“What’s the main difference between a contemporary art center and a traditional one?” one might ask. The founder of the Stove Works Contemporary Art Center nonprofit, 34-year-old Charlotte Caldwell, has an answer.
“Intent, is the main difference. A contemporary center features artists who are producing objects of art that address social and political complexities. The stories of those who create the visual work are an important part of the showcase,” she says.
It might be a trend, if the newly reformatted Whitney Museum of American Art in NYC is any indication. In its new location along the High Line, an elevated linear park and rail trail in west Manhattan with amazing views of the Hudson River, it has raised its profile. Entire floors of the Whitney have been given over to American artists whose work speaks to hot-button political issues.
But the mission of Stove Works is deeply integrated into the Chattanooga community and the South.
“It’s about the artist’s intention to communicate something larger,” Caldwell explains. And whether they can pull it off or not, one assumes. The support of the center is key in a region unaccustomed to the genre, yet where there is so much talent.
The Stove Works Contemporary Art Center will work in three ways by creating studio space and a residency program for juried artists, exhibition spaces and an educational outreach program. Of the vast 75,000-square-foot former home of Tennessee Stove Works (the one-time business of Caldwell’s family) and Modern Maid, roughly 25,000 square-feet will be used for the Center. Chattanooga’s Elemi Architects is doing the redesign.
Caldwell’s years in New York, just outside the city as residency director of the Wassaic Artist Residency, helped prepare her for the Stove Works initiative through experience and by fueling her imagination and creating a network of resources. That community program made use of an abandoned seven-story grain elevator. Caldwell looks forward to reviving her family’s old industrial site to generate a new creative heat.
She and Stove Works Curator of Exhibitions Mike Calway-Fagen – a curator, artist and writer from the Nashville area – say there will be no geographic limitations and a roving call will be issued for work, guided by a theme.
“Often,” Calway-Fagen adds, “the projects include video, painting or graphic works and performance.” And although the nonprofit will consider work by national and international artists, it does not provide traveling expenses.
“We expect to receive up to 3,000 applications from our first open call,” Calway-Fagen says. The Tennessee native has spent the last 10 years teaching and overseeing artist residency programs around the country. Most recently moving from the University of Georgia, where he was head of the sculpture department program.
While the permanent galleries are being built inside the Stove Works property, there will be several pop-up exhibitions, beginning with “Land and Sea” on July 28. This will be a month-long collaboration with Daniel Fuller, curator of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. Other collaborations are being developed with Locate Arts in Nashville, Crosstown Arts in Memphis and Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center in Asheville.
“The criteria for artists in residence will be the quality of the program of work and the artist’s ability to speak about it with intention,” Caldwell adds. Those who view the works may hope for “experiential access to art, featuring an element of the spectacular.”
A sprawling open-air entrance and courtyard for events will connect to 14th Street. On the first floor the facility will have nine spacious studio spaces for artists in residence and two additional flexible spaces for writers and curators. On the second floor, there will be dormitory-style living quarters with common laundry, kitchen and living spaces to serve artists in residence. Permanent studio spaces should be finished by the end of the year and flex-space galleries will be available for local artists.
A dark gallery for video production and several education classrooms are also planned for the ground floor. In addition to the activities planned for the facility, Caldwell is also looking for partners to help stage pop-up galleries around the metro area.
In another wing, a coffeehouse, a restaurant and several retail shops will have access from the street beside the complex. One retailer excited about the project is Star Lowe, owner of Star Line books on Market Street. Her shop regularly features evening book signings, lectures and special events like poetry readings and book club gatherings. The retail cluster located at Stove Works will be an advantage to the bookstore, as will the availability of free parking.
“Bookstores are a depository of the written, spoken and visual arts, which is why the Stove Works Contemporary Arts Center is the perfect home for Chattanooga’s only independent bookstore,” Lowe says. “At Star Line Books, we want to be part of this hive of creativity and contribute to the promotion of arts in Chattanooga.”
“The goal is for every tenant of the building to contribute to the larger mission, which is to create a collaborative creative space and destination for the immediate community, greater Chattanooga and the region,” Caldwell adds. The net proceeds from the leased space will be donated to the nonprofit to help underwrite its general operating expense.
“The seed was planted over ten years ago in Nashville, when my friends pointed out that there were not enough spaces for the gathering or showing of contemporary art in our region,” Caldwell says.
At that time in her life, she had realized she would become an arts administrator of some type. “We were going to reshape art in the Southeast,” she says. Years later, during an event sponsored by the Mid-South Sculpture Alliance, the idea resurfaced.
Now on the boards of the Chattanooga Sculpture Fields and the Public Arts Commission, Caldwell says she believes Stove Works will inspire, educate and generate creative energy throughout the region.
Upcoming activities: stoveworks.org