hunter museum bridge
So now we are 10. Reflection and review and looking forward seem like the order of the day for an anniversary column, but The Pulse isn’t the venue for speechifying, backslapping and self-congratulating.
The last decade saw some great arts-related projects in Chattanooga—an aggressive public art program, the artful placemaking of the 21st Century Waterfront, the rich Cherokee art of The Passage, the Hunter’s new Gehry-esque wing, ArtsMove incentives for artists to relocate here, the Holmberg Arts Leadership Institute to train people passionate about the arts to serve on arts boards.
Arts institutions and big projects do great things for the community, but for me they aren’t where most of the action is.
Browsing through old issues of The Pulse I found several “State of the Arts” features that asked arts administrators (plus a token artist or two) about the state of the arts here and what the future held. Thankfully, more recent State of the Arts surveys have been collections of artist profiles. In the same vein, this space focuses primarily on artists rather than programs and institutions.
Over the last year, I’ve interviewed people like Tim Hinck, who’s deconstructing and rebuilding the process of musical composition and himself as a composer; Cessna Decosimo, who’s digging into decades of private imaging to explore new terrain in his art; and Aubrey Lenahan, who brings literary artists to town to co-create a literary environment that nurtures her own creativity.
So this week, I turned to a few artists to help me reflect on art in Chattanooga.
I actually tried to ask a question about Chattanooga’s arts community. But dancer and choreographer Ann Law pointed out the obvious: “arts community” is an impossible abstraction. Do the artists all unwind together at the end of the day over cold ones or reconnect and wear funny hats every year at a convention? And “the arts” isn’t much better. Which ones? The established ones that feel familiar or the edgy ones out on the borderlands of the everyday?
For Law, the right question was: “What do artists need, and what does Chattanooga need from artists?” Beyond the obvious need for audiences and financial support, Law said artists need community, including exposure to a broader community of artists in other media. But the community also needs artists as a resource. She sees few artists on nonprofit boards, both arts-related and non-arts, and added, “What a major loss of creative thinking skills, different perspectives and exposure to larger networks.”
Emerson Burch sees his artist friends accidentally serving as extremely effective relocation promoters. Burch is a ceramist and business consultant who runs the 35.85 Guild artist development group. When friends from all over the world visit him and meet his Chattanooga artist friends, he says 80 percent start making plans to move here.
“In their minds, this city is on a trajectory that is a place that they want to be,” he said. “Consistently when they talk to my friends who are artists, the conversation is really different. It’s fundamentally challenging and engaging and interesting. It reflects really well on our city for people who are not here, who are from larger cities in particular.”
He sees artists as key storytellers of the narrative of Chattanooga, people who can craft a “landing pad” for the new residents Chattanooga wants to attract while respecting and honoring the past. “That’s the nature of artists: to tease the spirits.”
According to Caleb Ludwick, author of “The First Time She Fell,” in the last five or 10 years, Chattanooga artists have felt greater freedom to experiment, where he said before there was fear that experimental work would cut them off from funding opportunities.
And fringe work is beginning to be funded. “Arts funding has changed,” he said. “MakeWork and Kickstarter are, by their nature, looking for fringe creators. People are looking beyond Chattanooga for where they can sell. Chattanooga is no longer seen as the primary market. It’s home base, from which we sell to other markets.”
Looking ahead, Ludwick thinks the best thing Chattanooga can do for the arts is to stop patting ourselves on the back and keep working. “Brand building rah-rah has its place and time,” he said, “but we can’t be so focused on the PR value of arts, or artists, or any other slice of life in town that we forget to push for deeper and more long-lasting support of the edges, the under-represented, people and ideas who will push us back in healthy ways.”
Most of us stick to the simpler commercial struggle to earn a living. Even innovators and entrepreneurs work the fuzzy edges of what people want (or don’t yet know they want) to create new gears in the economic machine. Artists hang out on the edges of the mainstream or abandon it altogether, trying to discover something new and then reporting back to us.
Occupying this outsider-insider, leader-follower position is hard to pull off and harder to get paid for. But as the young Springsteen sang about looking at the sun, “Mama, that’s where the fun is.”
Rich Bailey writes about the arts and artists each week in The Pulse. A true NoogYorker, he divides his time between Chattanooga and New York City.