Chattanooga's art scene has exploded over the past decade, but until recently there hasn't been a local resource providing a comprehensive overview for visitors and residents.
Local transplant Libby Santin is helping to fill that void with the opening of New South Tours, offering three-hour art tours two Saturdays a month that include stops at galleries, public art installations and artists' studios throughout the downtown area.
"When visiting other cities, I like to go to museums and learn the backstories and details from someone who lives there," says Santin, who was inspired to start New South Tour Co. after visiting New York City earlier this year, when she went on a walking tour of art galleries in the Chelsea neighborhood.
She was already active in Chattanooga's entrepreneurial community — Santin and her husband own Dynamic Displays & Graphics and she teaches entrepreneurship at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and volunteers at The Company Lab. So she decided to grow the idea into a side business, forming connections with gallery owners and working artists, who serve as stops on the tours. "It exploded after making the first couple of calls," she says of interest among the local arts community.
Limited to a handful of participants, Santin's tours feel more like being escorted by a private guide to exclusive experiences, rather than a traditional tour.
The tours are different each time, changing every month along with galleries' shows and current art events in town, as well as which artists are available for demonstrations. For example, when she first started the tours in September, stops included artist Wayne White's "Wayne-O-Rama" exhibit on the Southside, which closed at the end of that month.
"I make it so locals can come back at another time of year and see completely different things," Santin says.
All tours begin outside the Hunter Museum of American Art, where participants take in-depth looks at a few of the sculptures as well as the museum's architecture. I joined a late-November tour that also included a visit to nearby River Gallery, which highlighted Tennessee artist Cynthia Tollefsrud's circus-inspired oil paintings and Jim Kransberger's clay sculptures. Santin, who met the artists at the exhibit's opening reception, shared tidbits about the artists' personalities and inspiration behind some of the works.
From there we were transported via UberXL to Chattanooga WorkSpace to visit the studio of Kevin Bate, a local artist known for his murals on buildings around town. We got to watch as he worked on a commission to be installed at a local hotel. Before leaving the co-op space, we also visited the studio of Hollie Berry, who demonstrated her method of using a torch to "paint" untreated plywood.
Our waiting Uber driver then ferried us to our next stop: Revival, where we examined works by Addie Chapin, a former employee of the store. We walked the few blocks to Artists on the Loose, where Leah True Salerno explained how she overcame her impression of herself as someone who wasn't an artist, and her husband, David Salerno, demonstrated his process of landscape painting. The tour concluded at Gallery 1401, where we checked out Thomas Arvid's wine paintings, works by local artists like Carylon Killebrew and Liz Nichols, and a painting by Santin's father, Massachusetts artist H. Wesley Wheeler.
Whether you're a lifelong Chattanoogan looking to get plugged into the local art scene and meet like-minded folks, or just visiting the city and looking to delve deeper into some of the public art pieces you've seen on the streets, Santin's tour will give you an insider's guide to the creative side of the Scenic City.
To learn more about New South Tour Company or to reserve a spot, which costs $45, visit newsouthtourco.com.
Editor's note: This story previously appeared in Chatter magazine.