Chattanooga Market’s Downtown Studio Space is Bustling
THE GOAL IS DEFINITELY TO COMPRESS A BUNCH OF creatives and shake it up to see what exploded,” says Chris Thomas, executive director of Chattanooga Market about his Chattanooga Workspace, a downtown studio space for artists.
The site for this art experiment—sorry, I can’t get Mentos in Diet Coke out of my mind—is a four-story building on Sixth Street, formerly part of the St. Barnabas nursing home and assisted living campus.
“As we worked with our vendors down there, one of the things they said was, ‘We need a place to work, we need a place to meet outside the market,” he says. “This was about four years ago, and this building came on our horizon about a year and a half ago.”
Thomas shows me a first-floor gallery space with work by two artists with studios upstairs, Danyelle Dover and Donyale Grove, the featured artists for Chattanooga Workspace’s January open-studio night. Every first Friday, artists open their studios for visitors and one or two featured artists are exhibited in this space. We walk through some double doors into a cavernous space.
“This ground floor originally was intended to be for other startups, technology or nonvisual arts related,” Thomas says. “We have a couple nonprofits in here currently, but it hasn’t caught on with the enthusiasm, with the momentum that we would like.”
Upstairs is another story, however.
“There was a five-year plan to build out all four floors, but we did it in 18 months because the demand was so intense,” says Thomas. “We had to accelerate things because there was so much interest in having the studios.”
The three upper floors are small, private artists studios, mostly either 450 square feet or about half that size. Those spaces are 100 percent occupied by 40 artists—through, ironically, only three or four are Chattanooga Market artists—and Thomas has a waiting list. The tenant mix includes sculptors, painters, textile artists, an art therapist, marketing and graphic design companies, two attorneys, and—the newest—a book publisher.
“We definitely noticed as each floor was ready there was a new level of energy as those artists moved in,” says Amanda Varnell, co-owner of Dish T’Pass, the building’s other tenant besides Chattanooga Workspace, which finished its own space and moved in before Thomas’ first artists did.
Dish T’Pass is a recreational cooking school and catering company using the first-floor commercial kitchen that once made hundreds of daily meals for people in the nursing home and hospital. Co-owners Varnell and Sarah Hooper found the building in 2012 and put it on Thomas’s radar.
“We knew we didn’t want to have this fabulous kitchen space and not know what was going to happen around us,” says Varnell. “So we literally sat in the car and brainstormed: Who do we know?”
They knew Thomas from doing cooking events at Chattanooga Market and were aware he was looking for a space like this building. The two companies signed their leases within a day of each other.
The vibe, both upstairs and down, is almost like a college dorm, according to Thomas. Artists use the cooking school’s microwave and coffee maker and buy prepared foods from a cooler on an honor system. And the Dish T’Pass classroom, though not a common space, has become a hangout for many of the artists in the building.
Thomas finished each upstairs floor with plain gray floors and white walls, knowing the artists would fill the chromatic vacuum better than he could. And that’s what happened.
Second floor painter Ali Kay is a decorative artist who creates elaborate trompe l’oeil murals—turning a ceiling into a rippling tent canopy or a transforming a simple white dome into an ornate Italian cupola—as well as faux finishes and traditional canvases.
Faced with Thomas’ blank canvas, she filled much of it with images, including walls covered with flowing curves, elevator doors exploding with color, bathroom mini-murals and a faux carpet painted in her floor’s elevator lobby. As a recent transplant from Houston, she finds the building a great source of networking. And she shares unique paints and stencils she’s developed with other artists and created a table with one.
With the upper floors fully occupied, Thomas is focusing more on reconceiving the underused coworking space and holding more animation events. It could be converted into studio space or become an event space.
“It’s a blank tablet at the moment so we’re trying to figure out what that niche is going to be,” he says. “We’re trying to find ways to bridge keeping our original vision, but also finding ways to make this place more animated on the ground floor and generate revenue. We definitely want to have more activity here and more public events, as well as ways for the artists here to socialize and collaborate. That cross collaboration is where really cool things come out.”
Chattanooga Workspace’s next open studio
night will be Feb. 7, 5:30-8 p.m.
302 W. 6th St. (across from the YMCA).
(423) 822-5750, chattanoogaworkspace.com