Advocacy. Service. Support.

By Karen Coppock

Big news for Knoxville – after being listed among USA Today’s Readers’ Choice top 10 best arts districts in the U.S. in 2023, Knoxville was voted number 2 on the list for 2024! According to the USA Today website, nominees were submitted by a panel of experts, and the 10Best editors then chose the nominees for Readers’ Choice Awards, from which the public then voted. (See sidebar.)

A local 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Arts & Culture Alliance of Greater Knoxville encouraged the public to vote for Knoxville, according to Liz Kellar’s Knoxville News-Sentinel article on March 1, 2024.1

Formed in 2001, the Alliance’s website ( describes its mission to advocate, serve, and support Knoxville’s local arts and culture community with governmental bodies, the business sector, media, and the public. “We like to push our members forward,” said Liza Zenni, Executive Director of the Alliance. “It’s not that common that we actually are the topic of an article – and that’s okay with us! What we’re here to do is serve and support artists and arts and cultural organizations.”

The Alliance has two membership categories: one for individual artists and another for arts and cultural organizations. Just a few of the organizational members include Dogwood Arts, the Historic Tennessee Theatre, the Arrowmont School of Fine Arts and Crafts, HoLa Hora Latina, and the Knoxville Museum of Art.

Liza asked, “Why would an organization that doesn’t do a lot of producing on its own need to exist?” She explained, “The individual artists needed a place to show their work. They needed a community gallery where they could get their toes wet.”

The Alliance’s home within the Emporium Center provides a great exhibit space for artists who work at all experience levels. “There are five different places within the Emporium that we turn over the work – it’s completely different, every single month,” said Liza. The Emporium is a public-private partnership between the City of Knoxville and the arts community, so that tax-supported component keeps the rental amount low for these artists. The Emporium also receives income from private rentals for weddings and other events. (See sidebar.)

“The other thing that we do with the Emporium is we provide much-needed space to individual artists,” added Liza. “We have full-time studios that are rented by individual artists for far less than they could ever be rented anywhere else.” This allows artists – particularly developing artists – to create, develop their craft, and try new ideas.

Besides improving quality of life, how does this benefit the Knoxville community? According to Liza, last year more than 2.5 million attendees generated more than $29 million in tax revenues. “What we found was those expenditures by those audiences who are attracted by the arts and cultural activities… the sales tax they paid was $29 million,” she said. “We attract spending that then turns into tax revenue that supports roads, the police, fire, schools! It turns into a benefit for everybody.”

The Alliance advocates for arts funding with the State legislature, and it also helps their membership by offering support tools for planning and grant development. Additionally, the Alliance provides financial support to its membership. “Truly our biggest efforts and impact is that we are a United Arts Fund,” shared Liza. “Last year, I signed checks to individual artists and mostly art and cultural organizations – nonprofits – for more than $2 million. So that supports the industry, which is a $62 million industry, and it employs 2,000 people full-time.”

Another method of support is the GRACE Fund. Per their website, “Greater Knoxville’s GRACE Fund was created by the Arts & Culture Alliance as a confidential resource for local arts and culture workers who need financial assistance to meet basic needs.” Liza said that individual members often provide extra money when renewing so they can pay it forward. “We started actually before the pandemic… we are a community that takes care of their own,” she said. For more information about this 100% tax deductible fund, visit

Ways to Help

• Donate (

• Purchase an Arts license plate, available through County Clerk’s offices

• Receive free weekly emails highlighting area arts and cultural events, including Penny4Arts email list

• Attend events, including First Fridays (

• Purchase artwork at the Emporium or their McGee-Tyson Airport satellite exhibit – the money goes back to the individual artists through the Alliance


Penny4Arts gives every child in Knox and surrounding counties an opportunity to attend arts and culture events/activities at the cost of ONE PENNY when accompanied by a paying adult. New events are added throughout the year!

The Emporium Center

The Emporium Center houses the offices of the Arts & Culture Alliance – and so much more! Built in 1898 and renovated in 2004, this 28,000 square foot multifunctional space is home to art galleries and offices for Alliance organizational members: Gallery 1010, the Tennessee Artists Association, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, the Foothills Craft Guild, and HoLa Hora Latina, among others.

The Emporium is also a great wedding and event venue. Liza noted that the rental fees are less expensive than most city venues, and they also help subsidize the rent the artists pay. She added that wedding and event attendees “bring people in…[and] they get to see the artwork.”

The Emporium building itself is a piece of Knoxville history. When it was built, the 100 and 200 blocks of Gay Street sloped, with train tracks at the bottom of the hill. With heavy train traffic during that time, it was a safety hazard for travelers getting to and from the depot. Around 1910-1915, the City decided to raise both blocks and build a bridge over the tracks to create a smooth transition. With that change, what had been the street entrance to the Emporium became the basement. “And there is, still today, an underground thoroughfare where that old sidewalk used to be,” said Liza. The Alliance hopes to do some renovations with an installation that highlights this area.