Ruth Holmberg, the 90-year-old former publisher of the Chattanooga Times and longtime arts patron, has given the Scenic City and Tennessee many gifts. But there is one present she cannot offer - eternal life.
Across America, a golden tide of arts funding lasting more than 50 years has ebbed. In most of Chattanooga's arts groups, seven of the top 10 donors are more than 70 years old, reports Pete Cooper, president of the Community Foundation, "and the 11th donor is only giving $2,000."
"Having an 'angel' (a single wealthy investor) sounds like a wonderful thing," observes Holmberg, "but when the angel disappears, there you are in the soup." Chattanooga's arts groups may, or
may not, tumble into the gumbo. If so, the city's leaders are planning to bail them out. Earlier this year, Holmberg and Unum Senior Vice President Tom White agreed to co-chair the steering committee for the Imagine Chattanooga 20/20 community plan. Since then, some 50 businessmen and women, arts patrons, artists, educators, civic leaders and politicians have met to brainstorm, debate and dream.
"There's a tremendous amount of community engagement - both the Hamilton County and Chattanooga mayors or their staffs are involved in the process, a lot of business leaders and community leaders are involved," explains White. "It lends a tremendous amount of credibility and elevates the whole process. That's important to ensure it's going to get the support and focus it needs."
This month, the group unveils its Web-based public forum, imaginechattanooga2020.org. Public meetings begin in October. "We want input," says White. "If the community, or the arts community, doesn't buy into the plan, it won't work."
A year and a half ago, Allied Arts hired consultant Tom Wolf - a professional flutist and partner in Wolf/Brown, based in Cambridge, Mass. - to facilitate a community plan. Grants from the Kresge Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga and the Benwood and Lyndhurst Foundations paid the firm's $200,000 - $250,000 fee.
Wolf/Brown's brief is to analyze operations and funding structures, conduct hundreds of interviews, facilitate dozens of meetings, prepare reports and offer advice. From Normal Park Museum Magnet School to the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera's rockin' Riverbend concerts, Wolf first applauded the Scenic City's cultural assets. "I was astonished. I had benchmarked Chattanooga with much larger communities."
But, like suckerfish hitching a ride, he adds, most area arts nonprofits are glued to a handful of hammerheads. "Early in the 20th century, Chattanooga was blessed with some very large wealth- large enough to sustain the arts for decades," says Wolf. In most communities, many arts groups develop diverse groups of funders. In tough times, a wide pool of donors helps these groups survive. Here, "too many arts organizations are far too dependent on too few sources of wealth," says Wolf.
Nationally, America "exploded" with arts funding in the last half of the 20th century. "During that time arts organizations could say 'how do we get bigger and better? And the funding was there.'" During boom times, he explains, arts organizations grow and explore, often creating ever-more rarified works for increasingly narrow audiences and donors. With a sort of seesaw physics, arts groups multiply and their energies fragment; artists become more adventurous and mass audiences lose interest.
Today, the economic downturn has forced even the country's most ardent culture vultures from the clouds of abstraction onto the hot, slick road to reality. But "Chattanooga's donor pool is dangerously thin - generous, but thin. Today, most arts groups are under capitalized. They are literally living hand-to-mouth."
So in Chattanooga, as in other United States communities, arts groups are flipping the mantra: "Instead of asking what communities can do for the arts," says Wolf, "we're asking what the arts can do for the community."
So early in the process, neither Wolf nor the steering committee have drafted a set of solutions. A few ideas they say have gained traction include boosting the appeal of the arts to a wider and more diverse audience; reaching out to newcomers and others who have been overlooked to broaden the audience and donor bases; and bolstering collaboration and resource-sharing among arts organizations, for example, creating a "one-stop" website for ticket purchases and events listings, similar to NowPlayingNashville.com.
"We do need to broaden the base, and it's happening. More and more young people are getting involved," says Holmberg. "One strategy is to give them something to do - put them on boards, recruit them for money-raising events and make it fun. If it isn't fun it isn't fun to do. It also should be broader than just Allied Arts. There's a political part to this too, the public sector has to be behind this and I would hope they are because a lot of what needs to be done needs to be done with federal, state or local funding and local recognition that the arts have value."
The group also hopes to design a palette of new educational programs. In Hamilton County, as in many cities, sports and arts programs are often cut when belts tighten. "That's one of the stupidest things you can do," says White, "because you're not investing in the overall well-being of a student."
Arts training will be more important than ever in future generations, explains Allied Arts communication director Rodney Van Valkenburg. In the 21st century, even factory work requires independent ideas. "To work in a place like Volkswagen, children can't just fill in bubbles to pass tests - they have to be able to solve problems creatively and learn collaboratively."
Do words have power? Chattanoogans believe so. Unlike most of the 200-plus towns he's visited, says Wolf, the Scenic City enjoys a long, healthy palaver. "You guys want to talk - that's the Chattanooga way."
Twenty-two years ago, Allied Arts facilitated the New Visions '90s cultural plan. From that document emerged artists in public schools, a one-percent set aside for art on the waterfront in Mayor Bob Corker's $21 million revitalization program, and the city's re-engineering of the Main and Market streets area as a thriving arts-based neighborhood.
During this round, the challenges seem more urgent. "People are in financial distress at almost every level," says Cooper. "We've got to make some hard decisions." And, while a recession might seem an odd time to drop a quarter-million on a paper plan, Imagine Chattanooga 20/20 gurus say it's a crafty move.
"I'm not one to shy away from making an investment if there's a bigger payoff down the road," says White. "Art is the illusion of a loftier reality," Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote. But reality becomes loftier sometimes because of our illusions. Ideas thrown into the air at a public meeting became the 10-mile Riverwalk, the renovated Tivoli Theatre, a breathtaking Rigoletto production, the Loose Cannon gallery, a set of lithe statues by resident Daud Akhriev on the Market Street Bridge, the pantheon of odd but sometimes inspirational sculptures on the waterfront, and, of course, the Tennessee Aquarium.
"I've lived here 30 years; I hope to live here 30 more," says White. "When you think of all the changes that have gone on in Chattanooga during that period of time, the arts have played a big part in it. I hate to see that be curtailed or slowed down. I think we have a wonderful future here economically and I'd like to see the arts and the whole cultural aspect of life be a continuing part of that."
Despite a long list of challenges - under-funded public school art programs, a narrow and shrinking donor base, sketchy connections to young, non-wealthy artists and audiences - Imagine Chattanooga 20/20's planners feel buoyant. People do not live forever - but their hopes and dreams do. "This is a peak time for the arts," decides Holmberg. Talented artists are moving in, new galleries are opening, key institutions such as the Hunter Museum of American Art and the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera are achieving financial stability and reaching more diverse audiences with new programs. "Everybody has trouble raising money these days, but it's nothing to be upset about. We've got a good story to tell. We just need to get it out there," she explains.