Contemporary Heritage: Artists and Administrators Re-envision Nashville Culture

Nashville crowds celebrate Mayor Karl Dean's official recognition of the 'Avenue of the Arts' and the First Saturday Art Crawl : Downtown Nashville, Tennessee; June 2013; image credit: M Kelley
Nashville crowds celebrate Mayor Karl Dean’s official recognition of the “Avenue of the Arts” and the First Saturday Art Crawl; downtown Nashville, Tennessee, June 2013. Image credit: M Kelley

As with any developing cultural city, Nashville certainly has its fair share of growing pains. In the 1990s, many significant “on the ground” arts movements, driven by groups of artists banding together for support and community, faced challenges: as a whole, Nashville wanted to expand, but didn’t know how to go about it. A 1992 report for city planning—despite hundreds of pages in length—dedicated only a single page to arts and culture development. Though support for the arts existed, resources as a whole were harder to marshal, especially for genres outside of music. Each group had different strengths and weaknesses, but without solid political and community infrastructure to support and connect different artist-led groups, it was hard to share experiences. Lacking a clear history of what had been done before, many groups found themselves struggling to solve the same problems again and again: managing studio and exhibition space, attracting audiences, and locating and managing resources. Financial sustainability was in constant flux and a recurring struggle for many in navigating growth.

Though successful arts organizations adapted, finding solutions to these unique financial, managerial, and social problems proved difficult. The diverse group named Untitled embraced uncertainty in 1991 via a pop-up/temporary exhibition model, but unfortunately struggled with a slow bureaucratic process before ultimately refining their management to best serve this programming style. For others of this era, the communication gap between city policy and artist initiatives proved insurmountable at the time: Fugitive Art Projects sought physical space in 1999 to cultivate exhibitions, studios, and artistic dialogue, but eventually closed their Fugitive Art Center venue in 2005 after struggling to work with building codes and facility issues. Perhaps the biggest (recent) disappointment to Nashville’s contemporary art scene came with the closing of Ruby Green, a contemporary arts center founded in 1998 that despite national attention and invitation into the Warhol Foundation Initiative, finally closed in 2009 due to financial constraints.

The closing of Ruby Green four years ago could have easily left a palpable void in the cultural landscape of Nashville. But regardless of where the city’s optimism originates, Nashvillians are known for their resilience and flexibility. “Ruby Green Contemporary Arts Center set a precedent for what can be done here, with a lot of sweat equity and not a lot of capital,” says Adrienne Outlaw, artist and founder of Seed Space, a lab for writers, curators, and artists. Individuals involved in or inspired by the proving ground of Ruby Green carried their experiences onward to start other spaces and movements in the city. “It was nice [to know it could be done].”

Now, as Nashville navigates towards its renewal of the twenty-five year “General Plan” through the NashvilleNext Project—a comprehensive 18-chapter planning series spanning all angles of city development—the city is looking to precedents both within Nashville’s cultural past as well as to present cultural models flourishing in other cities. Originally a single page document, the arts and culture background section of the “General Plan” blossomed into a 100 plus page report casually known in art circles as “The White Papers.”

“One of the core things [we’ve examined] is how much people value participation in the arts, and the role of the arts in what makes Nashville special. Continuing to make that the case is the job of the city, and it happens over different mechanisms.”
-Jennifer Cole, Director of the Metro Arts Commission and a key author in the Arts & Culture background document

In the document, which contains information mined from 2010 census data, the Creative Vitality Index (an IRS-based dataset of taxpayers who have identified as artists), school participation results, and “an incredible amount of data not coded in the ways that [cities] are used to [translating],” Cole emphasizes the interconnectedness of city departments in succeeding the plan: “Over the last few years, we have worked with other government development groups— public works, planning, economic development—to help them understand the importance of arts in policy.”

With Nashville being favored as a rising cultural star by long-time metropolitan art centers such as New York, and with the recently trendy impetus of city planners (worldwide) to take advantage of the ‘Creative Class,’ it should prove easy for Nashville’s arts economy to simply emulate the success trail of any other growing city. Wisely however, many Nashvillians on the ground and on the policy board feel strongly that mimicry isn’t the answer, and that policy without the support of the people can’t survive. This grassroots perspective on social change drives the NashvilleNext project: a comprehensive process to create vision involving growth mapping, relying on extensive surveying (from board rooms to supermarket aisles) to target actual concerns of diverse citizens, and critically analyzing how neighborhoods actually function throughout Nashville.

