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Toe River Arts: One Truly Amazing North Carolina Arts Supporter

Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on February 14, 2024.

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From its beginning in the 1970s, Toe River Arts (TRA) has supported artists and communities within its reach in Western North Carolina. The two-county arts council (Yancey and Mitchell) goes beyond helping its artist members, 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.

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

Read More: Things to Do in Burnsville and Yancey County

Toe River Arts

Quotes in this article come from an interview we conducted with Executive Director Nealy Andrews for NC Travel Chat.

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


Seeing a need to promote creative and cultural education in the area, the then-Toe River Arts Council was 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 Toe River 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 this article’s “Annual Events” section.

Today’s Toe River Arts

The Toe River Arts Logo

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 members’ work. Producing physical and digital advertising and participating in 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. This initiative offers help to 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 standing with his state-wide famous 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 numbers 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 with eclectic Art

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.”

Thanks to popular demand, the tours are held twice yearly in June and December, with the latter a wonderful holiday shopping event.

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

Fire on the Mountain Blacksmith Festival

Over in Mitchell County, the Toe River Arts Festival for Blacksmithing comes to Spruce Pine each April. Blacksmiths come to the area from all over the country to demonstrate their craft.

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

Read More: Hiking Roan Mountain for Beautiful Appalachian Trail Views

Why (and How) to Support Toe River Arts Festival

various pottery at Toe River Arts center in NC

Ask anyone who lives here, and you’ll understand that the arts are vital to our state’s cultural identity. That’s especially true in Western North Carolina and 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 in-person (or online) or lending support in another way, any gesture will be appreciated.

And if you are 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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