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The state of the arts in Chattanooga: strong—but evolving
Chattanooga has art coming out of its ears.
Whether it’s buskers on the street, new galleries popping up, theatre companies expanding their offerings (and places where they perform) or public art installations, the explosion in the arts scene from only a decade or so ago continues to shake things up.
But changes in some tried-and-true arts support systems have raised questions. Long-established Allied Arts, source of grants and support to many organizations, became ArtsBuild. CreateHere went super nova. Then newly elected mayor Andy Berke did what insiders had predicted: Zeroed out the city’s Education, Arts and Culture Department and divvied up some of its responsibilities among other, newly created departments, including the Department of Economic and Community Development, the Office of Youth and Family Development, and the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
Many in the arts community asked each other: Does this mean the city is lessening its support for the arts? And the age-old question surfaced again: How can we quantify what the arts do for a community?
So, for this year’s State of the Arts issue, we sallied forth and asked a few key people for their take on these questions. What we heard was very encouraging.
On Aug. 15, re-branded ArtsBuild held a meeting at the Church on Main, attended by more than 125 people, titled “Branding the Arts in Chattanooga.” In its transition from Allied Arts to ArtsBuild, the organization has fundamentally changed how it interprets its relationship with the community, said President Dan Bowers. “Instead of asking the community what it can do for the arts, we are now asking what the arts can do for the community,” he said. “We now are also embracing a much bigger, more inclusive definition of ‘arts.’ Imagination and creativity need a bigger tent, one that encompasses new technology, the culinary arts—and everything in between.”
In this, ArtsBuild is building on the model established by CreateHere, whose grant programs embraced everything from chocolatiers to webisodes.
The Aug. 15 meeting asked attendees four questions: 1) How would you characterize the arts in Chattanooga? (Suggestions to get the discussion started included, among many, “kind of sassy,” “authentic,” “undervalued” and “enduring.”) 2) You are talking a friend into visiting Chattanooga for the first time. What do you tell them about the arts and culture scene? 3) Name four Chattanooga arts and culture events/festivals that locals must not miss, and 4) What is your own Chattanooga tag line?
(Some interesting answers have already emerged: The top five answers to Question 3, for example, were 4Bridges Arts Festival, Nightfall, Main X 24, the Chattanooga Market and the 3 Sisters Bluegrass Festival.)
Bowers said ArtsBuild will use the collected information to design several different “branding” concepts, and participants will be contacted to give feedback in coming months.
ArtsBuild itself received good news from the new administration this month in the form of more than $50,000 in promised additional funding. “We are very positive about the relationship with the Berke administration,” said Bowers. “They definitely get it—the role that the arts play in downtown, revitalizing neighborhoods and in tourism.” He cited a study, based on 2010 numbers and partially funded by ArtsBuild, that showed that Chattanooga’s nonprofit arts organizations and their audiences alone contribute $106 million to the local economy annually.
Bowers views the changes in the support community as presenting opportunities: “Instead of the arts being ‘silo-ed,’ they will become better woven throughout the communities,” he said.
View from inside
Someone who knows a great deal about “weaving art into communities” is Peggy Townsend, director of Public Art Chattanooga. Although supposedly a part-time position with the city, it’s one that requires many meetings, many phone calls—and the ability to deal with individuals who still do not see the value of public art. And the shake-up at the city level has meant changes for the program.
“We used to be part of Parks & Rec, which no longer exists,” she said. “We are now part of the Department of Economic and Community Development, headed by Donna Williams. I think this is going to be a great fit. Donna is an enthusiastic leader, and sees the quality-of-life element as well as the economic impact of public art.”
Townsend sees opportunities for “cross-pollination” with other city entities that have not existed up until now. “Of course the bottom line is funding,” she said, “and the city staff is working hard on ‘budgeting for outcomes.’ Public art does not have ticket sales; it’s open 24/7.” But there are statistics, she noted, that show a decline in crime in areas that have public art. And she receives far more requests for installations throughout the city than the department can currently fill. In most cases, the neighborhoods must raise at least part of the money for the art themselves, but all acknowledge the value of the contribution.
She points with pride to the 1.75 acre Main Terrain Art Park, which opened in January. The former urban wasteland was transformed by grants from ArtsBuild, the Lyndhurst Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency into a combination art walk, fitness area and “stormwater detention pond.” Its three large sculptures can be turned by hand by park visitors. Main Terrain, Townsend says, is a perfect example of how arts contribute to a better quality of urban living.
New public arts projects are the “Art in the Neighborhood” installation in St. Elmo, and four sculpted trail markers for the soon-to-open Stringers Ridge park.
James McKissic was tapped by Mayor Berke to head the reorganized Office of Multicultural Affairs. Himself an artist, who had a show at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center last January, McKissic is recognized in the arts community as a “left brain/right brain” person—someone who gets the arts, but who also gets what it takes to support them.
Asked which programs his department will support, he responded: “The Office of Multicultural Affairs is not supporting any arts programs in particular, but because the arts and artistic expression are a huge part of culture, we are often engaged in arts program and events.
“In the first 100 days,” he said, “we have supported an arts and theatrical performance called ‘Coming to America,’ organized a photoshoot for people with disabilities, promoted cultural art exhibits at the Hunter Museum and Bessie Smith Cultural Center, and participated in a garden dedication with Neema Refugee Services.”
McKissic agreed that the city’s reorganization presents challenges, but also many opportunities.
“The arts mesh well with all of the new administration’s goals, especially youth and family development, public safety and economic and community development,” he said. “There is always a role for the arts to play in creating the Chattanooga that we all dream of.”
He is not, however, a fan of the phrase “under-served areas.”
“Anyone who knows me has probably already heard me say that instead of doing arts outreach to ‘under-served’ communities, we need to engage communities, open our eyes and see the arts that are already there. We must find ways to fund and support broader definitions of art.
“Art is happening in every community,” he emphasized. “If you don’t believe me, visit a place of worship. Go to a family reunion. Drop into a mercado, or drive around and view some of the amazing ‘yard shows’ that Chattanooga has to offer. All of this is as valuable to a city as a thriving symphony or museum. In fact,” he concluded, “it is what gives our city and its diverse neighborhoods that flavor and character.”
So, in fact, the change the city has seen in the arts has really just begun. Stick around for the ride for another decade—or better yet, help create the ride.
Please see the “Politics” section in this issue for Mayor Andy Berke’s personal take on supporting the arts in Chattanooga.