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The ACE Forum

  The Top 10 Things Knoxville's Arts Scene Needs

Knoxville's arts community is fine. What can be done to make it even better?

by Matthew T. Everett

Less than a mile from downtown Knoxville, in a desolate, isolated warehouse district lined by industrial buildings and parking lots enclosed in chain link fences, an elegant green-and-white striped awning hangs over the sidewalk on Depot Street, announcing the unlikely presence of the Knoxville Opera Company. It seems out of place in this bleak, lonely spot, an oasis of gentility in a desert of concrete and cracked asphalt.

The company moved from a small office on Gay Street to this out-of-the-way spot in 1996 as a compromise between its need for both a centrally-located office and a large, permanent rehearsal space. "There's a feeling that we should be downtown in the core business district," says Susan A. Arp, director of development and administration for the Knoxville Opera Company. "But rehearsal space is important to us. It's a key to our business, too."

Before the move, the opera company rented rehearsal space in churches and high schools—"whatever we could find that was available for a two-week period, three or four times a year," Arp says—but now lacks a vibrant, day-to-day presence downtown.

That compromise over the KOC's location highlights a sense of insecurity within the local arts community. While the city is fortunate enough to have several large, well-established arts groups, such as the opera company, the Knoxville Museum of Art, and the Knoxville Symphony, as well as a collection of smaller ones and independent artists, there's a feeling among many members of the arts community that the arts are only an afterthought to the city's cultural life, which seems to be dominated by college football and suburban multiplexes. The symphony and ballet have both suffered from declining ticket sales in recent years, and smaller fringe organizations are constantly on the verge of being snuffed out by production costs and a lack of attention.

A study released in February by the Boston-based consultants Wolf, Keens & Company, commissioned for $150,000 by the East Tennessee Foundation, recommended the formation of a new umbrella service organization—perhaps a restructuring of the currently-on-hiatus Arts Council of Greater Knoxville—to market local art events and to facilitate funding for local arts groups. Whether the new service organization will indeed bolster the arts scene is yet to be seen. But local artists and organizers are convinced that Knoxville is at a crucial juncture.

The malaise that prompted the study may continue into an even greater slide if the arts community can't manage to raise its profile, expand its base of supporters, and create an energetic, vibrant, and creative arts scene.

"Knoxville could be on the brink, at a critical point," says Dr. Norman Magden, head of the University of Tennessee's art department. "If something doesn't happen, the future may be less than beautiful."

With the planned implementation of the Arts, Culture, and Entertainment (ACE) study submitted by Wolf, Keens & Company being shifted from one committee to another, any major reorganization of the arts community may not happen for some time. In the meantime, however, plenty of other things could improve the vitality of the local arts scene.

1. Money

Money is a perpetual problem for most arts groups, big and small, traditional and experimental, in cities throughout the country. Ticket sales and admission prices simply don't cover the costs of staging a ballet or opera or for the acquisition of paintings and sculpture for display in a museum or gallery, so arts groups instead rely on private donations and government support. Even in the current boom economy, those groups compete against each other for a limited amount of money, much of it coming from the same small core of dedicated, usually wealthy, donors.

"There's the ongoing problem of funding, of finding enough money to make yourself viable in the community," says Judy Lane Robinson, managing director of the Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble. "There's only so much money out there, and everyone's in line for the same money."

A few years ago, with the Knoxville Museum of Art teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the Knoxville Symphony suffered a $150,000 deficit due, at least in part, to a sudden drop in donations. Much of that money had instead been diverted to the KMA through a massive private bailout. That effort saved the museum, which now operates with a balanced $2 million budget each year, but it indicates the fragility of the small network of private supporters that, to a great extent, keep the local arts afloat.

