Local Art: Making Development Beautiful

Church+Henley, Knoxville, June 2023

Author Note: Each new year brings a unique challenge to my brain, as I’m sure it does to many of yours. Transitioning from typing or writing the year 2023 to 2024 did not come automatically for me. Some of you may have already seen this article posted a couple of weeks ago, but not quite in its entirety due to this goof on my part. Please enjoy the completed article and photos below!

Church+Henley, Knoxville, June 2023

Almost anywhere you look downtown, you will see works of art in buildings and on buildings. Some is mass-produced art; some is local art that starts a conversation. You can almost immediately tell the difference. The art that stops me is always the pieces done by local artists. But how is the art chosen? Who makes those decisions? Why is local art used less often in new developments around the city? I hadn’t thought much about the role of art in development before. Like most, I notice art in hotels and other buildings and am always pleased if I hear the pieces are from local artists, but figuring out what goes where and how these decisions are made was something that I had yet to consider. I imagine I am not alone in this.

Hyatt Place, 530 South Gay Street, Knoxville, December 2017

I recently sat down with three local artists, a project manager, and a marketing and public relations expert to talk about the role of development in the city and its impact on local artists. We met at one of the open workspaces in Church + Henley as all three artists have their work displayed in this development. The artists were Heather Whiteside, fine arts painter and art restoration specialist; W. James Taylor, chalk pastel painter and talented musician; and award-winning photographer Phil Savage. Also present were Mike Cohen of Cohen Communications Group and Scott Black, architect and project manager with Bristol Development.

Hyatt Place, 530 South Gay Street, Knoxville, December 2017

The more I have gotten to know the Knoxville art scene and some of its talented people, the more it has given me to consider thinking about ways that artists can be supported in their passions. ‘Buy local’ is the anthem many sing, but it’s more complicated for developers and architects designing multimillion-dollar projects. Hundreds of considerations go into deciding to install local art pieces in a development.

Scott Black told me he feels the decision must be a commitment made at the beginning of a project when the plans and budget are set. It should be one of the nonnegotiable items on the list. Otherwise, you can cut that part of the budget when the inevitable over-budget spending happens to finish a project. Deciding to go local is just the first step. There must be a process of finding artists with styles matching what the architect and designers are looking for and who can produce both the size and number of items needed. Having a relationship with someone in the city is helpful in this step. That’s where the artists and the project manager say Mike Cohen and individuals like him are valuable. They are the connection point from the project to the community.

Art by W. James Taylor

It matters if the developer is a local company or if they are from another city doing their first development in Knoxville. The local developers may already have an idea of local art that could fit the project, but the choices can be overwhelming if one is from out of town. This is where organizations like the Art Alliance have a positive impact.

Budget is likely the most influential aspect of the decision to use local art versus mass-produced art. Spend $100 on a Kirkland painting mass-produced on a machine (no offense intended to Kirkland’s!)  or $1,000 on a local piece painstakingly done by hand. There is a difference in cost, but he tells me that difference is worth it to Bristol Development. They want to see the connection to the community and make their locations feel like a part of home, not another commercial development from outsiders in a city. They have had a positive response from the communities they work in, and the artists have significant exposure to residents and visitors and a platform they would not have otherwise.

Art by Heather Whiteside

Another consideration in whether or not the development has local or mass-produced art is the branding of the particular development. Places like hotels want consistency and recognizability in their hotels. The familiarity of walking into one Courtyard and another makes you feel more comfortable; thus, having the same art throughout the brands aids in that. However, I’m told that Dover Signature Properties challenged this when renovating the Hyatt Hotel downtown, and that is how Phil’s photography became a highlight throughout the hotel, along with other choice artists. I love the art in that hotel and frequently walk through to see it. The Maker Exchange inside the Downtown Marriott and Tennessean Hotel is another excellent example of a branded hotel’s positive and intentional use of public space to display local art and connect to the community.

Maker Exchange Grand Opening, 710 Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, September 2022 (Photograph by Heather Ryerson)

Heather, Phil, and James have art in several developments, including Church + Henley. They each have their distinct style, and those who know their work recognize it by sight alone. Heather says it is crucial to her to have this exposure and she pursues developers to sell her art to be placed in locations around Knoxville and other cities as part of her business plan. James has a gallery, Geneva Galleries, in the Emporium. Phil, who is in something of a second career with photography, having been a professional gymnastics coach and now a diving coach at UT, has work displayed in the Hyatt Hotel and other places as mentioned.

Photograph by Phil Savage

You understand the artist when you get to know an artist’s work. There is always a story. There is always more behind the piece that drives the work; when you know that story, the work is even more impactful. And that is a benefit of having local art in local development. The impact keeps people coming back or buying pieces to have in their own homes. My conversation with Heather, Phil and James was interesting and surprising in some ways. I have a deeper appreciation for what they are doing as artists and as businesspeople.

I love the touch of local art wherever I am, whether in Knoxville or other cities. Mass-produced can be lovely, but local has a flair that gives guests a flavor of their town. I understand the considerations in deciding whether local art or not. It’s not simple or straightforward, but I hope to see more make this a priority as Knoxville continues to grow and develop as the significant tourist destination that it is.

What other developments have local art that you enjoy? Should there be more?

Maker Exchange Grand Opening, 710 Clinch Avenue, Knoxville, Mural by Curtis Glover, September 2022