For Emerson Burch, cultivating artists is like gardening. “Is the soil healthy? Are there invasive species? Are you getting enough sunlight or water? Artists will grow and develop given the right environment,” he said.
As founder and executive director of 35.85 Guild, in the last two years Burch has devoted a substantial amount of time—not to mention 60 to 70 percent of his income—into developing Chattanooga’s creative economy. With little or no outside funding, he’s had to start small, but he’s investing primarily where it counts the most: directly in artist development.
The guild offers educational programs, low-cost studio space in three locations and helps create mentor relationships between older and younger artists.
For some artists, the guild provides subsidies for studio space and materials, as well as substantial stipends to do their creative work, allowing artists to accelerate their creative learning curve. Painter Shaun LaRose, for example, received funding from 35.85 Guild that helped him create a body of work for the 2010 and 2011 4 Bridges festivals. And sculptor Maria Larson received funding that allowed her to focus exclusively on her work for a year and a half.
This kind of funding buys artists the time to work full-time and develop their skills more quickly than is possible working around a day job. According to Burch, “It’s easy for an artist to turn into one trick pony and never become masterful, because mastery takes lot of time.”
He sees 35.85 Guild’s work as fundamentally different than any other arts organization in Chattanooga, calling it an artists organization, rather than an arts organization.
“We’re focused on developing artists so they can be exceptional in their craft and also professionally as entrepreneurs,” he said.
Beyond those artistic and entrepreneurial needs, he says artists need a healthy ecosystem in which they can thrive. Despite Chattanooga’s growing reputation as an art town, Burch said the artist’s ecosystem he envisions not only doesn’t exist here, but will require a deep cultural transformation.
Many of artists’ needs are similar to those of any professional: professional and creative development opportunities, a community of peers. Others might be unique to artists. Burch says access to appropriately priced materials is difficult and (until recently at least) inexpensive studio spaces have been hard to find.
But the knottiest issue is both economic and cultural—the inability of artists to make a living here by selling their work.
“I know so many artists here who are trying to do their artwork full time, are exceptional at their craft, and are struggling to make 15 to 20 thousand dollars a year,” he said. “We’ve had a large number of really talented artists come to Chattanooga and then leave in three to five years. The majority of them left because there’s no economic engine to help support their work here.”
Burch is critical of what he sees as an unhealthy dependence on public commissions. He thinks supporting artists by commissioning works is like giving antihistamines to a person who’s sneezing. Rather than looking for what’s causing the allergic reaction, he said, what artists need is “an ongoing professional context in which to do their work, based on an economic structure here.”
The biggest missing piece is an educated market of buyers.
“We have a lot of people who want to pay as little as they can for art,” he said. “In a larger city, more people not only see the value of art, but are willing to pay what it is actually worth.”
Burch’s ideas on how to grow Chattanooga’s creative economy sounds remarkably like many of the city’s successful economic and cultural development initiatives.