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Toe River Arts is a wonderful two-county arts council in Western NC.

Toe River Arts: One Truly Amazing North Carolina Arts Supporter

Last Updated on September 28, 2020

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From its beginning in the 1970s, Toe River Arts (TRA) has provided steadfast support to artists and communities within its reach in Western North Carolina. The two-county arts council (Yancey and Mitchell) goes further beyond helping its artist members, also providing programs, events, and much more to schools and folks of all ages.

While you may think that such a powerful arts council needs a massive staff to pull it all off, TRA has done it all while lean and small compared to similar organizations throughout North Carolina. That’s a big part of why you’ll also find Toe River Arts in our NC Bucket List.

Inside this guide, we’ll share details about how this amazing NC arts organization does it, including some background on those early days, and all the ways they continue to support the arts in this wonderful part of our state.

This post is part of our series on Burnsville and Yancey County, along with more of our favorite places to go in Western North Carolina. Quotes in this article come from an interview we conducted with Executive Director Nealy Andrews for NC Travel Chat.

Toe River Arts

Here’s how we’ve organized this post, in case you want to read about something specific:

  • Toe River Arts History
  • Today’s Toe River Arts
  • Artist (and Community) Support
  • Toe River Artists
  • Annual Events
  • Why (and How) to Support Toe River Arts

History

Seeing a need to promote creative and cultural education in the area, the then-Toe River Arts Council formed in 1976. The emphasis on art education replaced and supplemented the need for creative segments of educational curricula in Yancey and Mitchell counties.

The first studio tour (see “Annual Events” below) was organized by area artists in 1992 and the Arts Council started supporting it the next year. A second spring tour was added in 1997, meeting a huge demand from visitors.

Note: We’ll discuss the Studio Tours in more detail below in the “Annual Events” section of this article.

Today’s Toe River Arts

Image Credit: Toe River Arts.

Rebranded as “Toe River Arts,” the organization has grown in function, as the need for community and artist support has increased. TRA still works with the school systems of Yancey and Mitchell counties (Avery, too).

They do all of this (and more that you’ll see below) while keeping a relatively small staff of a half-dozen people, including Executive Director Andrews.

Artist (and Community) Support

The support Toe River Arts provides to its artists and community is almost too hard to quantify, though it starts with promoting the work of members. Producing physical and digital advertising and participating media interviews takes up quite a bit of the council’s budget and energy, but there’s plenty of more time and space to help members.

When you visit either location in Burnsville or Spruce Pine, you’ll find galleries filled with Toe River Artist-created works. Toe River Arts also offers grant opportunities for area artists to apply for funding for equipment and educational opportunities.

Another example of artist support is the work done with Mayland Community College‘s small business center. Through this initiative, help is offered to any artists who want to set up social media or an e-commerce platform.

Toe River Arts also offers free artists business classes through the small business center at Mayland.

Toe River Artists

Kenny Pieper, Pieper Glass.

Nealy Andrews explained that there are around 500 artists living in Yancey and Mitchell counties, with around 250 participating as members of Toe River Arts.

This is one of the highest per capita number of artists in North Carolina. That says a lot when compared to larger cities.

Each Toe River Arts member artist posts signs outside their studios to indicate membership. When driving around the seemingly secluded and windy roads of this area (including the Mount Mitchell Scenic Byway), it’s fun to spot those signs along the highway.

We visited a few Toe River Artists and interviewed a few for NC Travel Chat. If you’d like a full list of members, check the Toe River Arts website.

Annual Events

We mentioned them earlier but these annual events are huge revenue drivers to keep this wonderful arts community (and Toe River Arts) thriving and creating this year and beyond.

Toe River Arts Studio Tours

Yummy Mud Puddle in Burnsville.

Toe River Arts Studio Tours are well known throughout the US. As Nealy Andrews told us, it’s “one of the largest and longest-running studio tours in the United States.”

And thanks to popular demand, the tours are held twice each year in June and December, with the latter a wonderful holiday shopping event.

Artist members open their homes and studios for visitors to come and witness art created right there. Presenting that magic in person is a wonderful opportunity for artists to sell their work on the spot.

Fire on the Mountain Blacksmithing Festival

Over in Mitchell County, Fire on the Mountain Blacksmithing Festival comes to Spruce Pine each April. Blacksmiths come to the area from all over the country to demonstrate their craft.

Toe River Arts supports this event, too, hosting a blacksmith exhibition and offering additional help where needed.

Why (and How) to Support Toe River Arts

Ask anyone who lives here and you’ll understand that the arts are a vital part of our state’s cultural identity. That’s especially the case in Western North Carolina and in areas supported by Toe River Arts.

If you consider yourself a friend of the arts, we think you should try and support them in some way. Whether it’s traveling to studios to purchase person (or online) or lending support in another way, any gesture will be appreciated.

And if you happen to be an artist or affiliated with an arts council in North Carolina, we’d love to know more about you.

Let us know in the comments section here or by email!

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