By Mike Calway-Fagen
For much of the Southern creative community, finding allies engaged in similarly intensive studio curiosities, research, and production can be exceedingly difficult. Of course, these metrics are subjective and some, they are wrong in my opinion, would claim that the South is teeming with artists toeing the lines of their field.
Tennessee, a true bastion of certain forms of creative output, has never quite scrapedtogether a sense of solidarity amongst its visual artists. It, in large part, has been left up to individual artists to sort out their support systems and communities with little to no infrastructure, governmental, or institutional assistance.
Nashville, my hometown, has always been reliant on upstart artists to generate, sustain, and galvanize a scene. The story of many cities’ progression is built on, no, exploits the efforts of their creative classes. It is, principally, this fact that drives my enthusiasm for Carri and Brian Jobe’s initiative, LOCATE Arts.
Through a ton of planning, listening, and observation the wife and husband team, aided by a dedicated board, have prepared a model that draws from bottom-up, artist-run, DIY approaches and top-down, institutional big picturing. There is a punk rock element to their get-up-and-get-out ethos. In a short time they’ve run a successful Kickstarter campaign, amassing $50,000 in start-up funding. Maybe more importantly, eclipsing, any amount of dollars raised, is the crescendo of voices LOCATE Arts has become a mouthpiece for. These are the voices of individuals who, in lieu of shouting from their studios tucked away in Nashville, Knoxville, Memphis, or Chattanooga, now have a platform to engage, communicate, challenge, collaborate, and participate. Tennessee has become digitized and while aspects are fragmented as a result, an obvious positive outcome is the cohesion of these disparate creative pockets. More specifically, LOCATE Arts’ website www.locatearts.org is home to a curated artist registry with more than 125 artists represented, a “Top Picks” exhibition section that covers both major metro areas and smaller cities like Clarksville, Jackson, and the Tri-Cities, and finally a blog that features interviews with emerging and established Tennessee-based artists, writers, and instigators.
Everything put forth on LOCATE Arts’ website has been selected to present the highest caliber work being produced in Tennessee. This spirit permeates all efforts, of which, the Registry is the most visible example. Each applicant to the Registry undergoes rigorous evaluation by an advisory group and, if selected, are represented by images, a statement, bio, CV, and website link. This point is important as Tennessee and other communities struggling for cohesion have shirked criticality in favor of utopic cheerleading. Burgeoning arts communities don’t want to dissuade their artists from making art, believing, falsely, that criticality might smother momentum. In actuality, real growth, progress and agency come from healthy and at times contentious exchange. This necessitates selectivity, inspires maturity, and helps cultivate a collective voice. The voice, propelled by LOCATE Arts, is getting louder, clearer. LOCATE Arts has effectively created a critical mass and their digital platform provides national and international audiences with a novel interface for engagement.
My question ultimately is whether Tennessee will ever support creativity in the top-down fashion LOCATE Arts is, in part, attempting to precipitate. A quick checklist reveals there are zero dedicated contemporary art museums, very little funding for individual artists, few reputable MFA programs, and even fewer galleries supported by local or state government. From this perspective, if the history of art in Tennessee is any indication, the future is bleak. But what LOCATE Arts does so well, flying in the face of the state’s disinterest – the thing that has always been the genesis for Tennessee’s creative output – is its embodiment of artists’ dogged determination and vitality. It is the continued legacy of bottom-up, artist-run, alternative initiatives like Fugitive Projects and Seed Space in Nashville, Fluorescent Gallery in Knoxville, and Crosstown Arts in Memphis that epitomize this attitude.
LOCATE Arts is a huge step forward for Tennessee, culturally, socially, creatively. With a major Biennial being planned for the not-too-distant future, continued direct contact with artists and audience, innovative approaches to arts advocacy, and a host of other ideas percolating from Carri and Brian Jobe’s “Labor of Love”, LOCATE Arts has arrived as the exuberant entity able to broadcast the full extent of Tennessee’s particular genius.
Mike Calway-Fagen is an artist, writer, and curator based in Athens, GA where he is Assistant Professor of Sculpture at UGA