KMA's support base has broadened since the bailout, according to museum president Richard Ferrin. In 1993, a handful of donors accounted for 40 percent of the KMA's annual budget. Now, those same donors give less than 10 percent. The 4,000 members of the museum, who donate as little as $40 a year for unlimited admission and discounts, now account for the majority of the KMA's funding. Part of the apparent strategy behind the museum's growth, however, has been hosting popular, patron-friendly exhibits such as the ongoing display of prints and illustrations by M.C. Escher, rather than challenging, cutting-edge contemporary art.

"I think that's one of the problems, because Knoxville is a small city, and it has small-town thinking, an attitude of not trying new things... We haven't moved into a more metropolitan way of thinking," says Diane Hanson, owner of Hanson Gallery on Kingston Pike, which for 13 years has operated completely on its revenue from gallery sales. Hanson concedes that her gallery would be far different if she were subsidized with other sources. "We could certainly offer a different product," she says. "There are downsides to [being self-sufficient]. We've had to adjust from the type of gallery my husband and I would like to have."

For smaller arts groups, financial support from private donors, ticket sales, and the local government is hard to come by. The experimental A-1/Lab Art Space, once a vital presenter of contemporary local art, lost its donated space on Gay Street more than a year ago, and has struggled since then to find a suitable—and affordable—location.

"I think the arts have to find their own way," says Amy Hubbard, artistic director of the Actors Co-op performance troupe. "It would be great if the city became more involved. I'm researching grants that would help us to be more stable and grow financially, but one thing I've found out is that there are hardly any in Knoxville. There are lots in towns like Chattanooga, Nashville, and Memphis, but there are only two or three in Knoxville."

The Actors Co-op operates on a slim annual budget of less than $40,000. Much of that money comes from private donations, but ticket sales and local grants from the East Tennessee Foundation and the Arts Council also support the group's productions. But even with financial support, the Actors Co-op must be cautious with every penny. The group was forced to cancel an April performance of Hit or Miss, part of the company's New Play Festival, when no one showed up to see the play at the Jackson Avenue Antique Market. David Alley, director of special projects for the Actors Co-op, as well as an actor and director for the troupe, says the usual promotion for the company's plays—word of mouth—didn't work for Hit or Miss. "When word gets out it's easy to fill seats," he says. "But it was a new play."

The city does contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars a year: $275,000, about 0.2 percent of the city's total budget for this fiscal year, is designated for direct grants to the Arts Council, the Bijou and Tennessee theaters, the City Ballet, KMA, KSO, KOC, and the Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble. The city also supports the Candy Factory at the World's Fair site through the parks and recreation department, and individual City Council members fund the arts through their community improvement funds; Knox County provides $144,575 to arts agencies as well. But Knoxville's arts expenditures don't compare favorably to Chattanooga's $418,000 for arts funding this year, out of a smaller total budget of $132 million, even though Knoxville's larger arts organizations are better-funded overall—KSO had a budget of $3.2 million this year, compared to the Chattanooga Symphony's budget of $1.8 million. But city spending is still little help for Hubbard or others involved with smaller groups, or for independent artists.

"What I would like to see is for the private sector to become more involved in the arts so it's not necessarily a government issue," says Hubbard. "Artists make the mistake of assuming that people want to support them, instead of showing them why they should support them."

2. Space

Knoxville's performing arts revolve around the Tennessee Theatre, the Knoxville Civic Auditorium, the Bijou Theater, and Clarence Brown Theatre, as well as a scattering of eclectic spots like the Jackson Avenue Antique Market and Theatre Central's small location on Gay Street. But rehearsal space is always at a premium, as the opera company well knows, and space for other groups with limited funding is even more problematic.

The cost of prime, downtown real estate is prohibitive for independent artists, and even the larger groups often have difficulty finding appropriate, affordable rehearsal space or room for exhibits.

Magden argues that a central, public arts center, funded at least in part by the city, with space available at less-than-market cost, is the single greatest need for the local arts scene.

