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A well preserved downtown Knoxville enjoys a creative renewal

The Emporium Center
The Emporium Center

The Emporium Center
100 South Gay Street
Knoxville, TN 37902
(865) 523-7543

Price: Free
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mon-Fri

Downtown Knoxville, Tennessee is in the middle of a renaissance. There is a passionate effort by locals to embrace the arts and its symbolic centerpiece the Emporium Center. There is history in this building: first there was a proud furniture business in 1890, complete abandonment by 1990, and as of today the headquarters for Knoxville’s Art and Cultural Alliance.

The city of Knoxville is best known outside of Tennessee as the home of the University of Tennessee, whose art department is the flagship program of the state’s flagship campus. This goes to show that the citizens value the visual arts, but it’s been only recently that Knoxville’s downtown could claim anything worth adding to the discussion.

The city is the third largest in the state, but it has endured periods of tribulation including Civil War era politics. When recent economic times proved especially trying, many places on Gay Street were left completely fallow. This may be putting it mildly, because as the business left the cities’ homeless population became the area’s new residents.

City employees, like Liza Zenni, have helped revitalize this area and have made it a destination location for both the city and state. Zenni, who is the Executive Director of the Art and Cultural Alliance, worked with the Mayor and other officials to renovate a building that was over 100 years old in 2004. In addition to the Alliance’s headquarters, there are galleries and offices for many other cultural organizations. Now artists and art lovers are flocking to this location.

One of the communities' pride and joys is the First Friday event which debuts new art attractions every month. The opening reception for art shows at The Emporium Center as well as other nearby galleries routinely brings in two thousand to three thousand visitors. Residents are now eager and happy to return to what was a barren wasteland a decade ago. The very fact that the Emporium’s building, complete with some of its original factory equipment, has been reclaimed is thanks to an ironic twist of history.

When a recession caused businesses to move elsewhere, Gay Street’s buildings were left alone, not even worth demolishing for parking lots. Thanks to this happy accident, The Emporium Center is now able to preserve the building intact and with it its unique history. The effort to reclaim a fleeting heritage is shared across town. The Knoxville Museum of Art is calling home some pieces of art by renown locals, with additions by Richard Jolley and Catherine Wylie to their permanent collections.

Even though there are number of sophisticated artists living in the Knoxville area, there is also an unpretentious spirit among Knoxville locals. The local Regal Cinema cooperates with The University of Tennessee to screen student work alongside Hollywood features on special occasions and local artist Steven Lareau has taken it upon himself to catalog all those places participating in First Friday events on his website. Meanwhile, the Penny4Arts program allows local children to see cultural events such as plays, dances, or orchestral shows basically for free as long as they are accompanied by a paying adult.

Knoxville’s Art and Cultural Alliance continues to tinker and experiment with what will serve the local community. The residencies of yesteryear have given way to other shows for now. Whatever is going on at the Emporium Center, its all for Knoxville to enjoy and all for Knoxville artists to flourish.


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