Cheekwood searches for its place in Nashville’s shifting cultural landscape 

State of the Art

State of the Art
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It's a warm Friday night in early June, and the Cheekwood parking lots are filled to capacity. Attendants guide drivers into a wooded field where cars sidle up as in a shopping-mall parking lot. A man in a golf cart gives rides to the admissions office, and strangers squish together, six or seven at a time, nervously tittering about the close quarters. The slow ride ends at the visitor services desk, where well-dressed guests in their Southern summer best are interspersed with kids dressed down in indie-rock regalia.

At twilight an audience with blankets and camp chairs assembles before an outdoor stage, sipping wine and chatting with each other while cicadas chirp in the background. As the sun dims, out comes the evening's headliner, Lambchop, a critically acclaimed Nashville indie-rock band with a global cult following. The audience quiets as Cheekwood President Jane Offenbach joins the band onstage. Tall and lithe, Offenbach is wearing a well-tailored dress that is equal parts classy and conservative, socialite and banker. Every inch the gracious host — Cheekwood's symbol, after all, is the pineapple, which represents hospitality — she welcomes the audience to the first Cheekwood Nights concert.

 "Thank you for coming to Cheekwood!" she says. "We are so pleased to introduce to you ... THE LAMBCHOPS!"

Offenbach's introduction elicits giggles from Lambchop band members and some of their fans, who know that the name is not plural, and there's no "the." Given that the group's always had a larger following overseas than in their hometown, the slip-up is understandable. And it slips past much of the crowd — some of whom likely have never heard of Lambchop, and instead came to enjoy the elegance of Cheekwood's botanical gardens at night.

The presence of an avant-garde band that once played chaotic gigs in the punky confines of Lucy's Record Shop signals the institution's attempts to reach out to the city's burgeoning young art crowd — some of whom are already fixtures at the First Saturday Art Crawl downtown, which has become a social happening as much as an art event. But as Cheekwood seeks its place in Nashville's much-changed art scene, the venerable institution is having something of an identity crisis, including top-level personnel changes, questions about its continued commitment to contemporary art, and an increased focus on the bottom line.

For most of the half-century since it opened in 1960, on the former estate of the Cheek family (who started Maxwell House coffee), Cheekwood has been Nashville's dominant art institution. To be sure, it's also a historic mansion and a gorgeous 55-acre botanical garden — but for decades it was an oasis in a visual-arts desert, and it gamely shouldered that responsibility. In recent years, among Nashville traditions such as the Trees of Christmas, Cheekwood has brought cutting-edge exhibits by local and national artists to its Temporary Contemporary Gallery, earning critical praise and cultural cachet in the process.

But with the 2001 opening of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the proliferation of downtown galleries over the past five years, Nashville's art landscape has radically changed. As the audience for contemporary art has gravitated to the city's center, Cheekwood's position in the local art world has shifted. The many new venues would seem to have relieved the pressure to be all things to all patrons, but that has left the institution's staff and visitors wondering which way it will tilt — toward the expensive traveling shows and blockbuster exhibits that boosted it to a landmark year in 2010, or toward its own holdings and the multi-generational lure of its home and grounds.

Will Cheekwood gradually cede forward-looking contemporary art exhibits to the Frist, the downtown galleries and exciting venues such as Ovvio Arte? That's the fear of local artists and patrons who watch eagerly to see what Temporary Contemporary will program next. And yet under the guidance of a new president who means to impose fiscal discipline and market-driven findings — concepts that are often distasteful to artists — Cheekwood may have its best shot at thriving for another half-century.

 


The sea change at Cheekwood over the past couple of years may have crested in March 2010. It was Cheekwood's historic 50th anniversary, and yet former president Jack Becker resigned, just a couple of months before an exhibit of Dale Chihuly's monolithic glass sculptures was installed.

"That was my baby," Becker tells the Scene. "It was great because it was a whole citywide celebration of Cheekwood's 50th anniversary." The blockbuster exhibit pervaded Nashville from May through October last year. During the exhibit, Offenbach says, attendance grew 100 percent, membership grew 70 percent, and roughly 339,000 people passed through the gates.

"Cheekwood engaged the entire community of Nashville," Becker says, "and my vision was to promote the uniqueness of Cheekwood as a sort of indoor-outdoor place. It's a very experiential phenomenon."

