Less than a year after appointing curator Rachel Jobe Reese as the new director and curator of the Cress Gallery of Art, the University of Tennessee Chattanooga announced this August that it will be re-launching as the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at UTC. Following a multi-year building renovation, the new ICA at UTC will be the first institute of contemporary art in Tennessee when it opens in the spring of 2021, filling a vital gap in the state’s burgeoning art scene.
This shift also reflects a rise of similar contemporary art centers throughout the Southeast, which has historically lacked institutions supporting groundbreaking contemporary practices. Taking an approach pioneered by institutions such as MoMA PS1 and ICA Philadelphia, institutes of contemporary art focus on exhibiting collaborating with and exhibiting work by living artists instead of building a comprehensive art historical collection. Arkansas’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art launched its own satellite ICA, The Momentary, earlier this year; Virginia Commonwealth University debuted its ICA at VCU in 2018; and ICA Miami split from MOCA North Miami and established itself as a new entity in 2017. Unlike many other ICAs, which aspire to national and international audiences, artists, and attention, Reese is approaching her Chattanooga institution with a more local focus. On a call with me late last week, she shared that the entire first year of programming will focus on contemporary artists working throughout the state.
Reese seems acutely aware of the need to honor the original function of the Cress Gallery of Art and the university community who has sustained the gallery for the last twenty years. Originally named for a late professor of the school, George Ayers Cress, Reese will continue to build the institution with artists in mind: “I’m trying to bring the past to the present and not let go of it completely, while at the same time saying we’re ready to evolve […] I’m really thinking about what I want this ICA to be and what kind of platform I want to give to artists. I definitely want it to be artist-centered and artist-driven.”
Prior to joining UTC in fall of 2019, Reese (who previously served as editor of Burnaway in 2013) worked as the contemporary art curator at the Telfair Museums from 2015 through 2019, producing twenty exhibitions, including the recent retrospective of Savannah-based artist Suzanne Jackson. Coming into the role as a former curator, Reese sees her position at ICA at UTC not only as an administrator but also as someone who can create space to elevate and promote the voices of new artists and curators to address the unique context of Tennessee and the city of Chattanooga. “I want to make sure we’re providing a platform for a lot of different types of voices and that we’re not simply being a mirror for conversations that are happening in the world, but rather we’re opening up new conversations,” she told me.
Chattanooga—until recently, a sleepy residential town mostly known for its huge aquarium, novelty railyard-themed hotel, and as the starting point of the Trail of Tears—has seen a wave of urban renewal consistent with mid-size cities throughout the region, andits arts community has also blossomed. The Hunter Museum of American Art, which was once housed in a wealthy businessman’s 1905 mansion, underwent a major expansion in 2005, attaching an architecturally ambitious, 28,000-square-foot addition to the original building. Since 2007, the museum has hosted the Hunter Invitational which has focused on contemporary artists in Tennessee and the greater Southeast. More recently, Charlotte Caldwell and her small team have opened a 50,000-square-foot space for residencies and exhibitions, Stove Works, on the grounds of a factory that formerly produced coffins and stoves. Though temporarily closed to the public due to COVID-19, the center plans to host its first round of residents this fall.
At the helm of the ICA at UTC, Reese joins the ranks of those propelling this local momentum, as well as other ambitious Tennessee-based organizations such as Tri-Star Arts, which produces the arts journal Locate Arts and will be organizing the inaugural Tennessee Triennial in 2022. These developments, along with the announcement of the ICA at UTC, send clear signals that, in addition to Memphis rap, Dolly Parton, and Nashville’s country music legacy, Tennessee is expanding its cultural offerings to include an impressive array of new and ambitious contemporary art institutions.