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August 22, 2013

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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.

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August 22, 2013

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