their community to make those ideas a reality.
The Artists Accelerator is a perfect example of what this type of economic development might look like throughout eastern Kentucky, and MACED hopes the program inspires other communities to create similar programs.
“I think the program is a shining example of hope for the future,” Isaacs said. “Berea, like most other rural communities, has a desire to be a destination for small businesses. Programs like this will help create an environment that shows Berea, and other small towns, have systems in place to support the creation of small businesses and keep supporting them after they open.”