The anniversary celebration was a milestone, but it also may have been the swan song for another phenomenon: Cheekwood's status as the something-for-everyone omniplex of the local arts scene. To Belle Meade residents and families seeking seasonal outings, it's a wonderland of wildflowers, rolling hills and ponds bubbling with tadpoles and glistening footlong koi goldfish. To Nashville's art scene, however, it's the most prestigious venue in the city for local contemporary artists to show their work — since the Frist, as curator Mark Scala readily admits, typically does not present shows by Middle Tennessee artists.

"Cheekwood is one of the only places in Nashville where emerging and local artists can display their work and have an exhibit in a place that lends it the prestige of a museum," says Lain York, an acclaimed artist who also serves as director of Zeitgeist Gallery in Hillsboro Village.

The direction of Cheekwood's programming, therefore, is followed with great interest by the local arts community. All eyes now are on Offenbach, who took over as president from Becker (now in the executive director's post at Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum) in the middle of the Chihuly spectacle. Within months, all three of Cheekwood's vice presidents were either let go or resigned.

The Scene spoke with more than 15 former and current employees for this story, but only a handful agreed to speak on the record. What became apparent was a polemical divide among Cheekwood's staff, with alliances forming among staff members while outcasts pass judgment from the sidelines.

Though Cheekwood once had no rivals as Nashville's definitive art institution, times have changed. The deep-pocketed, relatively new Frist Center and the Arcade-area galleries that have coalesced into a downtown arts district have advantages the 50-year-old institution lacks. The Frist Center has a generous endowment from the Frist Foundation, a luxury Cheekwood doesn't enjoy. (Cheekwood's early benefactor was The Nashville Museum of Art, which donated its permanent collections and proceeds from the sale of its building to help fund the enterprise.) The downtown galleries work in tandem, feature frequently rotating exhibitions, and are near the tourist district. Cheekwood, meanwhile, has a permanent collection, a historic home and pristine botanic gardens that require constant maintenance — and it's in Belle Meade, far from the city's core.

And therein lies the Cheekwood conundrum. Manicured grounds amid one of Nashville's most beautiful neighborhoods help make it a sanctuary from ordinary life, and its refined setting confers a prestige far beyond the un-air-conditioned, sometimes shabby facilities in some of the downtown galleries. But those very same attributes can also be drawbacks. Cheekwood is a mansion inside the most exclusive neighborhood in Nashville. To get there, you have to drive down some of the city's wealthiest streets, and that can be off-putting to patrons who like their art edgy and outside the establishment.

Exclusivity is the enemy of arts institutions. In the past, management has gone to great lengths to prove that Cheekwood isn't like a country club, emphasizing that it is a place for the public, a library of information about art and beauty that is meant to engage its audience. But recent Cheekwood events have had a hard time striking the right balance to reach upscale and populist tastes. July 15's Summer Night's Party charged $35 for an outdoor screening of the critically panned 1974 movie version of The Great Gatsby; it was cancelled at the last minute due to lack of ticket sales, even though it was heavily marketed. (The art exhibit Drawn to Nature was also opening that weekend, but it was left out of the marketing campaign completely.)

But even if some people perceive an air of exclusivity, Cheekwood is still beloved by a broad spectrum of Nashvillians. Furthermore, the institution is facing the same economic challenges as every arts organization — and it seems like everyone has their own ideas how to make Cheekwood a success.

That includes the hiring of Offenbach, a move some consider a masterstroke, yet which raised eyebrows in the arts community. Smart and charismatic, she brings financial acumen to the president's post, and more than one Cheekwood employee says that already in her brief tenure she inspires greatness. Unlike Becker and leaders of most art institutions, however, her background is in business, not art.

Before coming to Nashville, Offenbach was the marketing director at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.  Prior to that, she held the same position at the Dallas Arboretum, a botanical garden similar to Cheekwood. When she speaks, she is plainly proud to work within the art world, but she doesn't downplay her values and her vision for Cheekwood.

"I really grew up in the marketing world," Offenbach tells the Scene. "I come from a business background. I'm looking at Cheekwood as a business — really analyzing the return we receive from different programs — and so one of the areas I'm really focused on is building our earned revenue. What I'm really trying to do is invest in programs where we can really invest in ourselves and build."

The Cheekwood board of directors' decision to hire an out-of-towner whose background is in marketing hints at a new direction. So does the overhaul Offenbach led when she arrived. Just months after her arrival, vice president of finance and operations Becket Moore, director of exhibitions and programs Allison Reid, vice president of development and marketing Wil Elder, and communications manager Michelle Mowry-Johnson all resigned or were let go.