"The one thing that's needed is a place for artists to work," he says. "I'm thinking of something that several cities have done, where we lease one of our large buildings that's of no use to anyone else, for studios and a[n] ... arts center. It would signify by the city that there is some importance for the arts, and that the arts play an important role in establishing cultural significance. The city has to play a role. They have the power and the space."

In addition to providing artists with wholesale-priced space, an arts center would also increase the visibility of many smaller arts groups and allow for cooperation with, perhaps, a central office for the umbrella service organization proposed by the ACE study. Promotion and marketing of a loose coalition of local arts groups could be handled from the office, and a financial office could offer access to grant and funding information.

The likelihood of a publicly-funded arts center like the one Magden imagines is slim, especially when the current city budget is dedicated to construction of a new convention center. But the lack of such a space in the city's plans, when the convention center is intended to invigorate downtown, reflects the level of the city's commitment to the fine arts as a natural element of a vital city. Even with the soon-to-be-vacated KUB building on Gay Street available and the Knoxville News-Sentinel building on Church Street scheduled to be open when the paper moves in 2002, the city has no current plans for redeveloping any downtown space as an arts center.

"It's not something we're looking at right now," says Mayor Victor Ashe. "But that's because of financial reasons, not because we're opposed to the idea. It hasn't been proposed to me."

3. Creative support

Magden's envisioned arts center, made available through city funding, also highlights the way that cities and private donors can support the arts without simply handing over checks or facilitating grant money. Another method that arts organizers endorse is using public money for public art.

"It would be a tremendous thing if the city could do what a number of other cities, like Charlotte and Chattanooga, have done and have a certain percentage of new construction money, say, 1 percent, dedicated to public art," says KMA president Ferrin. "Then you're beginning to create an appreciation for art. Whether it's wonderful or not, it's good for the artistic development of the area."

There is a smattering of public sculpture in and around downtown—the rowboat on the corner of Gay Street and Church, the treble clef-shaped country music monument on Summit Hill, and the Alex Haley statue at Morningside Park—but those few pieces have been put up over the span of several years, and, while they're all in the central city, they're scattered, not located in a cohesive pattern that might encourage public exposure to art.

Private and corporate support can be creative, too. The Arts Council and the Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble offered ticket subsidies to area school children last year for a series of performances at the Tennessee Theatre. Tomato Head and Lula have rotating art exhibits on Market Square, and TVA offers a painting gallery in one of its buildings during the Dogwood Arts Festival.

But those efforts, like the public art works that Ferrin describes, are rare. As it is, the city simply hands out grant money to fund the largest, most expensive art agencies in town, and the rest are left to scramble for their own funding.

4. New audiences

In an effort to bring in new audiences, the Knoxville Opera Company offers at least one production during each season that they haven't done before. Last year the company did a production of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta The Pirates of Penzance, and this fall will stage another Gilbert and Sullivan production, H.M.S. Pinafore. But the company is always mindful that, when staging shows they haven't produced before, they must walk a tightrope between drawing in younger audiences who aren't familiar with traditional opera and still maintaining the support of longtime opera-goers who want to see Verdi and Puccini.

"We have to find a balance," Arp says, adding that the opera company routinely offers discounts to students and non-subscribers to attract new audiences. "Subscribers also like to see new works, but when we did our first Wagner last year our goal was only to sell 50 percent of the house."

Robinson, the director of the Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble, says that the ensemble is fortunate to have a small group of dedicated supporters, but acknowledges that the air of elitism that surrounds the fine arts is an obstacle in reaching new audiences. "It's a challenge to reach out to people who can't afford to buy tickets," she says. "This may be the very thing that changes someone's life. It's very important to include every single person in the community, regardless of their income."

But bringing in those audiences is hard. Most arts groups can't afford to subsidize ticket-buyers, and those audiences are less likely than traditional art-goers to come to performances, even at reduced costs.

"The arts are important to the nurturing of the soul," Robinson says. "But there are a lot of things—food on the table, gas in the car—that take precedence over an aesthetic experience."

