After the Chase 

Frist Center’s executive director moves on after an impressive run, leaving high expectations for his successor

Frist Center’s executive director moves on after an impressive run, leaving high expectations for his successor

In December 1998, Chase Rynd signed on as executive director of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. Last week, on July 31, he officially stepped down from the post to assume the presidency of the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

Rynd’s tenure at the Frist has, by any measure, been an extraordinarily successful one. In his four years and seven months at the helm of Nashville’s flagship venue for the visual arts, Rynd has recruited a staff with impressive national credentials and developed an exhibitions program that has produced alliances with some of the world’s top museums, including the Tate in London and the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. Rynd also led the development effort to enhance the Frist Center’s endowment and built the membership base to over 8,000 people. Under his leadership, the center’s volunteer base has swelled to over 700 and the community outreach and art education programming he initiated has created unprecedented partnerships within the Nashville arts community.

But for Rynd, success isn’t measured in blockbuster exhibitions snagged, top museum personnel recruited or money raised. It is calculated, instead, in the unexpectedly enthusiastic response of Nashvillians to the center itself. “When I came here, there was certainly an indication that Nashville wasn’t a visual arts town and that we might have an uphill climb,” says Rynd, who left the executive directorship of the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington state to come to the Frist. “Nashvillians managed to prove that assumption wrong pretty quickly. In fact, the biggest surprise for me was the rapid and enormous embrace we experienced when we threw open the doors.” Indeed, during the facility’s first full month of operation, 30,625 patrons crossed the threshold.

Not only were the crowds curious to see the transformation of the building from aging Art Deco post office to sleek new arts center, they were surprisingly adventurous in their art tastes. In fact, “Postmodern Art From the UBS Paine Webber Collection” and “Vital Forms: Art of the Atomic Age,” shows that featured contemporary art, were two of the best-attended shows during Rynd’s tenure. “These were challenging exhibits, but people loved them and that helped us learn that people here are willing to make the stretch for risky exhibits,” Rynd says.

Not all the exhibits have been risky. Shows like “European Masterworks: Paintings From the Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario” and “Whistler, Sargent and Steer: Impressionists in London From the Tate Collections” have played to the general public’s preference for traditional art by well-known European and American artists. Both shows, however, illustrate another key accomplishment for Rynd. “I was personally thrilled that the Tate was willing to work with us on the Whistler show,” he says. “It helped establish us as a solid member of the international visual arts community.”

The relationship Rynd forged with the Tate continues to bear fruit. In May 2004, “The Pre-Raphaelite Dream: Paintings and Drawings From the Tate Collections” makes its only U.S. appearance at the Frist. “The show was originally touring to just three museums in Australia and New Zealand,” Rynd says. “Then about a year ago, one of the Australian museums decided it couldn’t take the show and the Tate called to see if we would be interested.” Rynd’s professional ties with the director of the Phillips Collection have produced similar results. “From El Greco to Picasso: Masterworks From The Phillips Collection,” a touring show making only five stops in the U.S., comes to the Frist in January.

As proud as Rynd is of the big-name shows from top art museums that have stopped at the Frist, he is even prouder of the educational and outreach activities that the center develops to accompany each show. “I’m a big believer in interdisciplinary programming,” Rynd says. “I think there is so much that can be learned about the visual arts in the context of other art forms.” The center has incorporated everything from film screenings and lectures to dance programs, musical concerts and children’s art-making events in conjunction with every major exhibition. The Sunday-afternoon gospel concert series this month in conjunction with “Bold Improvisation: 120 Years of African American Quilts” is the most recent example.

According to Anne Henderson, Frist’s director of education, this programming reflects another facet of Rynd’s leadership. “Chase has been wonderful at encouraging collaborations with other Nashville art groups,” she says. “And as a result, they bring their audiences to us and we bring ours to them.” Past examples include a live performance by Nashville Ballet in front of six dance-related paintings by Susan Rothenberg that were part of the UBS PaineWebber exhibit, and a film series at the Belcourt Theatre that brought Patricia Neal and Celeste Holm to Nashville during the “Vital Forms” exhibition.

That collaborative trend will continue with the shows slated for the 2003-2004 season. Nashville Chamber Orchestra and Nashville Ballet are both presenting new works inspired by Tennessee folklore in conjunction with “Art of Tennessee,” opening Sept. 13. Organized by the Frist, the exhibit surveys Tennessee’s art legacy, from sculptures produced by the earliest Native American populations to contemporary works. The Frist has also partnered with the Nashville Film Festival to present a Tennessee filmmakers series on Nov. 8 and 9 in support of the show. Next February, Nashville actor Brian Niece presents My Own Brother, Vincent, a one-man show about Vincent van Gogh, at the Frist in conjunction with the “From El Greco to Picasso” exhibit. “Both Chase and [curator] Mark Scala had seen Brian perform the show at Zeitgeist Gallery [in 2001] and recommended that we bring the show here,” says Henderson.

Considering the extent of Rynd’s influence on every aspect of the Frist, one might well wonder if there are rough seas ahead in the wake of his departure. Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Ken Roberts, president of the Frist board and head of the search committee to find Rynd’s replacement. “Chase has left us in such good shape that I don’t think we’ll have any trouble getting a strong leader to continue,” Roberts says. “Obviously, the new director’s challenges will be different, since the new person doesn’t have to initiate a whole new ballgame like Chase did. The main challenge for the next director is to expand the outreach programs and broaden the attendance base. As for what we’re looking for, just give us another Chase and we’ll be happy.”

Roberts says he expects to have a slate of candidates by early September and perhaps “another Chase” in place by the New Year. In the meantime, Frist Center director of finance and operations Martin D. Terrien is serving as interim executive director, the staff remains intact and exhibitions are securely in place for at least the next 12 months. Indeed, Rynd’s legacy in terms of exhibitions reaches to the year 2006, when “Quest for Immortality: Treasures of Ancient Egypt,” considered the largest group of antiquities ever on loan from Egypt for exhibit in North America, pays a three-month visit. The blockbuster show marks the center’s entrée into Egyptian art, a perennially popular genre. It’s another example of Rynd’s bold aspirations—and it sets the bar high for his successor.

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