Neighborhood development continues to be a relevant and engaging issue for artists who traditionally organize around physical space. After seven years of earning attention through their First Saturday ArtCrawl, the Downtown Arts District sector of Nashville—spanning loosely from the Frist Center to the SoBro neighborhood, and gravitating along 5th Avenue—was officially named “The Avenue of the Arts” by Mayor Karl Dean in June of 2013. For the commercial galleries, project spaces, and pop-up exhibition venues that populate the area, it’s a dramatic win for the city that many hope will help nourish the continuing growth of the gallery scene (and which jaded Nashvillians hope won’t damage the ability of independent spaces to operate in the area).

The Wedgewood-Houston neighborhood parallels the downtown expansion through its rising visibility of resident artists. Though once home to the now closed Fugitive Art Center, both the artists and city of Nashville have learned from its prior mistakes—none better exemplified than through the case study of Fort Houston. As a social enterprise that provides facilities, equipment, and workspace for creative entrepreneurs and freelancers, Fort Houston’s move into an independent location brought unique challenges to their business as well as to Metro government policy. “We wanted it to be real, so we knew we had to operate in ways that people understood and expected, [but] we were doing something that had never been done before here in the city,” explains Ryan Schemmel, spokesperson for and founding member of Fort Houston. Though a lengthy process, “there was confusion but not opposition,” and the end result was a forward-thinking review of existing codes and policy throughout the city. Through advances such as the Office of Innovation, a recent development devoted to reviewing how social and business models are changing and how departments can adapt, the city is looking to facilitate the diverse hybrids of artists’s movements.

Fort Houston, a social enterprise targeted to creative entrepreneurs  provides facilities and equipment for artist and artisan projects; Fort Houston, Nashville, Tennessee; image credit: Stephen Zerne
Fort Houston, a social enterprise targeted to creative entrepreneurs provides facilities and equipment for artist and artisan projects; Fort Houston, Nashville, Tennessee. Image credit: Stephen Zerne


In addition to workspace, Fort Houston provides flexible venue space for creative groups, such as Research Club, a monthly networking and collaborative opportunity centered around presentations of the passions of local professionals; Fort Houston, Nashville, Tennessee; image credit : Stephen Zerne
In addition to workspace, Fort Houston provides flexible venue space for creative groups, such as Research Club, a monthly networking and collaborative opportunity centered around presentations of the passions of local professionals; Fort Houston, Nashville, Tennessee. Image credit : Stephen Zerne

Porter Flea, a semi-annual craft fair pop-up that changes locations throughout the city, “is a great example [of the city adapting to artist movements],” says Jennifer Cole, when asked how the city supports the new market. “It’s a new consumer model, and one that’s going to continue to grow: [the artist-vendors] don’t have a storefront; they want a mobile delivery platform; they don’t keep a warehouse of stock.” Though the Metro Arts Commission streamlined the ordinarily difficult permit process in order to encourage the popular festival, Cole notes how events like these bring necessary changes to the forefront. “It’s not massive change but removing small barriers that can make the difference.”

Cole admits, “[It can be] hard from a city standpoint. Cities, all cities, are built around ideas of permanence: homes, buildings, and streets. In the creative world, non-permanence makes a lot of sense for artists. There’s flexibility for delivery, and [there’s room for] growth in non-permanence, for artists and also for neighborhoods.” It’s a sentiment echoed by many in the arts community, where operating flexibility is key.

This flexibility of non-permanence—and the inherent embrace of risk—is an idea that many Nashvillians hope could drive the continuing growth of contemporary arts and culture. “There’s a critical mass here of people who care about art; you have the ability to affect Nashville: do it,” states one interviewee. Outlaw echoes the sentiment: “The city has been extremely supportive when artists have done their research and come to the city with a win-win opportunity. […] We need to be proactive and take this to people who can help us change things.” As to defining what a ‘win-win opportunity’ looks like to both sides? “You want to do something on your own terms…but knowing what language to use when speaking to [businesses and government] helps artists get what they need,” Schemmel notes. “You get their ear [when you use their language], because there’s too many preconceived notions about what artists are, how they act, and what they do and don’t do.” He asserts that creatives need to look to business parallels to understand how to track and evaluate their own projects more efficiently.

