A! Magazine for the Arts is celebrating its 25th birthday this month. Since November 1994, the magazine has been extolling the extraordinary diversity and talents of artists and arts organizations in the greater Tri-Cities area.
Ann Holler, who has been on the editorial committee of the magazine almost from its beginning, says, “A! Magazine for the Arts provides a service to artists and arts organizations in the greater Tri-Cities area by helping to promote and publicize their events and accomplishments. In an era when sports and politics seem to dominate, news about the arts is refreshing to many people and invites readers to a higher plane.”
“A! Magazine for the Arts was created to be the entertainment publication for the Bristol Herald Courier 25 years ago,” says James Maxwell, regional publisher. “It was the brain-child of Art Powers, who served for more than 16 years as the publisher for the Bristol Herald Courier.
“Art worked for T. Eugene Worrell who entered the newspaper business in Bristol in 1949 as the founder of the Bristol Virginia-Tennessean, a competitor to the long-established Bristol Herald Courier,” Maxwell explains. “Worrell purchased his newspaper’s competitor, the Bristol Herald Courier in 1961.
“Worrell and his wife Anne were major patrons of the arts in Bristol and in Charlottesville, where they settled after leaving the Bristol community. Continuing to work with the Arts Alliance to publish A! Magazine for the Arts is a way to honor both Art’s and the Worrells’ legacy for supporting the arts in our community,” Maxwell concludes.
Ben Jennings, one of the current co-chairs of the editorial committee, remembers the beginnings of the magazine. He is the only member of the original editorial committee who is still on the committee after 25 years. “Wallace Coffey, who was the community outreach coordinator for the Bristol Herald-Courier at the time, asked Susan Lucas (then Updyke), a Bristol visual artist, to help the newspaper form an advisory arts council of local arts advocates to advise the newspaper’s new arts publication. Original members were the executive directors (or their designees) of the major arts organizations and representatives from the colleges in Bristol and Abingdon.
“The other college representatives were the spouses of the college’s presidents. The president of Virginia Highlands Community College at that time, Dr. Dewitt Moore, had recently lost his wife, so I was the designated representative,” Jennings says.
Lucas remembers “long, long hours in the conference room deciding innumerable details and getting a crash course in publishing. What size and design would it be? What would be in it, and how would those things be presented? The hardest question turned out to be the name, oddly enough. Finally, a newspaper staff member said, ‘Just call it A! Magazine of the Arts.’ The exclamation point made it distinctive.
“The night the first issue went to press was exciting! We were all there to watch the presses roll and were thrilled as they rumbled to life, ejecting precious printed pages. From Art Power’s innovative idea and our inexperienced efforts, A! Magazine was born.
“The whole project was an example of what can be achieved by working together for the greater good. All committee members were able to set aside their own affiliations to create a publication that served all; we had as our goal to be the best source for information about the most significant art events and artists, with the most inclusive calendar that was entertaining to read. The Herald Courier and its personnel were endlessly patient and helpful with us.”
During the early years, there was a monthly column, "Arts All Around," by Barbara-lyn Morris, the wife of the president at Emory & Henry College and columns by Bill Muller, librarian and humorist. When the wife of the publisher of the newspaper saw a copy of A! Magazine for the Arts, she insisted that antiques become a central focus as well. So for several years the magazine was called A! Magazine for the Arts and Antiques, with features on local antiques and collectors as well as a monthly column by Betsy White on artists and the arts in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the region.
Originally, the newspaper sold ads to sustain the magazine and hired Angela Wampler, who had worked as a feature writer at the Bristol Herald Courier for many years, to write the stories, keep a calendar of arts events and serve as the art director/designer. According to Holler, Wampler “set a professional and inviting tone for A! Magazine for the Arts. Leslie Grace has continued in this tradition, replacing Wampler in 2012. We are fortunate to have had these two talented writers and graphic artists helping to produce the publication.”
In affirmation of the magazine’s achievements in design and writing excellence, the publication was awarded a Pinnacle Award in 2007 for its combination of print edition, online edition and email digest. It also won a Tennessee Governor’s Award in Arts Leadership in 2003.
When the Bristol Herald-Courier’s new management, Media General, announced in 2003 that the magazine would be discontinued, the editorial committee met the challenge by demonstrating the value of the publication for the community. Ann Holler recalled that after readers declared their interest in the magazine, the newspaper offered to turn over the magazine to a nonprofit organization.
“In a very timely coincidence, Arts Alliance Mountain Empire had been founded in 2002-2003 with tremendous help from Nancy DeFriece and the Tennessee Arts Commission,” says Holler. “Adopting A! Magazine for the Arts was the perfect vehicle by which to fulfill the mission of AAME to ‘nurture, advocate and celebrate the arts.’”
Under this arrangement, AAME became the owner and publisher of the magazine, which reclaimed its original name, A! Magazine for the Arts. The editorial committee assumed advertising sales with the assistance of Ann Goodpasture, who was the volunteer advertising director. The Bristol Herald Courier printed the magazine and inserted copies in the newspaper.
