Chattanooga Empowers Art Community, Cultivates Public Art During the Pandemic

Natalia Pérez, Marketing and Communications Intern

I often think of art as the partnership between the essential and the nonessential. The essentials being our necessary structures, like science, engineering, medicine, law — all of which society needs to survive, feel safe and stay functional. These set a solid foundation for our nonessentials–art, poetry, romance, beauty — to thrive and flourish. When our focus is set (or has to be set) solely on sustaining our essentials, though, there is little room for whimsy or creativity. 

After a year of shifting our daily routines to the essentials — traveling only when necessary, leaving the house only when necessary, limiting big gatherings of all kinds: festivals, concerts, art shows, weddings — we’ve collectively missed the beauty, purpose and soul the nonessentials bring to our world. 

Fortunately, our Scenic City’s art scene, from its iconic light masts at the Chattanooga Pier, live music, outdoor sculpture displays at Bluff View and instagrammable city murals (are you even a Chattanooga resident if you haven’t taken a photo by the donut wall?), remains unique, vibrant and thriving, and our arts leaders have intentionally shifted to meet the needs of our ever-changing arts community.

Arts: Soul of America, Core of Economy

Public Art Chattanooga partnered with the Avondale community to commission two community driven mural designs at the Avondale Youth and Family Development Center. This mural's design was informed by the community’s input through community engagement opportunities facilitated by commissioned artist SEVEN and PAC Creative Strategist, Erika Roberts of Velvet Poetry. 

In Tennessee, nonprofit arts and culture mean business. The Arts & Economic Prosperity 5 study, conducted in 2015 by Americans for the Arts, showed that the nonprofit arts and culture sector is a $1.17 billion industry in Tennessee, one that supports 38,482 full-time equivalent jobs and generates $135.9 million in local and state government revenue.

Hamilton County showed a cumulative $172.4 million impact on the local economy, including the support of 6,345 full-time jobs and the generation of $19.8 million in local and state government revenue, a $7.8 million increase from the study done three years prior

The purpose of the Arts & Economic Prosperity study was to disprove the idea that communities sustain arts and culture at the expense of local economies. It’s quite the opposite. Communities that support arts and culture enhance quality of life while investing in economic well-being. The arts industry supports jobs, generates government revenue and grows tourism, among other benefits. 

However, like many industries, the arts have suffered during the pandemic. 

According to an ongoing survey from Americans for the Arts, nonprofit arts organizations in Hamilton County lost a total of $8.4 million in revenue since March 2020. Many had to lay off or furlough employees and pause public programs. 

Despite these new challenges, local artists and arts organizations responded creatively, exploring new ways to engage and connect to audiences, providing not only an outlet for enjoyment and beauty, but helping us process current events and improve mental health and well-being for people of all ages.

“The arts are part of the heart and soul of America, and creativity has always been essential to recovery — there can be no recovery without it,” says Americans for the Arts President and CEO Robert L. Lynch, as quoted by several sources. “To thrive post-pandemic, the United States must leverage its creative power, putting creative workers to work rebuilding, reimagining, unifying and healing communities in every state and territory, as well as within tribal lands.”

Nurturing A Thriving Arts Community 

For more than 50 years, ArtsBuild has generated support for local arts. As the City of Chattanooga’s official designated arts agency, ArtsBuild serves in a public-private partnership role to carry out the functions of a local arts agency. The primary mission is to build a stronger community through the arts, and the pandemic has meant doing this from a distance — virtually, in many cases — but it’s also sparked intense listening to the arts community and its changing needs and respond accordingly.

Two of ArtsBuild’s newest grant programs are a direct response to the challenges brought on by the pandemic: the Grassroots Recovery Fund and Artists Work Grant.

The Grassroots Recovery Fund supports grassroots, startup and young organizations with budgets up to $50,000, and recently awarded seven grants to organizations within the program. 

The Artists Work Grant was established in October 2020, in partnership with Public Art Chattanooga and the Southeast Tennessee Development District. This grant program is inspired by the Works Progress Era artist grants of the 1930s and gives artists and arts organizations funds to create projects in public spaces. 

A large number of applicants submitted in the first and second rounds, with a diverse range of proposals. In this second round, a total of $98,153 went to seven recipients in the categories of exhibition and performance and public art. 

The grant program has resulted in various projects: the new five-story mural at the Kinley Hotel (by Alecia Buckles and Briah Gober), the series of concerts in outdoor parks hosted by the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, the makeover of the Martin Amphitheater by SoundCorps (which also includes musical workshops) and the lawn concerts happening at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre among many others.

Artists Alecia Buckles; left, and Briah Gober; right, standing in front of the five-story mural at the Kinley Hotel. Taken by Jaime Smialek from Our Ampersand Photo.

