Where The Art Is

Bob Fisher is helping create a new $10-million arts center

A small – but high quality – gallery in Highlands, NC, found an unlikely arts patron in longtime Atlanta attorney and businessman Bob Fisher.

After 25 years practicing law (five years at King & Spalding and another 20 years in his own firm), and serving as an adjunct professor of graduate level tax classes at Emory Law School, Fisher caught the entrepreneurial bug in the 1980s. He was involved in real estate development and created Wesley International Corporation, a small company manufacturing vehicles used in warehouses and plants. “I’m still actively involved in business,” Fisher says, “but none require my attention full time.”

Enter the Bascom-Louise Gallery, housed in the back of the Highlands town library and in desperate need of expansion. Fisher, 59, who lives part-time in Highlands, the rest of the year at Sea Island, was asked to serve on the committee to help find property to expand the gallery into a proper arts center.

They didn’t have to look far. Space was available, amazingly, in downtown Highlands at the west end of Main Street: six pristine acres complete with meadows, woods, stream, and a rustic structure, the Crane Barn, formerly the town’s riding stables. After securing the property with a down payment, Fisher is leading the charge to raise $10 million to build an arts center to serve Highlands and Cashiers, popular vacation-home locales for Georgians.

The new arts campus will capitalize on the property’s natural beauty. Plans include a one-third mile sculpture trail, two outdoor classrooms and updated Crane Barn that will serve as a pottery and sculpture studio. A circa-1820 covered bridge from New Hampshire will be restored and a large, 1838 hand-hewn, post-and-beam barn, donated by a lifelong Franklin, NC, resident, will be re-erected to anchor the 21,000-square-foot main building, housing exhibition space, classrooms, catering kitchen/café and gallery shop.

Extreme care was taken to minimize environmental impact and all plans were endorsed by the Highlands Land Steward. And because it will be more than a gallery, the arts center will sport a new name, to be announced this month.

Fisher says he saw great strategic potential in developing a community-backed arts center. “It’s important to keep the Highlands and Cashiers community from becoming too commercial and [supporting the arts] is a way for the people of the community to decide what type of culture they want to have.”

It wasn’t a tough sell. “Natives of Highlands love that the arts center will maintain the pastoral setting,” he adds. “It was important to locals that the Crane Barn be kept, and we’ve incorporated many of their ideas into the plans.”

Though not a local, Fisher has been coming to Highlands since he was a boy and when he and his wife, Cathy – also an enthusiastic arts center supporter – began looking for a second home in 1992, Highlands was atop their list. Avid collectors of Hudson River School paintings, the Fishers were drawn to western Carolina’s untainted, natural beauty.

“Both the Hudson River and western Carolina regions are beautiful examples of the Ameri-can landscape,” Fisher says. “I would love to see a whole school of painters focus on capturing western Carolina.”

An exciting arts center development is the addition of Linda Steigleder, former executive director at the Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn., as executive director. “She’s an incredible arts professional,” Fisher says. “Having Linda join us speaks loudly about the type of arts impact this center will have on the community and region.”

Fisher likens his role to that of the Pied Piper. “I had a vision, I played the tune of the vision and some incredibly talented people were lured into the process.” Fortune 500-level executives serve as volunteers on the arts center board. “I’m ending up with the kind of advisors that I couldn’t have hired when I was starting a business!”

The project revved Fisher’s engines in the same way as building a new business does. “When I looked at getting involved,” he says, “I figured I could spend three to five years on this project and know at the end I had made a strategic difference in the community. The great thing is that the center will introduce visual arts and culture to a whole new generation of people.”

Categories: Influential Georgians