Get to Know The Pop-Up Project: Chattanooga’s Nonprofit Dance Performance Art Company

Local nonprofit The Pop-up Project inspires Chattanoogans to expand art initiatives and fall in love with performance art.

To learn more about their vision and mission we sat down with Pop-up’s co-founder and director Mattie Waters to learn more about how they're shaping Chattanooga’s performing arts conversation.

Trend: What major events have you done lately and what do we need to know?

Pop-up: We hosted Abandoned Arts on May 11 at the Alstom Facility.

The Pop-up Project and SoundCorps joined forces to produce a fully immersive theatrical experience like this town has never seen before. Attendees chose their own adventure while exploring different spaces in the old Alstom facility; complete with art installations, music, dance, cocktails and more.

Over 30 artists were involved in reimagining the history of the site and creating a magical night. 

Trend: How did you decide to start an arts non-profit?

Pop-up: The Pop-up Project (TPUP) became a chartered nonprofit through Fractured Atlas in Feb. 2017. TPUP received its 501(c)(3) determination letter in March 2019.

We ― Jules Downum and Mattie Waters, co-founders and directors ― started this organization with a vision to create a diverse, vibrant and sustainable performing arts culture in Chattanooga. Our goal is to build a new arts economy.

We both moved back to Chattanooga after performing professionally on opposite coasts. It quickly became clear that there were few opportunities to be a professional dancer or performing artist. Currently our city lacks a professional dance company.

 The choice to become a nonprofit was easy. There was no way we could rely on commission work alone. Within our organization we have three buckets: commission work, site specific works (our dance films) and an enrichment program.

The commission bucket acts as an entertainment company. We are hired for events and produce live productions. The funding for our site specific works and enrichment program comes from privation donations, crowdfunding and grants. Since becoming a nonprofit we have received funding from the Lyndhurst and Footprint Foundations.  

 Trend: As a startup, what was the most challenging part of the process and what advice would you give to other startups?

Pop-up: Every day presents a new challenge. We both agree that starting The Pop-up Project is one of the most challenging things we have ever taken on. Keep in mind, Jules got her master's while raising a newborn. 

This is not for the faint of heart. We hear no a lot mostly in fundraising efforts. Right now, our biggest struggle is that we are functioning as a fully funded organization but we don’t have the infrastructure. We do all of our own programming, choreography, artistic direction, performing, all administrative work, networking, grant writing, accounting, marketing and the list goes on.

 Our advice would be to save enough funds to support yourself for at least two years. We’ve been advised to not expect a salary for at least three to five years. 

Trend: I’ve often heard the term ‘starving artist’ as if those creating art must do without before they might succeed. You’ve let sponsors know how important it is that artists are paid and this is a principle for other area arts organizations as well. Could you elaborate on this philosophy and why it’s important as our community continues to advance the arts?

Pop-up: We value humans. We value their time, effort and creative voice. We value the years of work they’ve put into their craft. The artists we work with are adult professionals with full-time jobs. When they’re not at work they’re teaching dance classes, attending classes, rehearsing or performing. Artists are some of the most disciplined, hard-working people we know. Just like in any field if you ask someone to work for you, they should be paid. Unless you are Beyoncé, don’t offer to pay them with exposure.

We are advocates for the arts. We implement this philosophy through educating our community. We itemize every budget with everything it takes to create a quality dance performance, film or artistic direction. The budget includes rehearsal hours, space rental, costuming, choreography (the industry standard is $100 per choreographed minute), hair and make-up, musical direction, cinematography, editing, a production assistant and the performance.

After seeing this, investors and event coordinators have a better understanding of how much work goes into a performance or film. This year we started our enrichment program at East Lake Elementary. We are teaching arts based activities to their fifth graders. Arts programming in Hamilton County schools is becoming less of a priority. Children are the future and if we want this city to continue its path towards a thriving arts culture, we need to expose them to art.

Chattanooga has been bleeding artistic talent for decades because of the lack of opportunity. Pop-up has hired close to 100 artists in the past two years. Some have been hired multiple times for separate gigs and projects. That money has been filtered back into the community. These artists pay rent/mortgages, taxes, UTC tuition and are supporting local businesses in Chattanooga. 

Trend: Tell us about your background and what drew you to this career?

Pop-up: Jules Downum grew up in Whitwell, Tenn. and Mattie Waters in Lookout Mountain, Ga. We both met in high school but didn’t become close until our college years, where we realized we share the same passion for dance and theatre. After college, we moved to opposite coasts.

Jules went on to receive her master’s degree in applied anthropology from San Diego State University. She performed and toured with Urban Tribal Dance Company from 2009 to 2013 then moved back to Chattanooga.

Mattie went on to receive her BA Honors in Theatre Arts from the University of Manchester in London, England then moved to New York City to pursue an acting career. She toured and performed with the comedy improv company Chicago City Limits. She also co-produced a vaudeville show, Casino Badia, at a speakeasy in lower Manhattan for two years. After a West Coast tour in 2015 with Lady Goodnight and the Voodoo Lilies, Mattie moved back to Chattanooga. 

After both of us moved back, we realized we had to create our own opportunities and build an audience from scratch. We had to make our art as accessible as possible. So, we performed in found public spaces, filmed it and then released it on social media. Our first film as a fiscal nonprofit received over 10,000 views.

Once we became a nonprofit we had to get a board in place and solidify our vision and mission. Since then it feels like we have been moving at lightning speed. Ann Cater, our board president, has helped expedite the process immensely. The Chattanooga Theatre Centre has become a sponsor by giving us free space whenever we need it for a trade. Our community has been incredibly supportive. It really takes a village.

Trend: Is there anything else you’d like to let readers know?

Pop-up: Our first film of 2019, HOME, will be seen in the Chattanooga Airport, Passageways and at Nightfall for the month of May. This film tells the story of a refugee’s journey to resettlement in Chattanooga. We'll release it for free on social media in June. Please like and share our films. Sharing our films is one of the best ways to support our work if you are unable to give monetarily. 

Learn more about The Pop-up Project here. 

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