Sybil Topel, MFA, Vice President, Marketing and Communications, Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce
Trend: Why do you support local artists?
Keeli Crewe: We opened area 61 gallery in 2009 to show and sell both my husband, David Crewe, and our partner, Rudd Montgomery's, woodworking and fine handcrafted furniture. Once the space was finished out, we realized we had vertical space we hadn't considered. We knew many local artists who were not currently showing their work locally so we invited them to sell their work through area 61. It evolved organically into a local artists' gallery. We have curated a fine collection of more than 30 local artists' works and actually have a waiting list of about 30 more who would love space if any becomes available.
T: Why are you so passionate about your business?
C: Through many years of working with graphic designers in marketing positions, traveling whether for work or personal, I have always been attracted to the arts – museums, outdoor sculpture parks, architecture history tours and art shows/festivals. I've never really been able to create or express myself through artistic channels so I'm so amazed and impressed by what artists and craftsmen create from concept to finished design. You can say I have a deep appreciation for their gifts and a passion to see them succeed. We have so many talented local artists and I'd like to see them supported here.
T: Do you think the arts make a difference for K-12 students when they are included as part of the educational curriculum? Why?
C: I do because not everyone learns in the same way. Our traditional classrooms and core curriculums don't always engage and inspire the student's desire to learn. I think it's important for the child's gifts and learning needs to be nurtured, but because I know many dedicated teachers in our city, I know that their desire to reach every child is often challenged by circumstances outside of their control. Our teachers cannot be expected to fill the voids that many of our kids have because of their home life, but many try anyway. If you can reach a child during the school day on a level they respond to, their lives can be changed for the better by giving them the confidence they need to succeed. Sometimes that includes non-traditional classroom approaches – visual, hands-on, music, movement, programs like our art cars and art bike extracurricular programs (learn more at Art 120), and maybe even mindful meditation.
T: What’s the most challenging part of your business?
C: There are handmade items in our gallery from $10 and up. We keep investing personal finances into this business because of the positive feedback we continually receive from shoppers and visitors to our city. I so want our local artists to make a living doing what they love – but that requires sales – sales to pay the artists and that will cover the overhead of the space. If we are unable to do that, more than 30 local artists do not have any place locally to sell their work. If we sold as many pieces for the artists as the number of donation requests we receive weekly for nonprofit auctions, we could all thrive. Maybe we change that model a little bit.
For example, at one point Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union had a corporate program where they had a budget to purchase art from local artists at 4 Bridges Arts Festival. They would use the art to decorate office and bank building spaces. Then later they would host a credit union member appreciation event where they would auction off the items and put the money from the sales into their community corporate sponsorship programs for the city and counties they serve and to purchase more art from local artists at other events.That seems to be a win-win for everyone.
T: What types of marketing work best in our local market? How do you find customers?
C: 80 percent of our sales in the past seven years of business have been from people from out of town. I haven't found that advertising channel sweet spot yet to reach that audience – many have found us from travel articles/blogs. The Dine & Shop downtown guide distributed by River City Company helps. I would like to see all of the arts venues do something collectively distributed through hotel concierges, front desk and city information sites. We have many great city publications with diverse demographics (where we've advertised), but the advertising rates for most of them to do a proper campaign and cover the targeted segments are cost prohibitive for our small budget. Digital search campaigns haven't been that successful either due to the amount of digital noise that's out there. When I travel, I depend upon locals and our local word of mouth, especially the enthusiasm and cohesiveness of those who live and work on the Southside, which is strong. We support all of our downtown businesses, because we want visitors to enjoy their stay in Chattanooga and come back.
T: What advice would you give to other business owners about how they can support the local arts? Top five tips?
C: 1. Buy local art as gifts – people are impressed by the quality and talent of our local artists and it is personal.
2. Buy local art for your space – home, office or outdoor areas.
3. Buy what makes you happy – don't base your decision on monetary investment value. If you like it, you'll enjoy it every time you look at it or pass by it in your home or work space.
4. Get to know your local artists and their work at First Friday events and local gallery openings. Their talent and contributions are another source of pride for our city and community.
5. Make a family day of “Find the Local Art” and see what your kids respond to. Include a picnic in the Sculpture Fields of Montague Park, Renaissance Park, Coolidge Park (ride the carousel if you haven't no matter what your age – a hand carved gift to the city by its residents), or even the Chattanooga Zoo (in addition to living beauty, there are many pieces of sculpture that have been donated to the zoo over the years.)
T: What events are coming up where I can network with other Chattanoogans interested in the arts?
C: Most of our local galleries host open house events or new exhibit openings the First Friday of each month – many are posted on this shared Facebook page – First Friday Chattanooga Arts.
Go to the websites of ArtsBuild, Townsend Atelier, Sculpture Fields of Montague Park, FLAG – Friends of Local Artists & Galleries, and AVA – Association for Visual Arts and find the section on their site to sign up for their email mailing lists to have events delivered to your inbox weekly, monthly or quarterly.
Like the Facebook pages or other social media platforms for all the local galleries you love and check them regularly for events – start with area 61 gallery.
Remember to check them before the First Friday each month (and some the First Thursday) for new exhibit openings or artist receptions. And stay tuned for the next amazing Chattanooga year-long installation opening in November – Wayne-O-Rama – imagined by the nationally renowned artist, Wayne White, and built collaboratively by local artists and community members since the end of September in a new studio space on the Southside – TENN ARTS gallery.