“The arts are a major economic driver in Chattanooga,” says James McKissic, President of ArtsBuild. “They make our city a beautiful and exciting place to live and visit. They support our local economy, the tourism economy and they also help us through the tough times, and are a way to celebrate the amazing diversity of our various neighborhoods and people.”

It takes a large group of people who are deeply committed to the local arts to keep Chattanooga rich in arts and culture. ArtsBuild works with several administrators, artists, educators and arts organizations to sustain this goal. 

Kinley Hotel mural, photo by Jaime Smialek from Our Ampersand Photo

SoundCorps was a recipient of the Artists Work Grant for murals to enhance the Martin Amphitheater near the Walnut Street Bridge. As part of their community engagement process to inform the mural designs, they're hosting musical workshops in partnership with Songbirds Foundation. 

One of the 2020-21 community art partners, Stove Works, a new art institution developed in 2018, opened with the mission to bring established international artists to the city for residencies, and has provided educational and career advancement opportunities that boost the local economy. In the next year, the Stove Works facility will expand to include reasonably priced studios for local artists and commercial spaces for creative businesses. Their exhibitions and public programs will launch again in June with a show of Chattanooga-based artists curated by Ray Padron and Stephanie Loggans. 

Stove Works emerged from discussions that expressed the need for more spaces in the Southeast that highlight Contemporary Art Practice. All Stove Works programs are designed with fluidity in mind, allowing them to not only guide but to respond. As new challenges are introduced, Stove Works has maintained programmatic flexibility to adapt and embrace those shifts. 

As for connecting with artists, the Stove Works residency program, Artists-in-Residence, centers on relationship building. 

“Our goal is to cultivate a climate and culture in Chattanooga that stimulates curiosity amongst its communities, enthusiasm for exchange, and openness to new ideas and contrasting perspectives,” says Charlotte Caldwell, founder and director of Stove Works.


“Teachable Moments” was one of Stove Works’ first exhibitions of 2021. The panel featured exhibiting artists who each create and navigate spaces of rethinking, cross-examination, and the methodical and authentic deployment of abstract concepts in “the heat of the moment.”

“We are still finding our footing, as we have only just launched programming at our new facility, and are open-minded about what our role is in Chattanooga, but one hope is that by exhibiting the work of local and regional artists, audiences will to begin to see their work in a national context, further establishing Chattanooga's place in the discourse of what Contemporary Art Practice looks like and how it impacts and is impacted by those that participate in it.”

Caldwell shares that Chattanooga celebrates an extensive creative community of visual artists, writers, makers, musicians, artisans, performers and organizers, and is host to countless individuals seeking new opportunities to show their work and engage with others in their practice. 

“Where there are gaps in venues, there are people who take it upon themselves to fill those gaps. And, I think that's what makes Chattanooga remarkable. It is the breadth of opportunity to build something. It doesn't have to be large, certainly not on our scale, but it doesn't have to be large to have an impact. I've seen brilliant shows at VERSA, and I am very excited about Wavelength, a new gallery that has just opened up on McCallie. There are house shows that are being put on across the city that support emergent musicians. All of these things are being done because individuals and/or groups of individuals have taken the initiative to create spaces, events and experiences that they want to share. 

Chattanooga still has yet to fully reach its potential representing the wildly expansive artistic practices in this world. And I think that's exciting. It gives us all the space to create something. And, thanks to the individuals, the doers, we're beginning to see increasingly dynamic and thoughtful arts communities emerge.”

To keep up with public art in Chattanooga, here are a few ArtsBuild partners and arts organizations to follow and support: 

SoundCorps: SoundCorps is dedicated to growing the music economy in the Chattanooga region by building local music industry infrastructure and professional expertise through ongoing programs, events and initiatives. These efforts translate into increased opportunities to experience Chattanooga music. 

Public Art Chattanooga: Public Art Chattanooga (PAC) is dedicated to presenting a wide variety of high quality public art – working with the community to enhance the civic environment and enrich the lives of visitors and residents. PAC oversees all temporary and permanent public art projects on City of Chattanooga property and maintains the city’s public art collection of over 180 works. (Explore their outdoor collection here and their indoor collection here.)

Passageways Chattanooga: Passageways is reimagining alleyways in Downtown Chattanooga. Check out the first round of Passageways that temporarily transformed four alleys for a year, and Passageways 2.0’s Cooper’s Alley that has permanently transformed an alley in the heart of our urban core. 

SPLASH: SPLASH is a year-round free arts workshop serving urban youth in the Chattanooga area. 

Sculpture Fields at Montague Park: Sculpture Fields is a leading cultural tourism attraction. The 33-acre International Sculpture Park is home to more than 40 large-scale sculptures. 

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