Survival of the creative class

by Keith Barber

A couple of weeks ago, I had thegood fortune to spend some time withlocal artists Charlotte and Erik Str’mat their home studio near downtownGreensboro. We talked at lengthabout their latest exhibit, From theGround Up, on display at the Studio& Gallery on Cedar Street this month.Eventually, the conversation turnedto how the artistic husband and wifeduo are surviving theGreat Recession.Erik and Charlottesaid they used to rent a space at LyndonStreet Artworks, but they recently relocatedtheir studio to their home near downtownGreensboro as a cost-saving measure.

Erik and Charlotte formed Str’m ArtLLC in 2004. The business struggled mightily beginningin late 2008 as the effects of the economic meltdown werefelt by the 99 percent of Americans. However, things arelooking up. “This year and last year started to get a lot better,” Eriksaid. “Luckily because we do so many types of art — it’snot just fine art. We do illustration and we do a lot ofgraphic design.” Charlotte and Erik also illustrate children’s books andare currently delving into the world of comic books. Inaddition, Charlotte is a talented graphic designer and herfreelance assignments help pay the household bills. Inthe current economy, it’s actually an advantage to workfreelance.“It’s good to have more than one ability even if it fallsunder the same umbrella of art,” Erik said. “Because thereare certain artists that only do a certain type of art but wetend to do a little of everything.”Charlotte and Erik Strom work incredibly hard andsometimes struggle to do the thing they love — draw andpaint. I was touched by their genuine kindness and generosity.We said our goodbyes, and I headed out into thecold of a late October afternoon. A few hours later, I was searching formy seat at the Stevens Center prior to thestart of Piedmont Opera’s production ofMozart’s Don Giovanni. The lavish productionthrilled audiences and revealedjust how blessed we all are to be part ofsuch a rich and diverse arts community.In some ways, it was striking to the witness the contrastbetween Charlotte and Erik working diligently in theirmodest home and an opera that could rival a production atthe New York Metropolitan Opera. As I watched the timeless tale of the world’s greatestlover, I thought about the growth of the local arts communityand how it could be the answer to our current economicwoes. According to the Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County website, the local arts industrygenerates more than $100 million annually, employingmore than 3,800 people in Forsyth County alone. The artsindustry generates $10 million in local and state government revenue and contributes $56 million in annual spending to Forsyth County’s economy. Winston-Salem’s hotels, retail shops and restaurants earn $48 million from arts patrons.

And the 25 percent film production tax credit that went into effect in January has generated tons of activity in the state’s film industry. A couple of weeks ago, word leaked out that Iron Man 3 is coming to Wilmington. The Facebook page of a Wilmington casting service has announced that the production, slated to begin filming in May 2012, will require more than 1,000 extras and will employ more than 550 local crew members.

On a local level, Winston-Salem’s Downtown Arts District Association, or DADA, has been raising awareness of local artists and the arts community since 1995 through Gallery Hops and sponsorship of events throughout the year.

Charlotte Strom said Downtown Greensboro, Inc. has been a key element in her and Erik’s success.

“I’ve got to give them a lot of credit for educating the general public on what’s right around them — there is such creativity in your own backyard,” she said. “Independent artists cannot afford the thousands of dollars of advertising they give us.”

Charlotte and Erik have missed only one or two First Friday Gallery Hops in the past 10 years. They are committed to their craft of painting and they’ve made it clear they’ll do whatever it takes to survive as working artists. And so the creative class of our state survives, from the sound stages of Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington to the historic Glenwood neighborhood of Greensboro with hard work and a ton of optimism.