Anne Willson arrived in Chattanooga about a year ago to serve as executive director of the Association for Visual Arts. Having lived in North Carolina all of her life and been an artist/arts administrator for 25 years, she found some pleasant surprises when she moved here.
"Chattanooga has a much higher energy level than where I lived before, and the arts are experienced on so many different levels," she said.
Also, Willson pointed out that there are a large number of artists/entrepreneurs who have taken charge of their own careers in Chattanooga.
"When I began working in the arts in the mid-1980s, art took place within the gallery system," she said. "Now it is much more democratized with artists selling their own work through the Internet and other venues."
With AVA having just celebrated its 25th anniversary and grown to a membership of more than 500, the challenge is how to stay relevant in the changing sector.
Willson says she has purposely tried not to do too much during the past year and just observe how things unfolded -- how funding evolves, how exhibits happen, who the corporate sponsors are, who comes in and out of the gallery.
There are multiple levels of AVA and multiple constituents, she explained. Learning how all the various "pieces" of AVA fit together has been her goal for 2011.
Looking toward the future, there are a number of ideas and programs about which Willson is excited. One of these is utilizing local artists in community arts projects.
"My heart is really in community arts," she said. "Artwork that comes from the community and is about the community is important to me."
She points to the collaboration last spring with Faces, the Craniofacial Foundation of Chattanooga. Anyone in the community could pick up several blank mask forms and turn them into works of art that were auctioned at a fundraiser for Faces.
"I loved that event because it brought nonartists together with professional artists and gave everyone an opportunity to express their creativity," she said.
This collaboration supports the shift in AVA's new mission statement that will include the concept of connecting arts with the community.
Another goal is to show art as a viable profession. Art was initially founded in the patronage system and considered a charity, said Willson.
"People continue to expect artists to donate their work as if it's not a real profession and just something fun to do," she said. "We pay our artists for their work at AVA, and I want to move art out of that charity context."
Arts education in the public schools is another area about which Willson is passionate. She explained that art is one of the components of a healthy society and that making art teaches a person how to respond creatively and expansively.
The Real Stories documentary program at AVA gives students in grades 9-12 a chance to select a subject, create stories based on their own life experiences, film and narrate the topic. Willson said one group of students made a documentary on how people judge others based on their hairstyles. The results were fascinating.
Beginning in January, AVA will have a new arts magazine called The Bridge. Some copies will be printed, but everyone can download it online. The bimonthly periodical will showcase a specific artist, as well as inform AVA members about what's happening with the organization, exhibition opportunities, available workshops and any art-related events in Chattanooga.
Willson is the sixth director of AVA and is looking forward to implementing some of her new programs and ideas. Most important, however, is her desire to support and advance local artists in their endeavors.
"Chattanooga does value the arts, and it's a joy to be here," she said.
Email Ann Nichols at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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