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The Songbirds Foundation / Contributed rendering

The Songbirds Foundation will move its education-based fundraising and programming operations into the former Chattanooga Guitar Museum space at the Chattanooga Choo Choo and could be open by Sept. 1, according to Executive Director Reed Caldwell.

The foundation came about as part of the Songbirds Guitar Museum, which closed for good earlier this year, and Caldwell was brought on board shortly after it opened in late 2016. The foundation didn't have a specific direction originally, but Caldwell has developed it into an operation that has taught guitar lessons to nearly 2,000 kids across the Chattanooga area and state over the years, via its Guitars for Kids program.

Caldwell said about $350,000 worth of work is being done to reconfigure the old museum space. Some of the former display cases and materials will be used to create a "very hands-on, STEAM-based venue," he said.

"The focus is dramatically shifting from the vintage guitars to a more hands-on, STEAM-based platform where people can touch stuff, pick up a guitar and play it," he said. "It will essentially be the story of sound as told through a guitar."

Caldwell said the foundation, which has been focused on giving guitars and lessons at no cost to students, will have several main focuses. Those include:

* STEAM- based installations for students, families and visitors that demonstrate how sound works in a fun and interactive environment.

* Classes focused on instrument building and music-related classes.

* Being the go-to source for "all things related to Chattanooga music history."

* Rotating exhibits that include all genres.

* A performance space that will seat 210 people.

* Rental space for events such as weddings and parties.

Caldwell pointed out the performances, like any other event the foundation does, will be done with one goal in mind.

"All of the things we do are now fundraisers, whether it's a show, admission to the museum, everything, [and it's] all being done to raise money for Guitars for Kids."

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The Songbirds Foundation / Contributed rendering

He said between eight and 10 fundraising live performances are planned in the months leading up to the new year after the space opens, perhaps featuring some of the types of acts that played there before, but they will all be focused on Guitars for Kids.

Songbirds board president Johnny E. Smith said that while he was sad to see the museum and live music venues go away, "This furthers the mission that we had from the beginning. I think this is the most impactful thing that we can do. Concerts, guitars and the museum were great, but this will surpass that, I believe."

Smith said while he understands that closing one business while keeping the name on another might be confusing to some, he hopes people will understand that the museum and live music venues are not coming back.

"This keeps the name, which we are all proud of, relevant," he said. He said it is especially meaningful seeing the space used as an educational and celebratory tool with the guitar as a focus.

Caldwell also noted that the giant neon sign above the building will stay.

"It will be lit up again in September," he said.

The 8,200-square-foot space will have several displays, including some guitars, that people can take down and touch.

"It will be a very tactile experience, and it will humanize people who play guitar," Caldwell said. "Not everyone can play like Joe Bonamassa, but you can still enjoy playing the guitar. It's going to be great, and I'm very excited."

He said people who wish to donate, volunteer or otherwise get involved will have several opportunities, and some of those will be made known in the coming weeks and months.

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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