Postcard from Chattanooga
Here I am with Ann Coulter of A.Coulter Consulting who moderated our great community conversation in Chattanooga. Photo by Samuel E. Burns
Last week I visited Chattanooga, Tennessee, for a short but pretty great trip. We began on Wednesday afternoon with a reception with all of the partners involved in the Our Town project we’ve supported there. That project, called Main Terrain, is being led by Allied Arts of Greater Chattanooga, and it’s going to be a new urban park with interactive public sculpture. Basically they’re taking an unused and abandoned block that's connecting two of the main streets downtown and making it into an arts greenway. They’re making it into an aesthetic place that will draw visitors. It's a perfect example of creative placemaking that has to do with the intersection of public art, physical space, and the general public. It's one of those projects that will affect people aesthetically who have no intention of buying a ticket to a museum or performance project or anything like that. It really is what I often refer to as “art in the public square.”
Dan Bowers, who's the president of Allied Arts, was our host. He picked us up at the airport, and then gave us a wonderful car tour introducing us to all of the arts and culture spots in Chattanooga before ferrying us to the Chattanoogan Hotel for a reception with everyone involved in Main Terrain. I was happy to meet Sarah Morgan, who’s a program officer at Lyndhurst Foundation, one of the partners on the project’s design team. Tom Norquist from Playcore, which is also on the team, was there, and I also met Larry Zehnder from Chattanooga Parks and Recreation and Peggy Townsend of Public Art Chattanooga.
We then went on to have what I thought was one of the best community conversations that I've taken part in while I've been here at the NEA. Each one of the panelists had something to do with public art. Eric Myers of Elemi Architects is an architect who is especially concerned with public art. Of course, architecture itself is a public art; people encounter it whether they buy admission to something or not. Mike Fowler who's a landscape architect with Ross/Fowler Architects was also a panelist. You know, landscape architecture is really one of the unsung arts. It's a real art, and I don't think people always view it as such. But again, it's an art that naturally intersects with the public. Larry Zehnder was also a panelist, and he deals with public aesthetics, with parks and landscape architecture, every day. And Sarah Morgan rounded out our group. Our moderator was Ann Coulter whose consulting firm really focuses on facilitating conversations among communities and other stakeholders as locales go through planning processes. She was a great moderator! What you need for a great discussion is a great moderator, and Ann really had done her homework and knew the subject.
I have to say that one of the things that made this conversation so outstanding was that this was a really informed audience. And the house was packed! I always say---as a recovering Broadway producer---that when you have to set up new rows of chairs, and bring new chairs in, that's always a good indicator. You like to see good box office. I was delighted that Anne Pope---the new head of the Tennessee Arts Commission---was in the crowd. She's seems very in tune and committed to public art and arts in Tennessee generally. I was glad to be able to have an exchange with her.
What I always say whenever I'm in a situation talking about the elements you need for successful creative placemaking is that you need three elements. You need a certain scale and tradition and history of the arts, of arts activity and engagement. You need a very committed private philanthropic sector, which in this case is represented by the Lyndhurst Foundation. And you need a public sector, a local political structure that gets it, and is engaged and on the case. I think Larry really represented that element. And certainly Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield who I was able to spend some time with is very much an arts man. He is very, very committed to the arts. One of the reasons I was going to Chattanooga in the first place was for its reputation as an arts city. It doesn't matter the size of a city, because when you get true collaboration throughout the city and recognition of how important the arts are---you’re going to have results.
The next day was the Arts Education Partnership (AEP) national forum. I gave the keynote there, and I was glad to reconnect with Sandra Ruppert who’s the president of AEP. In my speech, I talked about the role of the arts in transforming schools and transforming education. (Visit our News Room for the full text of my speech.)
One of the points I really wanted to make was the need for rigorous data in arts education. We have a lot of anecdotal evidence, but we need to do some real credible research about the effect of arts education on student performance and student achievement. We have a lot of data but the data needs to be more uniform and more rigorous---Ayanna and Sunil Iyengar [the NEA’s director of research and analysis] have already begun conversations about how to tackle this nationally.
I was very inspired by the James Caterall report that we commissioned---The Arts and Achievement in At-Risk Youth [PDF]. I think that got a lot of people talking, and now we need to make our research even more rigorous and more credible and more convincing.
I do want to make sure I mention The Choo-Choo kids from Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts. They gave just a terrific performance right after I spoke. I especially loved them because they did Broadway, including something from Jersey Boys, which is near and dear to my heart.
Our friend Jonathan Katz, who heads the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, was also at the AEP conference. Jonathan moderated a panel that that included Ayanna Hudson, our own new director of arts education. I’m really excited that in Ayanna we have someone who really has a vision, a strategy, a strong point-of-view about arts education. I think you're going to see her using the national platform that we have to really advance the case not only for arts education generally, but for a certain approach to arts education, for the kinds of arts education that really work and are effective. We’re talking about strategies like professional training for teachers. I think you can expect that as an agency we’ll be weighing in very aggressively into the arts education, I should say, arts education reform field.