As it turns 70, the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga takes art in new directions

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If you think art museums are highbrow and stuffy, maybe a cosplay party, a visit from a Bigfoot investigator, or a drag show will convince you otherwise. Such programs are on the program for the summer “Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration,” the second of three 70th anniversary exhibitions this year at the Hunter Museum of American Art.

Prominently located above the Tennessee River in downtown Chattanooga, this clifftop lighthouse is revered as one of America’s finest mid-size art museums. More than 3,000 works reside within the walls of its three buildings: the original mansion, built as a private residence in 1905; the east wing, added in 1975; and the West Wing, one of several downtown projects completed in 2005 as part of the 21st Century Waterfront Development.

Each piece in the Hunter Collection is meant to tell the stories of American art from the 1700s to the present day. Temporary exhibits such as “Enchanted” also serve to show that the Hunter is “not your grandmother’s museum,” says Cara McGowan, director of marketing and communications.

It’s not just the visual art that draws visitors to The Hunter, which opened in 1952. Staff members also enliven the space with guests offering musical performances, poetry nights, yoga and art projects for children.

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As it turns 70, the Hunter Museum in Chattanooga takes art in new directions

Recently, Chief Curator Nandini Makrandi and Education Curator Adera Causey answered Chatter Magazine’s questions about the Hunter’s past, present and future. This is an edited version of the conversation.

ChatterMagazine: What have been the biggest changes to The Hunter since its inception 70 years ago?

Nandini Makrandi: As for the biggest changes in 70 years, there are many: the fact that the Hunter started out with no collection and now has over 3,000 works; a staff of one person and a building with 50 employees and three large buildings; a rich list of educational and outreach programs that include a number of strong community partnerships.

The growth and evolution of the Hunter and its offerings has mirrored that of the city, and we continue to work to engage audiences and present relevant artwork that deepens our understanding of ourselves and others, and that offer new and compelling insights.

To chatter: What considerations go into buying/exhibiting works today versus then?

Makrandi: Although the Hunter has always focused on presenting original works of art representing significant movements in American art, we have made concerted efforts over the past 20 years to ensure that our acquisitions and exhibitions better reflect the many histories of American art – that means being responsive to what our community wants to see, reflecting the interests and concerns of our communities, and engaging in artistic ways with the issues we all face today. We dramatically increased the number of works by female artists and artists of color and began to more actively seek out technology-based pieces that reflect our 21st century world.

To chatter: How far in advance do you know about upcoming exhibitions?

Makrandi: Exhibitions are often scheduled two to five years in advance.

Our goal with the exhibits is to show a range of artwork exploring a variety of topics and concerns relevant to American society, so that in any three to five year cycle you will experience everything from traditional and historic oil paintings to contemporary photography and new media.

To chatter: What have been the most significant exhibitions over the years, in terms of attendance?

Makrandi: A number of exhibits have been popular with visitors for a variety of reasons. Over the past five years, these have risen to the top: “Embodied Beauty: Sculptures by Karen LaMonte”, “Noel W. Anderson: Blak Origin Moment”, “Power, Passion & Pose: Photographs by Ken Browar and Deborah Ory”, “The Hunter Invitational” and “William J. Glackens and Pierre-Auguste Renoir: affinities and distinctions”.

To chatter: Is there a “typical” visitor?

Adera Causey: Our typical visitor has changed significantly over the past 20 years. In the early years, our walk-in guests and many of our program participants were older, white, and affluent, and those who attended our school programs were largely from private schools or local public schools with students in high-income areas. Over the years this has changed significantly with general attendance, particularly evenings and weekends, becoming more representative of our community as a whole.

The museum’s public programs, which are intentionally designed to accommodate younger audiences and underrepresented voices, often feature BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) presenters and have a much younger and more diverse attendance; similarly, our youth programs, especially our extensive outreach efforts, have much stronger and ongoing connections with students in Title I school communities.

To chatter: How did the 2005 expansion and renovation reinvigorate the Hunter?

Causey: The new addition offered space – in the lobby and on the 24-hour terrace – for larger, more physically active programs and opportunities to engage guests with a sense of wonder. Gallery relocations have created more impactful and relevant guest-centric presentations and information. And, of course, having more space for community and private events has allowed many more people to experience the beauty of the museum on very special occasions.

To chatter: What’s in the Hunter’s future?

Causey: Continue to create an inclusive and welcoming space with artwork that better reflects the lived experience of a cross section of America. The future also involves increasingly reaching out to communities and groups that have not been so involved in the museum and developing programs hand in hand with them and, ideally, led by them.

To chatter: What would you like more people to know about the museum?

Causey: That we are there for everyone and that we welcome ideas. Some of our best deals come from suggestions from community members.

‘ENCHANTED’ PROGRAM

The summer exhibition, “Enchanted: A History of Fantasy Illustration,” highlighting memorable characters and scenes from fairy tales, myths and legends, is on view through September 5. Here are some of the programs that take place while it is running. More information on huntermuseum.org.

— June 2: 6-7:30 p.m., Studio Sessions: Chatt and Comix, a comic book drawing workshop suitable for beginners

— June 9: 6-7:30 p.m., Cosplay at the Hunter, a first event to find costumes of favorite fandom characters

— June 30: 6:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m., Panel on Fantasy Collecting with stories and advice for new and experienced comic collectors

— July 7: 5:30-7:30 p.m., Fantasy Game Night for tabletop players

— July 14: 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., Hip Hop Fantasy inspired by Dragon Ball Z, Thriller and Rerun rhythms.

— July 21: 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Fantasy Cabaret, a dragster show with local artists

— July 28: 6-7 p.m., Bigfoot investigator David Eller talks about sightings in the area

— August 14: 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Family Fun Day Fairy Tales Enchantment, with artistic creation workshops, treasure hunts and performances

— August 25: 6-7 p.m., Enchantment with Ballet Esprit, a dance performance inspired by fantasy

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