Knoxville Continues to “Punch Above Its Cultural Weight”

Drums Up, Guns Down, Big Ears Festival, Knoxville, April 2023 (Photo by Heather Ryerson)
Drums Up, Guns Down, Big Ears Festival, Knoxville, April 2023 (Photo by Heather Ryerson)

I first heard the phrase above in a conversation with an out-of-town guest during Big Ears a couple of years ago. He’d visited Knoxville several times in connection with the Big Ears Festival and said he loved coming here because Knoxville had so much more art than what he’d expect from a city this size. I doubt he knew the extent of the truth to what he said. I’ve often quoted him since.

He knew the incredible music venues we have all around town, from the dive bars to the elegant Bijou and Tennessee Theatres. Nothing makes these places shine more than Big Ears. As he walked around the city, he no doubt saw the numerous murals, art alleys and our rotating downtown sculptural exhibition, thanks to the Art in Public Places program.

Camille Thurman with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, April 2022

He likely didn’t know much about the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, though he may have caught them at one of the performances. He would not have known about Knoxville Opera or the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. He wasn’t here to see the free jazz performances on Market Square nor was he able to realize the overwhelming amount of excellent music routinely performed in the area. A mountain city where you can find live jazz almost every night and sometimes in multiple venues? No way.

He likely didn’t learn of Theatre Knoxville Downtown, River and Rail Theatre Company, the Word Players, Clarence Brown Theatre, the Tennessee Stage Company, or Carpetbag Theatre. He wasn’t here to see the other festivals that highlight local and regional art. The Maker Exchange hadn’t opened. He likely missed Circle Modern Dance, Drums Up Guns Down and other amazing dance groups.

What he may have seen is that, beyond the venues, an amazing stretch of art awaits anyone who pays attention from one end of Gay Street to the other. Past the theatres on the south stretch of the street, the Art Market offers an amazing array of local and regional art in the form of an artist co-op on the 400 block. The same block now holds Christopher Robin Art.

Emporium, 100 S. Gay Street, Knoxville, August 2018

Three blocks down, the 100 block is our best-known block for art with the UT Downtown Gallery, the Arrowmont Gallery, and the Emporium, home to the Arts and Cultural Alliance, numerous artist studios and a large exhibition hall. Just a block or two away, Dogwood Arts operates and exhibits art, RED Gallery has rotating exhibitions, RALA focuses on local arts, and one of the city’s most known artists, Mark Carson English, operates his studio in the Old City. At the northern end of Gay Street, Lilienthal Gallery and Pivot Point Gallery didn’t exist when our out-of-town guest made his remark.

It turns out, our guest wasn’t alone in noting our outsize impact. The city garnered attention this week from Movie Maker Magazine. The Visit Knoxville Film Office announced that the magazine had included Knoxville (at number six) for the third time in its annual “Best Places to Live and Work as a Moviemaker” list.  Tim Molloy, Editor-in-Chief of the magazine said:

Knoxville and the Visit Knoxville Film Office are known for their versatility and experience – they make productions from all over the world feel welcome. And while few other locations can mimic the wide-eyed wonder of the Great Smoky Mountains, Knoxville is very good at doubling for other locales. We were very impressed with majestic locations like Ijams Nature Center – particularly Meads Quarry and nearby Augusta Quarry. Knoxville is just a beautiful place, and an affordable one. A filmmaker could make a great life there by working on big productions while setting aside money to make their own.” The list is based on “surveys, production spending, tax incentives, additional research, and personal visits, whenever possible.

Dogwood Arts Festival, World’s Fair Park, Knoxville, April 2023

You can see the full list of cities selected, here.

But that’s not the only place Knoxville is garnering accolades just this week alone. USA Today’s panel of experts and editors has included Knoxville in its list of nominees as the Best Arts District in the Reader’s Choice Awards. We join twenty other artist districts in a competition in which we placed fourth nationally just last year. To place that highly, our little city beat out heavyweights like Chicago, Denver, and Houston.

Liza Zenni, Executive Director of the Arts & Culture Alliance, said:

Art has no bounds in Knoxville. Art is everywhere – in and around downtown and taking many forms. We are fortunate to enjoy live music at historic venues, creative menus curated by award-winning chefs and bartenders, inspiring visual art in and outside galleries and many other forms of expression in every area of Knoxville.

Falstaff, Knoxville Opera, Tennessee Theatre, Knoxville, October 2023

Michelle Hummel, Executive Director of the Downtown Knoxville Alliance, added:

Vibrancy reverberates through Knoxville because of our artists. From diverse cultural festivals across town to our artistic centers like the Emporium Center and Knoxville Museum of Art in Downtown Knoxville, this city is an excellent place to explore and create. We also have the benefit of local businesses, nonprofits and generous individuals that support these endeavors, expanding and enriching Knoxville’s art scene.

The winner for Best Arts District is determined by public voting and you can vote each day until February 19 either here or at daily. Let’s show those big cities that we really do punch above our weight in the cultural world!

You can also learn more about Downtown Knoxville art events and locations at, and connect with the city’s art initiatives at