Gay Street’s 100 block hopes to recapture artistic energy
Sundown lineup announced
Wednesday, March 8
There was a saxophone player in the Old City this past weekend, belting out brass sheets of sound on the corner of Jackson and Central. He drew periodic crowds, as some took a moment to listen before slipping away into a nightclub or bar. But his nonchalant attitude, his willingness to play even when there wasn’t an attentive audience, should probably symbolize what the arts in Knoxville should be about.
In the wake of the sale of the Candy Factory, artists have begun looking for new spaces to keep our quirky art scene vibrant. “The city did prop up this area for years and years,” says Tom Parkhill, the founding artistic director of the Tennessee Stage Company. “You gotta give them credit for that. [The Candy Factory] was a pretty vibrant and energetic place, but it didn’t stop overnight. It kinda petered out eventually.”
One plan to help foster artistic growth, to bring back that visceral energy which made the Candy Factory space so special, comes from the Arts and Culture Alliance. Liza Zenni, the executive director of the Alliance, envisions an all-encompassing art scene, with its focal point on Gay Street’s 100 block.
“When the Alliance was created four years ago,” Zenni explains, “we wanted to create a voice to strengthen our community, a barnacle on the hull of the ship of state.” She’s a staunch believer in the redemptive power of art, explaining that artistic endeavors can act as solutions to civic problems.
“I think the 100 block is going to blossom,” Zenni says. “We’ve come to understand that we couldn’t do it alone. The Emporium Center cannot be down here by itself.”
And it’s not alone. The Emporium houses some of Knoxville’s most cherished institutions: the nationally renowned Carpetbag Theater, one of the oldest African-American owned and operated theater troupes in the country; the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, whose resident conductor, Maestro Lucas Richman, has been instrumental in bringing in some of the top players from around the country; and the Three Flights Up Gallery, whose proprietors have been giving a voice to fresh young artists.
Next door and across the street are UT’s Downtown Gallery and the 1010 Gallery, respectively. All this is happening only steps away from the music that’s been a staple of the Old City for the better part of a decade. And, southward, there’s WDVX leading the way for the emergent music scene on Gay Street.
“I think the Emporium space is picking up a lot of the vibrancy that used to be here [at the Candy Factory],” Parkhill says. “They’re attracting people and creating energy.” That seems to be the case, at least in theory.
After Kinsey, Probasco, Hays and Associates submitted its original RFP to the city to purchase the Candy Factory and surrounding Victorian Houses, an additional $200,000 was committed to help pay for the build-out of the first floor of the Emporium to mimic the seventh floor of the Candy Factory. (An additional $112,000 will be required to complete the build-out.)
The idea is that those artists who once utilized the Candy Factory’s facilities will continue to have a space, although it will no longer be free of charge.
The expected cost of using the proposed space, if it ever becomes a reality, will be about $2.50 per hour. And until then, the Emporium is allowing groups in need of meeting space to use its upper floors free of charge during business hours. “It proves that we want to be a part of their solution,” Zenni says.
It’s not going to be a very expensive space, but considering that some groups, such as Tennessee Stage Company, need to rehearse for upwards of 100 hours prior to a performance, it can cause undue strain on already tight budgets.
“I do believe that government funding should meet the needs of the community,” Zenni says, adding: “I’m sorry to say it, but art for art’s sake doesn’t do it for me.” Yet art communities have traditionally helped urban areas grow. Take Greenwich Village as an example; it’s now too posh to be affordable for starving artists.
There’s a strange dichotomy between art and city planning. Arts are always welcome, but not always economically viable.
And until any energy can manifest itself in a meaningful way, many local artists will continue to feel that it’s one thing to build infrastructure, but it’s not necessarily an easy thing to rebuild or mimic enthusiasm.
Walking along the seventh floor of the Candy Factory, seeing the plain white walls emboldened with aging blue trim, it becomes obvious that the actual, tangible space wasn’t what created energy; it was the inhabitants. “People,” Zenni says, “when working together in concert, make things popular.”
But, as Parkhill notes, an important question to ask might be how long the 100 block will remain affordable, especially after considering all of its potential.
Sunny in the City
Forget that finicky old groundhog. You can safely gauge spring’s arrival by monitoring the population of the Blue Moon and Stella Artois connoisseurs lapping up the sun on the patios of Market Square. So if this past weekend—when several patios were bursting at the seams—is any indication, spring has sprung. With it comes the much-anticipated Sundown in the City lineup.
Without anymore ado, here it is: finally, a lineup you can take your mom to.
April 13—Little Feat
Backed by Knoxville’s booking giant A.C. Entertainment, which, headed up by Ashley Capps, is also responsible for middle Tennessee’s yearly festival Bonnaroo, this Sundown is characterized by the eclecticism we’ve grown accustomed to. “We’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from last year’s lineup, and the one thing people really emphasize is variety,” says Brian Penix, talent buyer/production manager who, along with Capps, orchestrates the lineup. “We’ll try to do a rock band one week, then a jam band the next week, and after that maybe some type of world music.”
As for the inaugural event, Penix says the draw of ’70s rock band Little Feat reflects that of last year’s opener Steve Winwood. “We always like to start things off with a bang. Last year, with Steve Winwood, people young and old knew his music, so it really brought people out of the woodwork. So we thought what better way to open the show this year than with a legendary band like Little Feat?”
Last year’s headliners were stellar: Drive-By-Truckers, My Morning Jacket, Rilo Kiley, and the list goes on. But one of our favorite aspects of Sundown is that it gives locals a chance to rock out on the big stage. Last year, we saw Dixie Dirt, Tim Lee Band, Todd Steed and others open up shows. This year, says Penix, we can expect a second helping of local tunes. “I’m working on the openers right now. It’s gonna be a good variety, too,” he says. “Of course it will be showcasing a lot of local talent. We try to match a great local band with a great national band—it might not necessarily be the same style, but we definitely try to get an opener that’s going to be a complement.”
The benefits of Sundown extend beyond the sonic pleasures of Knoxville audiences, though. It’s always a big boost to downtown businesses, as Macleod’s manager Herschel Earls knows. “It always helps business. We get really busy,” he says. “We use our servers that we normally just use during the day, so it’s more money for everybody.”
The influx of downtown visitors is perhaps the most invaluable aspect of Sundown. “It definitely helps with downtown growth,” says Earls. “I think it’s what really got downtown going again in the first place. When we got here in 2000, it was just us and Tomato Head and Lula [a now-defunct bistro on the Square]. It’s definitely been a tremendous boost to sales.”
As long as the good bands keep coming and the sun keeps shining, we’re happy to keep funneling money for beer and munchies into those sales.
Wednesday, March 8
Thursday, March 9
Friday, March 10
Saturday, March 11
Sunday, March 12
Monday, March 13
Tuesday, March 14