Person to watch: Arts pro Anne Willson takes helm at Association for Visual Arts

Person to watch: Arts pro Anne Willson takes helm at Association for Visual Arts

February 8th, 2011 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press Anne Willson is the new executive director of AVA.

Staff Photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press Anne...

In retrospect, Anne Willson's career path seems to have been a step-by-step education in preparation to become executive director of the Association for Visual Arts.

AVA is a nonprofit whose membership includes many of the area's professional and emerging artists. Its mission is to promote and support original visual art and artists, according to its website.

Willson is an artist, has been a gallery manager, co-owned her own studio and was museum administrator for the Weatherspoon Art Museum.

She has organized regional public art forums, developed programming and written columns for North Carolina's Triad Style magazine.

As founding director of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro's ArtsLink, she developed the university's first collective for its nine performance programs. In addition to coordinating community programs and marketing for ArtsLink, she took on student interns to give them hands-on experience in arts administration.

Willson even chaired the fine art segment of Greensboro's three-day festival, City Stage, for six years. Those skills should prove beneficial as AVA's biggest fundraiser, 4 Bridges Arts Festival, approaches.

"Anne is a proven leader and is genuinely passionate about the importance of visual arts in transforming lives and communities," said David Hudson, AVA board president, in a news release announcing her hiring.

Willson's first day in her new job was Dec. 6. She sat down recently with the Times Free Press to discuss her community arts perspective and social enterprise.

Q: What was Bricolage, the nonprofit you founded in Greensboro?

A: The name was taken from the French word meaning to create new using your existing resources; it's also a particular type of collage for which an artist draws from materials on hand instead of purchasing new.

The nonprofit was formed on turning to our existing artists as mainstays of our cultural resources rather than bringing in people from outside the Greensboro area.


• Hometown: Born in Wilmington, N.C., lived in Greensboro, N.C., for 45 years.

• Age: 51.

• Education: Bachelor's degrees in art and communication studies from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, master's degree in liberal studies from UNCG.

• Previous post: Founding director of Bricolage Inc.

• Family: Two children ages 24 and 20.

• Artist: Potter and sculptural weaver.

Favorite artist

The late Anne Truitt, a modernist sculptor.

People would be surprised to know:

My favorite thing to do is ride around in the country with my windows down and music up loud.

Guest of honor

Willson will be honored with an invitation-only reception on Feb. 17 given by the AVA board.

Q: How did you change Bricolage from a traditional nonprofit to an arts-based social enterprise?

A: Social enterprise is a new field within the nonprofit sector that focuses on earned revenue as a means of support for the organization rather than grants and donations. Traditionally, arts nonprofits are dependent on donations.

Goodwill is an example of social enterprise: clothing donations are sold to support teaching job skills to clients.

At Bricolage, we opened a store for people to donate items, and we resold them for use in some kind of creative activity. We didn't serve just artists but people who made sets or props in theaters, dancers needing fabric for costumes, art teachers in schools needing supplies.

I think it's a sign of the times that as funds become tighter, nonprofits will have to think outside the box to sustain themselves.

Q: Will we see AVA open such a resale store?

A: No, AVA won't have a reuse store like Bricolage. (However), the development of an earned revenue would further our mission. The media lab is a good example: People pay a small fee for use of the media lab, which furthers support of AVA.

I think there is tremendous untapped potential in the media lab. There are 10 iMacs outfitted with Photoshop, video editing software, digital and video cameras, lighting and state-of-the-art equipment.

The media lab is open to the public, not just artists. AVA members get free access to the lab as a benefit of membership; there is a nominal charge to the community. But we do have open labs on Saturday and afternoons Tuesdays through Thursdays.

Q: What do you see as AVA's strengths and weaknesses?

A: AVA's strength is its people. The staff and board are top-notch. They are insightful, forward-thinking and passionate about the program. They are the reason I came.

I don't know if it's a weakness, but the notion of being everything to everybody has weakened AVA.

We do a summer art camp for younger kids, a film institute, media lab, exhibition, 4 Bridges Arts Festival, student gallery ... there is a lot we do because the needs are so diverse.

Q: What do you bring to AVA?

A: I am bringing a community arts perspective: arts that serve the community as a whole as opposed to the individual.

Our community arts program will partner with other organizations for the development of art around a particular community issue. Artists have always had the role of speaking and interpreting issues in their communities.

Contact Susan Pierce at or 423-757-6284.