In Chattanooga, arts leaders in Asheville see model for greater impact

Chattanooga artists/ photo courtesy of http://EGG.GALLERY


Asheville arts leaders are looking to a Chattanooga nonprofit called ArtsBuild as a model for how arts organizations can have a greater impact on their communities.

Last month, dozens of local artists and arts organization leaders gathered at The Collider during the annual Creative Sector Summit to hear ArtsBuild’s Dan Bowers, talk about the history of Chattanooga’s renaissance, and how the arts have played an increasingly bigger role in that comeback. Bowers was introduced by Stephanie Moore, executive director of the Center for Craft, Creativity and Design in Asheville. The CCCD sponsored Bowers’ lecture, which I took as an indicator of how serious local arts organizations are about organizing something similar to ArtsBuild.

Bowers started by tracing a brief history of Chattanooga. The city grew up along the Tennessee River as a transportation and manufacturing hub that was dubbed the “Dynamo of Dixie” by 1950. Employment was plentiful and the cost of living was cheap, Bowers said. But just 19 years later, the big manufacturers started closing, the city suffered from regressive leadership and news anchor Walter Cronkite declared that Chattanooga had the dirties air of any city in the country. People drove with their headlights on during the day, Bowers said.

The 1980s arrived and the place started to pick up again, Bowers explained. A group of civic leaders created a group called Chattanooga Venture and a companion vision plan. That group decided what the city needed was an aquarium, and that’s the idea they pursued. Funded by a $12 million chunk of Jack Lupton’s Coca-Cola money, “Jack’s fish tank” started to become a reality.

Some $45 million of private money eventually built the Tennessee Aquarium, and Chattanooga was once again off to the races, Bowers said. Today, the city is home to a VW manufacturing plan, one-gig Internet service, a walkable downtown featuring arts and cultural offerings, a thriving waterfront and clean air, Bowers said.

ArtsBuild was established in 1969 to be a “United Way for the arts,” a clearinghouse for funding other arts organizations, Bowers said. Today, the nonprofit is a $2 million organization with a staff of six, a new location and 12 major cultural partners.

Recently, ArtsBuild went through a planning process with the goal of strengthening the region through creativity, arts and culture, Bowers said. The idea was to get people to think about the arts differently and recognize that arts play a crucial role in the local community and economy.

“We wanted to create a plan that answers the question: what can creativity, arts and culture do for greater Chattanooga?”

Isaac Duncan is a sculptor in Chattanooga/ photo courtesy of http://EGG.GALLERY

That planning work resulted in ArtsBuild prioritizing issues such as high-quality education, diversity, a vibrant economy, a high quality of life and a sustained downtown revitalization, Bowers said. The planning work broadened the organization’s definition of arts and culture, he said.

The adjustment has taken root in a variety of ways, Bowers said. ArtsBuild has:

-started a small grants program, through which it hands out $2,000 grants to inner city churches, social services organizations and others “to put arts where they aren’t normally found.

-worked to put a visual arts teacher in every elementary school; another program offers schools money to take entire classes to see a performance of The Nutcracker during the holiday season

-created a website called, which offers up high-quality photos and stories about the arts to editors and publications to use at their will

There have been other benefits to the shift, Bowers said, most notably that ArtsBuild gets invited to have a seat at tables not usually reserved for arts organizations. For example, when the Chattanooga Chamber of Commerce launched an economic development planning process, ArtsBuild had a seat, Bowers said.

What does that all mean for Asheville?

“That’s a question for y’all. I don’t feel like we have answers,” Bowers said. “We had a process, and evidently you all are thinking about something similar.”

Indeed, that appears to be the case. We’ll stay tuned for Asheville’s next steps.


1 Comment

Curious May 10, 2017 - 8:37 am

Does ArtsBuild sound like the good old United Arts Council model that Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and the North Carolina Arts Council has been espousing (and pioneering) for years? Does Stephanie Moore know about the work of Halsey North?

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