Chester Martin Remembers The Civic Arts League Of Chattanooga

Saturday, March 18, 2017 - by Chester Martin

Back in the late 1940's and early1950's we art students had no really good place to show our work. Only central place available to us was the Hamilton County Court House lawn (if good weather), or inside the building, if it rained. At that time our Court House had been long neglected, so that rainwater collected in the hallways and stood in large puddles to detract both artist and viewer! Outdoor art shows can be very nice, indeed, as witnessed by Miss Fannie Mennen's long-running Plum Nelly Clothesline Art Show.

Her space was limited, and private, however, so she personally selected a handful of artists to fit her spaces without crowding. Many artists who applied had to be excluded. As you doubtless realize, Art is totally useless if it can't be seen, so any new local venue would be welcome after all the Court House problems. This was long before Malls were ever heard of, with their large central spaces, good for displaying Art, and with wide interior overhangs to protect against sudden inclement weather. A permanent indoor location was much longed-for by the local Arts community, and we finally understood around 1950 that such a space was coming soon: a "real" Art museum for Chattanooga! I was "in the loop" when that was all taking place and clearly remember the euphoria among local artists when it happened.

Little did we naive artists realize, however, that any serious new art museum must conform to a set of restrictive rules in order to qualify for "status" in a National or Regional association of art museums. Any "Director" who might be selected to head such a museum would also have to conform to the same set of rules. He had many hoops to jump through to qualify him for a Directorship. But when finally selected, his (guaranteed) scale of pay set him well apart from the more humble (and poorer) artists whose sketchy incomes (no pun intended) set us far apart. So we found ourselves still wanting for a place of our own where we could show our work. Most local artists I knew felt bewildered and shut out of their own new facility. The earlier euphoria suddenly went away, leaving us with a feeling of unsupport by "our own" new museum. Many local artists simply lost their faith in such institutions and never even visited.

(The new museum also soon started sponsoring "Annuals" which were "Juried" Art shows, open to the entire Southeastern region - which included such cities as Atlanta - light-years ahead of us Chattanooga artists! Big-name, out-of-town "Jurors" who made the selections for these Annuals were clearly attracted to the more sophisticated work from Atlanta, so Chattanooga artists frequently felt excluded, and DOUBLY shut out of their own new museum. Those Annuals were discontinued after a number of years.)

One direct offshoot of this new frustration suffered by local artists led to the founding of what came to be called, "The Civic Arts League of Chattanooga". It was started by a nucleus of artists - principally working ladies - who had little time during the week to think about Art. Their league unified them in their desire for a place to show, and brought a group of "kindred spirits" together, where they could commiserate about all their mutual problems. But this alone did not fix the problem of "where" to show. They continued to have difficulties regarding that matter - and, as I recall, the then-new Warner Park Field House became a good prospect. The Field House was quite spacious, well-lighted, and was of a very solid brick construction, with a good roof overhead for protection against the elements - but only had a straw covered earthen floor! (It had originally been built for some of Billy Graham's early Crusades, and then later served for other types of events such as home shows, boat shows, etc. It was never intended to be used as an art museum!)

When the new Eastgate Mall finally opened its doors, it was host to many a small art show, but was not "right" for displaying large, serious works by serious artists, and in so commercial a setting. For a brief period during Robert Kirk Walker's terms as Mayor of Chattanooga a newly renovated City Hall was opened up to any and all local artists - including the Civic Arts League. Mrs. Joy Walker, wife of the Mayor, vigorously supported this effort. I remember seeing pictures in the Free Press, most notably, of many of their members at show openings, with Mrs. Walker playing the role of hostess. The League's membership had continuously grown during the years, and I can now only remember a few names: Wilna Pope, Judy Starnes, Wallace Coulter, Patricia Adams... This was a godsend for many, and Mrs. Walker allowed a whole series of rotating shows to be hung on the walls there - for as long as her husband was Mayor. (Mrs. Walker also played a large role in the creation of Miller Park, co-ordinating donor Burkett Miller's vision for such a park to its actual realization). The Civic Arts League benefitted greatly from Mrs.Walker's opening of City Hall to ALL artists.

Although never a member of the League, I applauded it and felt honored when they asked me to judge several of their shows held back in the 1970's. Open to all races, and totally blind to economic "status", it had but ONE arguable flaw: to some, the word "Civic" seemed to imply a governmental connection of some kind, but that assumption is totally incorrect. Their intent was to promote "inclusivity" as opposed to "exclusivity", and that "inclusive" approach was what determined their ultimate success. They were truly "Civic" in that sense.

Folks, I could write you a THICK book on the above period, but just ran out of paper! Be glad!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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