The New Arts Scene of Nashville

Move over, guitars, the visual artists are here! A Where guide to the city’s galleries, studio districts and art crawls

“The art scene in Nashville is booming exponentially right now,” says Meagan Rhodes—and she ought to know. A former oboe performer, she’s now community manager for 12th & Broad, an initiative spawned by local publishers to engage the Nashville community with an arts magazine and signature monthly events.

“The main thing that’s different about Nashville’s creative culture compared to other cities is that we’re extremely collaborative,” says Rhodes, who has been involved in the Nashville arts community for about ten years. “We shy away from competitiveness. We realize that if we collaborate—everyone shares ideas, tips and works on projects together—then everyone’s work gets more attention. We’re a very friendly town in general, but the entire art community works that way. Musical artists want to collaborate with visual artists who want to collaborate with performance artists and that’s the type of collaborative performance that Nashville wants to see.”

Alan Lequire working on a sculpture

And that’s exactly the sort of event that 12th & Broad hosts each month: “Our events are creative mash-ups,” says Rhodes. “For example we might take the local ballet troupe and mash them up with food bloggers, a classical ensemble, and a rock band—totally different creative aspects mixed together to make a cool, one-of-a-kind event that’s uniquely Nashville.”

Is Rhodes’ perspective on her city’s art scene skewed by her employer’s approach? Not according to Anne Brown, founder of The Arts Company—who Rhodes describes as “the mother hen of Nashville’s whole art community” and who heads one of the largest, most respected galleries in Nashville. Brown says Nashville’s arts scene “is extremely lively. There’s a lot of activity. A lot of artists work here, but people don’t know they’re here—they may have a gallery in New York. But it’s easy to live here where everybody is a somebody. Nashville is a very desirable place to be and a lot of young people are coming here to be in an atmosphere that is creative and collaborative. Here people work together and it’s a different way of approaching an artistic enterprise. It’s a Nashville experience to have lots of different kinds of art.”

As a visitor, tapping into the arts scene is as easy as grabbing a cup of coffee: Coffee shops are more than just a place to sip a latte, they’re also de facto galleries. “Coffee shops are really important,” says Rhodes. “They’re really supportive of the artist community and all have revolving monthly art exhibits on their walls. The artists and the coffee shops take it pretty seriously and promote it the same as if it were a gallery.” Frothy Monkey, Bongo Java and Fido are just three such venues. “There are tons more, but if your artwork goes in one of those three, it’s a big deal,” says Rhodes.

Fifth Avenue of the Arts

For a more established, traditional art gallery experience, head to 5th Avenue, “the Avenue of the Arts.” Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 5th Avenue has been a Nashville hub since the mid-19th Century and home to art galleries since the 1990s. It’s where to find Brown’s The Arts Company as well as Rymer Gallery, Tennessee Art League, Tinney Contemporary and dozens more galleries that showcase art in a range of artistic styles. The nearby Arcade houses several little galleries, many of which are only open during the First Saturday Art Crawl. “The emphasis is here,” says Brown of 5th Avenue. “But other scenes are starting that have other personalities.”

Lawrence Argent's "Reflection" found in Shelby Park

The up-and-coming Wedgewood/Houston neighborhood is Nashville’s newest arts destination and is especially popular with young creative up-starts. “Artists have flocked to the area,” says Rhodes. Collaboration is a key trait: “A lot of young artists don’t have the space or money for big hands-on stuff like printing machines, woodworking machines, sewing machines and so on,” says Rhodes. So in Wedgewood/Houston they can rent studio space and use shared equipment. It’s home to dozens of artist studios, over ten art galleries and the nation’s largest vinyl record pressing plant. One recent addition to the neighborhood is Memphis art dealer and gallery owner David Lusk. Zeitgeist Gallery moved to the neighborhood from Hillsboro Village, and in doing so “gave the neighborhood’s rising art scene clout,” says Rhodes.

Anthony Novak's "Lyrical Rider" outside Coleman Park Community Center

Hillsboro Village, located near Vanderbilt and Belmont Universities, is a hip, four-block collection of shops, boutiques and restaurants where, more often than not, the walls inside each venue serve as galleries and display revolving art exhibits.

Five Points in East Nashville is an artsy hub where there’s “almost a little alleyway of teeny tiny little galfile,” says Rhodes. “Some boutiques were built specifically for creative to have little storefronts and are maybe 200-square-feet.” It’s also home to larger galleries including LeQuire Gallery, which features the work of nearly 20 artists including sculptor Alan LeQuire (whose works on permanent display in Nashville include Musica and Athena), and Art & Invention Gallery, founded by Meg and Bret MacFadyen, who also launched the annual Tomato Art Festival, which started as “a goofy little festival,” according to Rhodes, and now attracts thousands of people and gets bigger every year with its tomato-themed art, bloody marys, gazpacho, costumes, parades, music and more.

In Nashville, viewing art is not limited to galleries and studios, it also abounds outdoors in the form of commissioned murals, public art and street art. And it’s often interactive, in the forms of festivals, performances, special events and more.

“Emergence” in Hartman Park

While creativity and collaboration are fundamental elements of Nashville arts culture, there’s no one specific artistic style or sensibility. “The ‘Nashville style’ is a very creative, collaborative community,” says Brown. “That includes songwriters, musicians, artists, theatre people, writers and other creatives. We’re trying to invent ways to think about art beyond the ‘normal’ stuff. It’s the creative spirit that makes it distinctive.” 

Art Crawls

On the first Saturday of each month, the 5th Avenue and Wedgewood/Houston neighborhoods each host an art crawl. No need to choose—you can make both! 

More than two dozen Downtown galleries host receptions and art openings; most serve free wine and other refreshments. Adding to the festivities, the performance platform along 5th Avenue features live musical performances. Two free shuttles circulate from 6 to 10 pm, and the southbound lane on 5th Avenue North (Church Street to Union Street) is open exclusively to pedestrian traffic from 5 to 9 pm.

More than a dozen Wedgewood/Houston galleries plus food trucks, entertainers and more welcome visitors from 5:30 to 11 pm. Wine and beer is available to those age 21 and older.

On the Second Saturday of every month, East Nashville’s historic Five Points galleries and businesses celebrate the arts from 6 to 9:30 pm.

Nashville Art Walk

Nashville Art Walk is the perfect way to get out and see downtown's art and history. Use your smart phone or computer to plan a Nashville Art Walk. Almost 90 public art projects, art galleries, historical and architectural sites, and Capital Hill area sites are mapped and ready for you to create your own customizable tour.

 

Hope S. Philbrick
About the author