Tracking effectiveness in the arts is not always an easy task; art is notorious for being difficult to quantify, with many of its virtues rather intangible. Artober, an initiative by Metro that is part arts-tracking-system and part identity campaign, transforms Nashville during the month of October every year through an umbrella of Metro-advocated arts events. “It’s a beautiful testament to how important the arts are in Nashville and how supportive our community is,” states Rebecca Barrios, Metro’s Community Events Manager and the coordinator for Artober. By providing a framework for groups to organize and promote artistic events that draw from their own interests and strengths, Artober helps artists and organizations spotlight their roles in the city while providing the city with real-time results of arts effectiveness and reach. Barrios explains the reach of the project: “In 2012, there were 936 official Artober Nashville events hosted by 246 community partners, and an estimated 350,000 Nashvillians participated in the arts where they live, work, and play.”

Even with documented results and tangible numbers, it is still hard for organizations to make strong cases for aid in the current grant climate. “Larger institutions, such as city-sponsored performing arts and theatre centers, have built-in mechanisms – ticket sales – to document people and take money, so it’s easy for them to prove [their impact] and get money [from granting systems],” Outlaw points out, comparing the struggle of visual arts spaces and smaller contemporary companies when being judged alongside and in comparison to larger institutions. “A 3,000 seat venue, with a show every month, will have more numbers than [a small independent art space.]”

Cole agrees that a restructuring of the current arts grant system is needed. “Our demographics are shifting rapidly,” Cole notes, referring to 2010 census data that points to Nashville’s ‘majority minority’ forecast as the city doubles within next twenty years. “There is a lot of growth in places where there is no ‘formal’ cultural expression [in ways we are used to seeing] or publicly available venues for cultural performances. How do we honor what’s already happening?” Previous grant structures by Metro have focused on 501c3s, and much of past city targeting encouraged the 501c3 process in arts groups. Now, Cole explains, “many of these artists groups don’t have the organizational capacity to become a 501c3, or they don’t want to become one, so we’re having to explore how we can help. It’s a whole new set of tools for supporting cultural activation because it doesn’t all look the same. It’s no longer about buildings, it’s about audiences: how they participate, how they engage, and how it’s different for each group.”

Nashville artists cultivate the pop-up model for its benefits of flexibility, audience expansion, and low overhead, such as this pop-up exhibit by Co. H, a student-run curatorial group operating out of Watkins College; Projections, a Co.H production, held at Platetone Printmaking, Paper and Book Arts, Nashville, Tennessee; image credit : Stephen Zerne
Nashville artists cultivate the pop-up model for its benefits of flexibility, audience expansion, and low overhead, such as this pop-up exhibit by Co. H, a student-run curatorial group operating out of Watkins College; Projections, a Co.H production, held at Platetone Printmaking, Paper and Book Arts, Nashville, Tennessee. Image credit : Stephen Zerne

Existing resources, such as the Arts and Business Council, while still maintaining the support they provide for 501c3s, are also shifting their perspectives to alternate organizational structures and individual artist development, pursuing measures such as the Creative Capital partnership in 2012 to provide career development to Nashville artists. Fundamentally, the ABC exists as a third party designed to bridge artists and civic leadership. “Everything we do is about building partnerships, because we believe both will be most successful when they are working together,” says Jackie Johnson, Director of Programs and Community Initiatives at the ABC. Whether working with individual artists, groups, or with the city, Johnson advocates “instead of hoarding ideas and resources, we open up [so] that something beautiful can be built.” It’s a sentiment that echoes among city government and within artists alike. “For Nashville,” continues Johnson, “I think that approach makes all the difference.”

M Kelley
 is a “maker, do-er, thinker, writer” based out of Nashville, Tennessee, with a BFA from Western Kentucky University. An advocate for dialogue in contemporary art, Kelley is an active contributor to a variety of diverse publications and arts initiatives. Kelley curates for the project space 40AU, the collective HAUS Rotations, and Gallery One. Hir social practice, as both artist and curator, revolves around providing educational and developmental opportunities to artists and audiences alike; a fascination with the complexities of communication and narrative; and inviting others into collaboration, curiosity, and cross-pollination.



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  • John Warren Oakes
    August 23, 2013 at

    Wonderful article Megan!

    • M Kelley
      September 4, 2013 at

      Thank you, John! I appreciate you taking the time to read it and respond in the way you have (here and elsewhere); you’ve had a lot of experience with southern arts and I appreciate your viewpoints. Nashville is growing; there’s momentum and optimism. It’s a powerful place to be.

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