Operated by: Anne Daniels, Chloë George, Alesha Lee, Stephanie Loggans, Dana Ortega, and Dylan Pew
Opened: March 2018
Most recent exhibitions: “Smoke, Sand, Stars in Your Eyes,” featuring David Onri Anderson and Lauren Taylor (October 5-19, 2018); “Transactions and Translations,” featuring Ashlee Mays and Dana Potter; (September 7-21, 2018); “Reversing to Nowhere,” featuring Kirby Miles and Alyssa Klauer (August 18-31, 2018); Nick Fagan, “Making Authority,” (July 13-15, 2018); Dianna Settles, “99 Flowers,” (June 1-15, 2018)
Can you describe the Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center, where VERSA is located? What is it like to operate an artist-run gallery space in the context of that larger setting?
Mercy Junction is the current name of the 110-year-old building we operate within. It is “an interfaith community of artists, activists, and people of faith, rooted in justice, hospitality and peacemaking, to express love for all creation by providing a sacred framework for social justice in the Southeast.” It is by no means a traditional place of worship, and we’re not a religious organization. As building partners, we have the opportunity to host receptions for exhibitions, get to know the people that work around us, and share in the support that the community has to offer. Mercy Junction is the main reason we were able to start an artist-run space in Chattanooga. They provide affordable rent to small organizations and start-ups, many of which respond to the needs of the surrounding community. It really raises the bar for us.
Your current exhibition includes two Nashville natives (though Taylor now lives in Brooklyn), and the next exhibition at VERSA features Nashville-based painter Marlos E’van. How do you explain the artistic flourishing that appears to be taking place in Nashville? Does it extend to other parts of Tennessee?
University art programs are major contributing factors of art scenes in cities, and Nashville has multiple. All six members of VERSA have graduated from the UTC art program, and we continue to see growth in the department and students being proactive in making shows happen. However, there are cities in the state that have fewer opportunities to encounter or exhibit contemporary art, so artists may have pop-up shows in garages or U-Hauls. They pool their money together to maintain exhibition spaces. They take day trips to see art in Nashville or Memphis. They build relationships with artists in other cities and keep up with what they’re making. This is happening with artists in big cities with growing economies like Nashville, but it’s also happening all across Tennessee.
We started an artist-run space because we wanted to give artists in our community more opportunities to exhibit. We also wanted to bring artists in from other places to foster new relationships, bridge what’s happening in Tennessee with a larger dialogue, and to exhibit the type of art we want to see in Chattanooga. The “artistic flourishing” taking place in Nashville and throughout Tennessee seems to come out of a similar impetus but is also being consciously nurtured. Artists living and working in Tennessee are building a supportive network to ensure that opportunities for their communities continue to exist and thrive. Locate Arts has been instrumental in recognizing and promoting this goal. Their website has been a good resource for us.
The fourth Hunter Invitational is currently on view at Chattanooga’s Hunter Museum of American Art, showcasing works by seven Tennessee-based artists and one artist working in Georgia, and Atlanta Contemporary is set to mount another regional edition of the Atlanta Biennial in early 2019. What can we learn from regionally focused exhibitions like these?
It’s exciting to see large institutions spotlighting artists working in the South. It gives artists the exposure they need, and it’s important for people to see the relevant and innovative work being made in the region. These exhibitions also draw local attention to artists living in the area and demonstrate that you don’t have to live in New York or LA to experience compelling art. What is at stake with these regional biennials and invitationals is that they have the power to shape an idea of the South. It’s important that this idea is not summed up and packaged too neatly in a way that simplifies the South’s complex contributions to a broader dialogue.
Tell us more about Kenya, VERSA’s gallery dog.
Kenya is such a good girl, just the best. We couldn’t do it without her. Mercy Junction is a safer space not just for humans but for animals as well, so Kenya is allowed to join us for installs and meetings. She’s only in it for the free food, but she is our true and ultimate leader.