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Small Town Vibrancy Awakening

By Whitney Kimball Coe –

Whitney Coe
Whitney Coe

I am an arts ambassador for my hometown of Athens, Tennessee, a small city of about 13,000 residents situated in the folds of the Tennessee Valley.

We are 52 miles south of Knoxville, which has recently emerged as a powerhouse of arts development and vibrancy (see Rob Rushin’s recent article in The Bitter Southerner), and equal distance from Chattanooga to the south, also a hub of artistic and cultural enterprise. Both scored really well on the NCAR Arts Vibrancy Index. McMinn County on the other hand…well.

There are times when I look to these big cities north and south of us and long for Athens to have the same sense of collective knowing of the role the arts play in the health, wealth, and future of a community. How can we invest in our place and our people the way they have?

But then I remind myself that we are in a period of great awakening in my hometown and that we do possess a collective knowing. We just haven’t formalized arts development as a strategy for vitalization yet.

But things are changing. New leadership is emerging, and it is led by voices of children who have returned home—to raise a family and build a life in their hometown.

Our ranks are growing, and a broader, national narrative that favors inclusive, cross-sector strategies, from creative placemaking to community organizing, informs our voices.

Last month, our local arts council brought the indie-country band, The Cactus Blossoms, to our little town. We were a pit stop on their way from Nashville to the Rhythm and Roots Festival in Bristol, TN. In Athens, they played to an enthusiastic crowd at our arts center, and afterward, commented, “you guys have something going on here.”

We do.

Three women who’ve returned home and are under the age of 40 run the Athens Area Council for the Arts. They direct, organize and manage arts programming for our little town and in the process have become a “Grand Central Station,” a primary conductor and connector for civic participation in the community. They’ve created partnerships with unlikely groups, including our public works department, the local movie theater, and our public schools.

Others of us are occupied with the early stages of developing a cohesive strategy for growing our Main Street and downtown, and unsurprisingly, it is local arts and culture that have been identified as the primary drivers of future vibrancy.

My 6 year-old daughter Lucy and I spend our Thursday nights taking a yoga class at local art & frame shop downtown. The space is vintage old-Athens, but the experience is a glimpse into the realm of the possible, where small businesses are also purveyors of health and creativity.

If I had to name the key ingredients for building a sustainable, prosperous future for my town, I’d say it is essential to lean on the arts, for inspiration, vision, and possibility. We are in the early stages of incorporating these into our daily practice, and it feels good.


Whitney Kimball Coe works for the Center for Rural Strategies where she coordinates the activities of the National Rural Assembly. This article originally was posted on Southern Methodist University National Center for Arts Research blog.

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