Road Trippin’ – C4 Atlanta visits arts groups in Chattanooga, TN

Last Monday ( June 20th), Dorian McDuffie, Joe Winter and I took a little road trip up to our sister city of Chattanooga. After some crazy traffic and a flat tire, we met up with Enoch Elwell from Co. Lab. Actually, Enoch and Jonathan picked us up. Yep. Flat tire. Just a side note here: it helps to store an air compressor in your vehicle. It got us down the road to a tire shop.

Co.Lab exists to help start-ups and entrepreneurs go “from idea to business.” Very cool. I am very impressed with the number of success stories. The evidence is all up and down Main Street, Chattanooga. Enoch gave us a Main Street tour and told us about the history of the Spring Board Program, originally created under the CreateHere initiative. C4 Atlanta has a particular interest in the Spring Board Program…more on that later.

CreateHere, Chattanooga, TN
CreateHere, Chattanooga, TN

CreateHere came into existence to  positively impact the city’s creative economy, but CreateHere also has a timeline of five years to make Chattanooga a better place to live, invest and thrive. In December 2011, CreateHere ends. Don’t be scared! Many of the programs created under the CreateHere Umbrella will be stewarded by other organizations. Co.Lab will be taking on the Spring Board Program.

CreateHere is a community initiative. It’s about nonprofits, individuals and anyone interested in a better Chattanooga working together. As I listened to all of the amazing programs that were spun out of CreateHere, I thought of organizations in Atlanta that could work together to impact the region’s creative community. It is not a task C4 Atlanta can accomplish alone. To affect major change within a city’s arts community requires major grassroots energy combined with “learned-lessons” and accomplishments of higher level arts agencies. It takes checking egos at the door and helping the next generation of leaders step up to the challenges ahead. “Wait-and-see” attitudes stifle innovation and action. The time to act is now. By demonstrating value and yielding results, young organizations will prove they can deliver. That seemed to be a theme in Chattanooga. Identify a problem, create a solution, and yield measurable impact. Rinse. Repeat.

Bijan Dhanani (CreateHere) met with us very briefly over Mexican food (I had a very good burrito). Bijan is a senior fellow and headed up Spring Board, and then shifted his focus to Stand. Stand was a survey program to gather info from the community about areas of importance to the Chattanooga community. From the CreateHere website:

As of September 30, 2009, Stand had closed the survey phase of our efforts with 26,623 responses. After months of analysis and coding, the Ochs Center publicly released the results of the survey on April 12, 2010. CreateHere is just one of the organizations partnering to produce meaningful dialogue and action based off of this data pool, and the spirit of civic renewal it has embodied. Create Here Project - Art Change

In our brief stint with Bijan, we talked about decreasing crime in blighted areas by using an arts platform. Obviously, crime is a hot topic for many city dwellers. It is hard to know where to go with a program until you know were you stand (pun kinda intended). If you spend anytime with me, you know that I am somewhat obsessed with data collection…actually, that is not true. I am obsessed with action. But we must understand potential energy before we can make it kinetic.

The above was the first part of our day. We had more people to meet…

Linda Bennett is awesome! Joe and I met Linda this last May at the Georgia Assembly of Community Arts Agencies annual conference. Linda is the Executive Director of Choose Chattanooga and a native Chattanoogan. She loves her city and is a huge proponent of the arts–scratch that. Linda is a champion of the arts. Our adventure in Chattanooga began with Linda. She connected us with several different organizations and arranged all the meetings. She even chauffeured me to pick up my car from the tire shop and bought me an iced coffee. All of the people with whom we met epitomized hospitality, southern or otherwise.

Our first stop with Linda was to visit with Karen Rudolph, Program Officer of the Lynhurst Foundation. Karen just returned from a vacation, but she still took time out of her day to speak with strangers from Atlanta. I am sure her email inbox was busting at the seams. Karen spoke about the funding history of many of the programs we learned about earlier that day. She gave us some sage advice about how to approach and engage a family foundation. Karen supports the arts. Major changes will be taken place at the foundation over the next year. Without going into too much detail, it will be interesting to see how these changes affect funding opportunities for the area’s arts and cultural groups.

…and on to the next meeting…

We sat down with Dan Bowers and Marilyn Harrison of Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga. Allied Arts is a private nonprofit that re-grants, provides leadership training, arts education outreach and the original developer of ArtsMoves (moved under the CreateHere umbrella in 2007 and is now under the Choose Chattanooga scope of services). The initial phase of ArtsMoves included a forgivable mortgage, then a moving expense reimbursement program. Now, as the funding cycle is coming to an end, the program continues to work with ArtsMove artists, now at 30 members. Choose Chattanooga seeks ways to continue to support and nurture the artists.

Dan and Marilyn have seen many successes throughout their days with Allied Arts; unfortunately, like many arts organizations in today’s economy (beginning to despise that phrase) they face financial challenges. A non-responsive government only adds to the frustration. We (the arts community) are having to make the economic case over and over again to support our existence. I am not sure this argument always holds water. The measurement of dollars doesn’t put together the entire puzzle. Whenever I hear, “we need to focus on roads, public safety and water” I imagine a grey city with no life. A community of people slinking around and drooling. I think of another country. Yes, I think roads, public safety and water are very important. But I did not move to the city of Atlanta because I really admire the new pavement or the crisp water that pours through my pipes. I came to this community because I can take my children to the zoo, local puppetry center, museum or theatre venue without traveling a hundred miles. I digress…

One last stop – COFFEE!

After I picked up the mom-van with four new travel-safe tires, the gang and I sat around coffee (iced coffee) with Emerson Burch. Emerson is a 21st-century Renaissance man. Loaded with technical gadgets and enthusiasm, Emerson told us about how he works with artists to create sustainable businesses. He is a connector and entrepreneur. He knows the business side of the arts. He identifies talented artists and helps them to build the foundation of a successful business. We talked about managing expectations too. An artist must know his/her market and fair valuation of the product he/she wishes to bring to that market. Mentor programs are popping up in the Atlanta region. I think that is fantastic. I would encourage those programs to not only focus on the aesthetic development of artists. Partnerships like the ones that exist in Chattanooga could help fill in education gaps for artists in Atlanta.

What did we learn?

  • It takes pride…but it also means we take risks. Not willy-nilly risks, but dare to be successful. Even if you fail the first time, you fail toward a goal.
  • We learned that collaboration is key.
  • Legacy organizations sometimes fail to be agile and they tend to hold on to programs long after those programs cease to serve the community.
  • Have audacious goals.
  • Know that not everyone will embrace your ideas, but produce results and say “please” and “thank you.” Nay-sayers will come around. And if they don’t, they will be become irrelevant.
  • Share ideas. Seriously. If you truly believe in your mission, you will want to share.

I look forward to continue sharing ideas with our friends in our community and communities across the country. It is amazing (and validating) to think that a group slightly to our north is offering a similar training course to our Entrepreneurship in the Arts seminar. In fact, I hope to reproduce some of the SpringBoard content for the Atlanta region. We are also happy to share back. I have seen first had the impact of such a program five years into its run. Very exciting for us at C4 Atlanta! Time to get to work!

Thank you Chattanooga!

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