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August 22, 2013

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“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.

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August 22, 2013

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