5. Increased awareness

What an arts center, art in public spaces, and new, young, non-traditional audiences would provide is an increased awareness, not only of the traditional arts providers like the symphony and ballet, but of smaller fringe groups like Circle Modern Dance and the Actors Co-op. And more awareness could create a critical mass of private support to allow some of those providers to create and perform works that are fresh and challenging.

"The question is how to create that embedding of the arts into the culture," says Ferrin. "It's a lifelong, multi-generational struggle. But once you do that, people start saying, 'I understand why we have the arts. They're essential.' But it's still a fairly new concept in East Tennessee."

That's what's happened in Chattanooga, where the area surrounding the old Hunter Museum has been transformed, through private funding, into a chic arts district, with boutiques, restaurants, and several sculpture gardens. And Frazier Avenue, a once-decrepit part of downtown Chattanooga, has been enlivened with city-funded sidewalk sculpture.

But looking to other cities is only part of the answer to creating a downtown arts presence in Knoxville. For Brent Cantrell, executive director of Jubilee Community Arts, which hosts traditional and folk music performances at the Laurel Theatre, the city's own identity is a key to the success of its arts community.

"Our mission is presenting and preserving the arts of the Appalachians," he says. "Knoxville is a working-class town, and that's had a role in the development of traditional arts... I look for us not to get too far from our raisin'."

6. Cooperation

Because funding is so competitive, arts organizers tend to be competitive, too, and even territorial. "Everybody is so concerned with their own group, the museum or the opera or the ballet or whatever," says Dr. Gene McCutchen, coordinator of UT's dance program. "In some cases there is some cooperation, but they don't see it as one venture of the arts."

There is considerable collaboration, particularly among the larger groups. The KSO, for example, performs frequently with the opera company, the City Ballet, and the Tennessee Children's Dance Ensemble, and recently collaborated with Clarence Brown Theatre on a musical production of Hamlet. On the business side, the KSO has proposed a downtown ticket store, which would be available for all local arts groups as a central box office.

If arts groups collaborated more often, McCutchen says, or worked harder to bring the traditional fine arts and newer, less-mainstream groups together, the entire community could be strengthened.

"We're territorial," McCutchen says. "It's easier, of course, to take care of your own. But when you do a cooperative performance, everybody benefits. You might bring in people who have never heard [a particular group] perform, and they might be encouraged to participate in other performances."

7. A livelier downtown

Part of the focus of the ACE study was on the designation of an arts and culture district in a broadly-conceived downtown Knoxville, encompassing the central city to include downtown, the Old City, KMA, and the riverfront. With the $161 million convention center near the World's Fair Park proposed by the city and plans for a massive redevelopment effort downtown, the opportunity for increased arts funding and participation seems ripe.

"It will have a huge impact, because that's where we have synergy," says Arp, pointing to plans for a walkway to connect downtown with the convention center and World's Fair Park. "If there are other things going on, if the whole private development walkway were there, it would impact people's mindset about coming downtown."

But the thrust of the downtown plan appears to be shopping, dining, and attractions like a wintergarden, movie theater, and enclosed public square. Those elements may lead to a "synergistic" revival of downtown, but in other cities, such as Chattanooga, downtown revitalization was made in conjunction with the development of public art and a conscious attempt by private developers to create an arts district. Whether the Knoxville plan, with a focus on a broader sense of "culture," will necessarily entail the same kind of public invigoration remains to be seen.

8. Support for small arts groups and independent artists

According to Magden, support for smaller, non-traditional arts groups and independent artists is essential for the vitality of any arts community. "You have to somehow support the large number of smaller organizations and the large number of independent artists," he says. "The health of the community depends on them. Without them, the depth is very shallow. How you get that support is one of the major issues."

