Two couples whose contributions have gained them notice as Chattanooga "Arts Builders" have been recognized with ArtsBuild's 2022 Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award. Sharing the honor are Hacker and Kitty Caldwell and Charlie and Iantha Newton.
The Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to the arts in Chattanooga and who are actively engaged in the cultural life of the community, exemplifying ArtsBuild's mission to build a stronger community through the arts. ArtsBuild is a nonprofit organization that raises funds and awareness for arts organizations in Hamilton County.
"We are delighted to honor these two couples for their incredible dedication, passion and support for the arts," ArtsBuild President James McKissic said in a news release. "Each in their own way, these inspiring Arts Builders have positively impacted the lives of many people in Chattanooga through the arts and have elevated the arts in a way that builds pride in our city and makes our community stronger."
Holmberg was the first recipient of the Arts Leadership Award in 2014, and it was subsequently named in her honor to recognize the extraordinary support of the arts and cultural community she gave over 70 years. Past recipients also include Mai Bell Hurley, Fletcher Bright, Sonia Young, Booker T. Scruggs II, Alice L. Smith, Warren Barnett, Candy Kruesi, Ann Law and Mitch Patel.
"It is our hope that this annual award honors individuals who share the same spirit and passion for the arts as Ruth did," said Marcus McKamey, board chair of ArtsBuild. "Recipients of the Ruth Holmberg Arts Leadership Award have given selflessly of their time, energy and resources to building a stronger community through the arts."
Hacker and Kitty Caldwell have been engaged in the civic and cultural life of Chattanooga for decades. After completing his MBA at the University of Virginia, Hacker returned to his hometown of Chattanooga to work for the appliance manufacturing company his great-grandfather started in 1904, originally named Tennessee Stove Works and then Modern Maid in the 1960s. When the company was sold and production moved to South Carolina, Hacker turned to a long career and successful business managing hedge funds.
Originally from Virginia, Kitty joined Hacker in Chattanooga in the late 1970s after they were married. Having studied American art history in college, she immediately began volunteering as a docent at the Hunter Museum of American Art. She also has served on the Hunter Museum's board of trustees. One of her contributions has been to initiate the Chairman's Circle program of the museum, whose members provide vital support to the museum.
Both have had roles in the transformation of the Hunter Museum becoming the institution it is today. During Hacker's tenure as board chair, the museum embarked on the $22 million 21st-century waterfront building project to add 28,000 square feet of new construction, 34,000 square feet of renovation, restoration of the 1905 mansion, the creation of an outdoor sculpture plaza and a complete reinstallation of the museum's permanent collection. The Caldwells' time and financial resources were instrumental in the completion of the project in 2005, according to ArtsBuild.
Yet perhaps the most valuable thing the Caldwells have given to the museum and Chattanooga, according to ArtsBuild, is their expertise as art collectors. As members of the museum's first collectors' group, they traveled to New York City many times to visit galleries and learn about and seek out items for the museum. As leaders in that role, they have helped the museum to acquire close to 30 artworks for the permanent collection.
Their love of the arts has rubbed off on their four children as well. Each one is actively involved in the arts and volunteers on the boards of arts organizations in their own community. Two of their daughters live in Chattanooga— Betsy Caldwell Cake, who serves on the board of directors of the Creative Discovery Museum and Pop-up Project, and Charlotte Caldwell, founder and director of Stove Works, a contemporary exhibition space and artist residency program.
The Caldwells said they feel honored by the award because Holmberg was a dear friend and mentor to them.
When Charlie and Iantha started SPLASH Youth Arts Workshop, the program was a natural evolution of the ways they were already giving back to the community. Every Sunday for eight years, the Newtons and friends would prepare and serve meals in their downtown Chattanooga art studio for 75 to 150 homeless individuals and families. When they noticed that some of the kids who would come had problems with reading, they did art projects together with the kids and saw how transformational art was in terms of their learning abilities, social interactions and just for having fun.
SPLASH now operates in the old James A. Henry Elementary School on Chattanooga's Westside in what was Charlie's own fifth-grade classroom. Charlie grew up in the neighborhood and knew from age 5 that he wanted to be an artist. He took art classes through high school, got a degree in art at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, worked for a while as a freelance artist and then went back to school to earn his MFA at Norfolk State and Old Dominion University.
Iantha grew up in a working-class family of seven in London, England. She, too, loved art as a child and would make clothes for her dolls. By her teens, she was organizing fashion shows to showcase the clothing she was designing and creating. She met Charlie in London while he was on a study-abroad trip in 1986. Five years later, Iantha moved to Chattanooga and they were married.
After his training, Charlie said he made a conscious decision to come back to Chattanooga to make his living as an artist. Unlike most African American artists who left Chattanooga, Charlie believed there's something about living and working in the place where you grow up that gives you a sense of freedom and informs your work like no other place can. He said he never thought of himself as a teacher or mentor but, looking back, he realizes the ways he has served people in that role, especially by encouraging fellow African American art students.
In the SPLASH studio, Charlie and Iantha have an apprentice-style approach to teaching that helps students develop their unique talents and abilities. Working together in the classroom, Charlie's more direct way with the kids complements Iantha's more nurturing qualities.
As practicing professional artists, Charlie and Iantha believe it is important to continue to make their own art so that what they offer to their students comes from a place of authenticity.
"We are just giving what we have to offer — we are giving art," they said in a statement. "If you let the focus be entirely on the people you are serving, then the community will show you what the needs are."