How Knoxville Became a Model for Supporting Local Makers

As Etsy’s first official U.S. ‘Maker City,’ Knoxville, Tennessee, is growing the local economy through arts, crafts, and entrepreneurship.

Author: Casey Gale       

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Knoxville’s Maker City Summit is a full weekend of workshops, presentations, networking, and social events.

In 2016, a small team from Knoxville that included a local maker, a retailer, and city official attended the inaugural Etsy Maker Cities Summit, hosted by the online global marketplace in Brooklyn, for two days of brainstorming and education. The team was chosen to join only 12 other participating destinations who were selected from hundreds of applicants. The Knoxville team’s goal was to bring back ideas that would help serve their local maker economy, which at the time lacked the resources needed to thrive.

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Anne Templeton

After mapping out ways in which to apply what they learned back home, the Knoxville team achieved their goal just months later: The destination launched the first Maker City Summit in Knoxville in late 2016 — a place to gather makers of all varieties with expert-led sessions in the fields of crafting and entrepreneurship. At the event, Knoxville was named Etsy’s first official “Maker City” in the United States, an initiative that aims to pair strong maker economies with Etsy’s self-proclaimed mission “to reimagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world.”

“Our then-mayor thought, ‘This is wonderful. How do we embrace this new moniker and encourage the maker economy here in Knoxville?’” said Anne Templeton, director of maker initiatives, The Maker City, at Knoxville Entrepreneur Center and founder and lead event strategist at Templeton Marketing and Events. “There’s obviously the tourism benefits, but really, it was fundamentally about the makers themselves and creating an economy that was supported by our local community,” she said. “The idea is that when you support your local community, you can weather all kinds of other economic changes outside of the city.”

Knoxville was officially branded “The Maker City” and the Mayor’s Maker Council, also established in 2016, was formed to help with efforts to organize, support, and advocate for Knoxville makers, artists, creatives, and small-scale manufacturers. That included the creation of The Maker City organization, which hosts an online directory of 300 makers, and facilitates year-round meetups and workshops, online classes, and more for a community of more than 900 makers. In June, The Maker City will host a “Maker Mingle” — a casual gathering for makers to socialize and check out local maker spaces — at Knoxville’s Lilienthal Gallery, which showcases contemporary international, national, and select local artists.

“It’s all about connection. We connect makers with other makers to develop networks, with business professionals to help them develop their businesses, and with the community to facilitate growth,” Templeton said. “That is our fundamental mission as it was established. And then it just has grown and taken off, which is exciting.”

These connection points also are made at the Maker City Summit, now an annual event, to be held next on Sept. 27–29, 2024. Here, makers gather with their peers and learn from fellow business owners who are further along in their entrepreneurial journey.

“There may be a maker who walks in who doesn’t know whether to set up an LLC, an S corporation, or just be a sole proprietor,” Templeton said, adding that attendees come to the event with a wide variety of questions, like: “‘How do I file taxes?’ ‘What do I need to do to scale my business?’

‘What if I want to open a brick-and-mortar shop?’ We have people on site ready to assist,” Templeton said. Event organizers bring in speakers local to Knoxville and from around the country, and “make it a point to create an event so that makers can walk out with a tactile list of to-dos,” Templeton said. “They’re able to meet the speakers and have in-depth conversations about what they need in their business. It makes for a dynamic weekend.”

At Knoxville’s Maker City Summit, makers learn from fellow business owners who are further along in their entrepreneurial journey.

Knoxville leverages its Maker City brand to attract groups and events looking to incorporate the arts into their program, regardless of their profession or industry.

“We have a strong maker and creative culture here in Knoxville, and it’s a fun part of Knoxville’s identity we can share with groups,” said Chad Culver, senior director of sports commission and convention sales at Visit Knoxville. “From artist-centric conferences we can attract here, to recommending off-site workshops and locally made gifts, there are a variety of ways we get to involve Knoxville’s maker community with our meetings and events.”

In recent years, the city has attracted maker conferences such as the Complex Weavers 2022 Seminars and the 2022 Handweavers Guild of America’s biennial convention. Knoxville also brings its artisans into events that are unrelated to the maker space — for the 2023 Governor’s Conference on Hospitality & Tourism, Visit Knoxville hosted a reception at Neyland Stadium where local artist Chloe Peterson did a live painting of the venue, while at the 40th Anniversary of the 1982 World’s Fair, Visit Knoxville hosted a celebration in Knoxville’s World’s Fair Park that featured a maker market where festival attendees could shop artisans’ booths.

In Knoxville, event organizers can change the definition of swag — stuff we all get — to offer participants unique, locally made wares. According to Culver, planners frequently look to provide handmade items as takeaway gifts for attendees or their executive teams, and similar goods are included in Visit Knoxville’s welcome baskets and sales packages. The destination’s visitor center gift shop is known for its artist-focused offerings, with more than 80 local makers represented. While in town, event attendees also have a variety of markets and shops to check out on the local art scene, including RALA (Regional and Local Artisans), the Dogwood Arts Festival, the Foothills Craft Guild Fine Craft Show, and the Maker Exchange, a shoppable collection from Knoxville’s crafters inside the Marriott Knoxville Downtown.

“Something unique about the Knoxville arts community,” Templeton said, is that “there’s so many arts organizations in Knoxville, and we all play so well in the same sandbox. Artists of all kinds can come here and find a place.”

Casey Gale is managing editor at Convene.


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