For a few of those groups, the current climate is fine. "I think the arts are in pretty good shape," says Cantrell, whose Jubilee Community Arts draws good crowds to regular performances of traditional and sometimes offbeat folk music at the Laurel Theater. "When you're too terribly organized, the traditional arts are usually dropped out."

But Jubilee is a thriving, traditional, folk-art organization with a well-defined mission and an audience that's slightly different from the usual arts supporters.

"I've always known we'd be outside the mainstream," Cantrell says. "Every once in a while traditional music becomes the rage, but it's never going to be in the bestseller category. What makes bestsellers more and more is that, in order to be everything to everybody, you have to accept a certain level of mediocrity. But the best in any art form is not to everyone's taste. The really extraordinary, interesting things will never be ready for prime time."

9. A restructured Arts Council

Despite the vague notions that have come from committee meetings this spring about the exact role of the service organization proposed by the ACE study, local organizers agree that some sort of umbrella group is needed to represent the arts community. "A lot of things can come through a united, organized voice. There's power in community," says Magden.

Even Cantrell, of Jubilee Community Arts, who is generally leery of organization, thinks some sort of representation in city and county government could help the arts community. "It would be good to have somebody around to give voice to the artists and presenters, either to the city or County Commission, who would have an obligation to the public."

Cantrell suggests an appointed board, with a full-time director, "to be sort of an advocate for the arts whenever a situation came up, or to keep the arts on the table. That's the greatest thing that could happen."

Since the Arts Council is on a seeming hiatus, this is a good time for reorganization, says Anallee Bohon, director of KMA's public programs and development. "The focus of the report was to bring the Arts Council back to its original form as a support organization for the arts," Bohon says. "But that hasn't happened yet."

When that may happen isn't clear, however. At a meeting last week, members of the steering committee formed to implement the study appointed yet another committee to oversee the restructuring of the Arts Council. The new committee, headed by Jenny Hines, is expected to appoint a new board, which would then select a new director. But the precise role of the new organization hasn't been designated, and while many in the arts community look to the proposal optimistically, many also have reservations.

"Nobody wants to give up being independent," says Robinson. "We all benefit from having high standards of excellence and the promotion of what is excellent in art. But who decides what's excellent and what's not?"

Arp predicts that the new umbrella organization could streamline the business side of the arts, offering promotional and financial services to small, financially-strapped groups.

But Cantrell worries about how those services—and the Arts Council's money—will be distributed. "I don't have the time or the money for a development director. It takes time and expertise," he says. "The question is how the money is disbursed and how equitable the disbursement is. That has a chance to get out of hand in some towns, and only the 'in' groups get funding."

At the same time, the larger, traditional organizations risk losing funding if Arts Council support is broadened and more money is given to Jubilee or the Actors Co-op or the other small groups that operate in the city.

10. Self-reflection

Exactly what is the role of the arts in the life of a city? Will the city's arts community ever be regarded as an essential part of the fabric of local culture, as Ferrin hopes? Or will "shoppertainment" and football continue to take precedence in Knoxville over dance, painting, and music? And what role can the arts community take in its own revitalization?

"Many people don't recognize there's a need. We have to create a need for them," says Amy Hubbard. "If you're excited about your work and your company and the things you're doing, people catch on to that excitement. Your excitement makes us excited."

But how do you convince people, with a limited marketing budget, that the arts can be a significant part of public life? The Arts Council can help, but promotion may not be the real secret. It may take, as Ferrin says, a far-reaching effort to establish the arts and to take advantage of the cultural history that East Tennessee has.

"The trick is to recognize who you are to begin with and admit it," says Cantrell. "If we're a bunch of hillbillies, we need to admit it and not pretend we lived in the big house. People are more sophisticated than we think, and we need to give them information, and not let things fall by the wayside. If you want people who are attracted to fake Swiss chalets, you'll get those folks... We don't need a fantasy of what we think living here is like. If we like it, everybody else will like it, too."

May 11, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 19
© 2000 Metro Pulse