There’s a little over two weeks to go before the opening, and everyone seems covered in drywall dust. On the second floor of the Arcade downtown, Todd Greene and Tony Dowling are turning No. 73 into a new art gallery, Twist. So far, there are white walls but no lights, and an ugly linoleum floor that artist Beth Gilmore, who co-owns the place with art consultant Caroline Carlisle, swears will get painted before they open on Saturday, Aug. 5. Across the street, Jerry Dale McFadden ducks into a Fifth Avenue storefront that will be the new home of his TAG Gallery. Here, too, there are white walls and a lot of construction dust. Like Gilmore and Carlisle, he’s rushing to get things done in time for his opening, also on Aug. 5.
These two rehab projects are part of a boom in art action on the block of Fifth Avenue between Church and Union Street. It emerged suddenly this summer but grew from seeds planted some time ago and tended diligently, in particular by Anne Brown at The Arts Company. She and others have promoted Fifth Avenue as Nashville’s Avenue of the Arts, based on the observation that, from Ruby Green down by Lafayette to TPAC at the north end of downtown, there are a string of arts venues. But those venues are too spread out to feel like a district. Now there will be several galleries on one block—and you can visit all of them from one parking place.
Brown opened The Arts Company in 1996 after 10 years as executive director of the Metro Arts Commission. The gallery has made a point of presenting art in an approachable manner. “We’ve had one mission from the beginning,” Brown says, “to put art in the middle of the marketplace, to make it friendly, accessible, and keep the quality high.” The gallery has shown hundreds of artists (“We make a living for a lot of people based on original art,” Brown says proudly) and has created events to bring artists and audiences together, like “salons” (enhanced openings), art sales in the building’s roomy garage, artists’ studios on the second floor, and satellite exhibits at Provence Breads and the office of Pinnacle Financial Partners. A large portion of The Arts Company’s sales comes from outfitting corporate offices and residences with original art.
For years, Brown’s gallery seemed like an outpost in a desolate stretch of downtown. In 2004, Brown and McFadden worked out a deal for TAG Gallery, which had already vacated its former home in Hillsboro Village, to move into the second floor of The Arts Company. Now there was another reason to check out what was going on at 215 Fifth Ave. McFadden’s gallery complemented The Arts Company in many ways, especially by focusing on outsider and self-taught artists and taking a realistic approach to the local art market, although TAG’s vibe is a little edgier.
McFadden explains that the arrangement was always meant to be temporary, until he could find the perfect home for his operation, and he moved in just as the market for downtown residential space started to pick up. McFadden and new business partner Susan Tinney jumped on an opportunity to buy street-level space in the renovated Kress Building, just down the street from The Arts Company. For McFadden, “the beauty of this space, besides this energy going on downtown, is that here was an opportunity to actually purchase commercial retail space at a really great price. It just happened at the right time.” In his new space, he expects to continue the gallery’s evolution from its roots, in McFadden’s words, as a “little folk art gallery” to a place that will show more cutting-edge contemporary work, bring in artists with bigger names, and offer some higher-priced art.
Adding to Fifth Avenue’s prospects to become a lively arts district is a bustle of activity at the Arcade. Built in 1903, the Arcade has had its ups and downs—like most of downtown Nashville. Old photos show the interior lined with all sorts of businesses—a music shop, a jeweler, an optician, places selling hosiery and fixing buttons. Today it is mostly known as a place for downtown workers to grab lunch or use the post office. Given the building’s timeless architectural charm, it seems a shame there aren’t more reasons to spend time there.
But that’s beginning to change, thanks to pioneers like Daniel Lai, who opened Dangenart Gallery on the second floor of the Arcade (No. 83) overlooking Fifth Avenue last year. After growing up in Malaysia, Lai came to the U.S. in 2000 to study linguistics and art history at a New Jersey university, then went to New York to make art. With his background as an art historian, he got the bug to present art. “Rather than waiting for a curator position [in an established gallery] to open,” Lai says, “it occurred to me I might as well start my own.” The New York gallery scene struck him as too aggressive. “Everything from logistics to art perception is not encouraging in New York,” he says. Also, he saw a chance to work with the many artists interested in expanding their horizons. “There are many edgy New York artists who want to show outside New York,” he says.
Lai settled on New Orleans and Nashville as possible locations, because of relatively low costs and growing local art scenes, and ultimately chose Nashville. It was a fortuitous decision—he moved here last August, the day Katrina hit New Orleans. Since opening Dangenart, he has presented a series of shows strong on out-of-town artists not previously shown in Nashville. Dangenart’s offerings feel like shows of young and emerging artists in New York or Chicago, reflecting the connection Lai has to those scenes.
Lai seems to have been a trailblazer into the second floor of the Arcade. Over the summer, three more spaces were rented for art uses: Twist, Matt Mikulla’s Art Rogue studio and gallery, and Bart Mangrum’s studio space. Twist, which will open on Aug. 5 along with TAG, is an outgrowth of Gilmore’s efforts organizing one-night series like Gambit and Carlisle’s experience as a curator of art at the airport. They plan to focus on shows that pair an out-of-town artist with someone local. They hope these combinations will attract both people interested in seeing work by artists they know and other audiences who want to see something completely new. Twist will also provide a regular venue for the Gambit group shows and other exhibits Gilmore and Carlisle dream up. Their inaugural show features work by Todd Greene. Yes, the same Todd Greene who’s covered in drywall dust. Such is the glamour of a Nashville artist’s life—before you exhibit your work, first you get to build out the space.
Anne Brown remembers previous efforts to encourage art venues in the Arcade, including two or three galleries. Like the new round of enterprises, they were on the second floor, a tough sell from a business perspective. She believes “you have to have enough critical mass” to get people to check out businesses up there, but thinks the latest round of activity “is in that direction.” It could be that all of these promising starts will fizzle out in the coming months and The Arts Company will be left to keep the lights on along Fifth Avenue. But when you consider the robust housing sales downtown, the imminent arrival of “real neighborhood” services like a grocery store, and the energy and intelligence of the new gallery owners and artists converging on the area, it appears that critical mass might be achieved. Perhaps the stars are aligning to complete what Anne Brown and The Arts Company started on this block 10 years ago.