Through the years, the editorial committee and art director have collaborated to keep the magazine relevant as it seeks to inform readers about excellence in the arts, highlight events at various venues and showcase the talents of area artists. Being a dynamic publication requires keeping a finger on the pulse of a dynamic community, as well as changes and trends in the arts.
Jennings remembers, “In the beginning we were uncertain whether we could come up with enough story ideas for the monthly publication. I have kept what we have called the ‘A! Stockpile’ all these years, and frequently the list of ideas has been as long as five single-spaced typed pages. To say the least, we have had no lack of ideas for stories.”
Since the magazine’s inception, a committee of volunteers has performed editorial duties. Volunteers come from various areas of the arts in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia. Today they generally do not represent particular institutions or organizations. Instead, they approach the task of producing the magazine in a manner intended to benefit the entire community, rather than serving themselves or their particular organizations.
The editorial committee plans and edits the content of the magazine. The members generate story ideas, edit copy, offer advice on cover design, proofread copy, as they coordinate and communicate with Leslie Grace who composes the publication. From the very beginning, volunteers have hand delivered copies to all the major tourist sites, arts venues and colleges in the area.
“A significant challenge today is the preference for news in a digital format,” says Holler. For many years, AAME’s website has provided a convenient way to read arts news online. Will a print magazine be able to survive in an increasingly technological environment?”
Gloria Oster, one of the co-chairs of the editorial committee, agrees with the necessity of addressing the digital issue. “We know print isn’t as accessible as it once was, and we are attempting to remain relevant by putting everything online that appears in the print edition. Thanks to grants from the Tennessee Arts Commission that have partially funded our transition to a new website, we hope to engage a new generation of arts lovers in our area.”
“As with many non-profits, a big challenge is financial in nature,” says Holler. “AAME is grateful to its supporters and to advertisers in A! Magazine for the Arts for ensuring that we can continue to promote and honor our region’s artists,” emphasizes Holler.
In addition to the contribution of A! Magazine for the Arts to the community, Holler said AAME Galas have been wonderful events in which artists, arts supporters, administrators and teachers have been recognized at an annual event. “These individuals have often worked behind the scenes with little recognition. Honoring them is one of the best projects that AAME has undertaken.”
Additionally, in the last three years, AAME has organized a very successful speaker series on arts-related topics, led by King University faculty member, Martin Dotterweich.
“A! Magazine? The community’s lucky to have it,” says Miles Marek, executive director of the Paramount Center for the Arts in Bristol, Tennessee, as he talked about the decline in newspaper coverage of the arts in many urban communities across the country.
“Most newspapers no longer have a dedicated arts publication, and they very rarely localize the arts any longer,” he says. “The fact that a community the size of ours has a whole magazine dedicated to the arts is very fortunate.”
Marek has been the executive director of the Paramount Center for the Arts since July 2015. “We have so much happening here,” he says, noting that the value of advertising on the back page of A! Magazine for the Arts is so important for the Paramount to showcase upcoming performances and engage the interest of readers.
Richard Rose, producing artistic director at Barter Theatre, Abingdon, says, “Barter Theatre has been involved with A! Magazine for the Arts from its very inception because we needed a united voice for the arts throughout our region and needed a central unifying advocate to where the public could turn to discover the vitality of the arts within the Mountain Empire.
“A! Magazine for the Arts has succeeded at that and much, much more. It has become both a valuable resource and an advocate along with providing the public with a place to discover all of the amazing events, talent and rich cultural resources throughout our communities,” Rose says.
Karen Moore, the director of the Arts Depot in Abingdon, says, “Frequently when talking with people at an exhibit opening, they will comment that they saw the announcement in A! Magazine for the Arts and that is what led them to our event. It is in those moments that I feel grateful we are all bound together by common goals and that A! Magazine for the Arts is looking out for the arts community in our region.”
Moore continues, “We often give copies of the magazine to tourists when they ask what is happening around town, because it is the defining information clearinghouse for arts venues and local artists of all kinds. The feature articles go into depth, and the effect is that all local venues and many artists are well covered for curious readers and arts followers.”
“A! Magazine for the Arts makes a difference in the region by informing people who live here and who are visiting of visual and performing art shows. It is information,” says Steven Reeves, executive director of the Kingsport Art Guild, Kingsport, Tennessee. “There’s a mistaken belief that when you come to the mountains, you’ll find only hillbilly stuff. Not true,” he says, acknowledging the magazine’s diverse coverage of exhibits and performances in more than a dozen counties located in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.
Betsy White, director of William King Museum of Art, Abingdon, Virginia, says, “It is the essential go-to publication for the cultural life of Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. It’s always difficult, in terms of economic numbers, to quantify the value of the arts to a community, but through A! Magazine it’s easy to know that this value is alive and strong in our region.”
Gloria Oster sums up the importance of A! Magazine for the Arts to the area: “There’s something happening every day in our area that you might want to attend. Check out a print copy of A! Magazine for the Arts or read it online at aamearts.org and also sign up for the email digest that delivers updates on local arts to your inbox every week. My hope is that everyone in the region will use all these resources. Can you believe A! Magazine for the Arts has been around for 25 years?”