Among her colleagues, Offenbach is famous for saying she has a dollar sign tattooed across her forehead. But that has opened a split between supporters at Cheekwood who welcome her brass-tacks prudence, and critics within the organization who say she emphasizes money over artistic value.

Offenbach makes no apologies for seeking a bigger audience. Toward that end, she has utilized focus groups with longtime members, recent members, visitors and other segments of the Nashville population, including a recent three-month study with key philanthropists and civic leaders. She also conducted an online survey of approximately 1,000 people, roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of Davidson County's population, "to assess the perception of Cheekwood and what people were looking for." She calls focus groups like this "the basis for a new strategic plan and new directions, and a new position for the institution."

It is perhaps too early to see that new position in Cheekwood's 2012 calendar, which retains a balance of splashy big-ticket exhibits, up-and-coming contemporary artists and seasonal events. But Offenbach says her research has turned up clear ideas about what the public wants to see at Cheekwood. The No. 1 reason people come, she says, is to visit the estate's gardens. Thus Cheekwood's future emphasis will be on "art in the garden," she says, citing the Chihuly exhibit.

"We are going to be investing more funds and more staffing to bring our already beautiful gardens to a level of just extraordinary beauty," Offenbach says. "We have 55 acres, which is a canvas in and of itself [and] which is different from the Frist." By the same token, she hopes for more partnerships like the citywide Chihuly effort with the Frist and the Nashville Symphony at TPAC: "I think that complementing each other is very much a win-win."

Yet supporters of Cheekwood's arts programming don't want to see it shift from an art institution with enticing grounds to an event space with auxiliary exhibits. As one source within the institution tells the Scene, the current administration is trying to "turn Cheekwood into Disneyland." The big summer exhibition, Trains! Tennessee in G, is an elaborate display of G-scale model trains. Next up is October's Visions of the American West: Masterworks From the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, a pre-fabricated touring show that plays to the desires of focus groups who, according to Offenbach, want to see more history at Cheekwood.

 


But model trains and Wild West exhibits weren't what interested Veronica Kavass in Cheekwood. Kavass, who holds a master's in curation from Chelsea College of Art in London, acted as Cheekwood's guest curator for a four-month period ending last week. (The official curator is Jochen Wierich, who has been on sabbatical since April.) With assistance from registrar Kay Johnson, exhibition designer Chris Doubler and a handful of freelance art handlers, Kavass oversaw the institution's visual arts programming.

Kavass tells the Scene that while she was acting as guest curator, she began exploring the relationship between Cheekwood and Nashville. She says she was surprised to find Cheekwood was the leader in Nashville's art community during some influential periods in modern art — for instance, the minimalism movement of the late 1960s and early '70s — and that its collection features important works from some of its emblematic artists.

"Iconic artists like Louise Dahl-Wolfe and Eduardo Paolozzi, to name only a few, had these very intimate relationships with Nashville," she says. "Cheekwood was the only art institution in town through the critical years of minimalist photography [and] the advent of pop art, and Cheekwood can offer a unique view through Nashville's lens of art history and cultural landscape."

During the four months she served as guest curator, Kavass says, the museum was in constant change. She found that Offenbach's receptivity largely depended on who made the most aggressive proposal. "Jane listens to whomever talks the loudest," Kavass says. "When the art department at Cheekwood got smaller, it also got louder. When Allison [Reid] left, there was nobody in charge of the exhibitions management, and we had to scramble to figure out what was going on."

Yet because of that, Kavass says, the art department became more aware of their small working budget— which forced them to be more creative with Cheekwood's programming.

"Jane was more transparent about finances," Kavass explains. After learning how little they had to work with, she says, the staff pulled several costly traveling exhibitions and organized exhibits based on work from the estate's permanent collection "instead of trying to be a prestigious art institution. That's the way museums should work."

As a result, Kavass organized an exhibit of Dahl-Wolfe's work from the permanent collection scheduled for March 2012. So is one of the most hopeful signs that contemporary art will have a place at the new Cheekwood: an exhibit of work by contemporary French artist Mathilde Roussel-Girardy.

Former Cheekwood contemporary art curator Terri Smith shares Kavass' enthusiasm for Cheekwood's potential as a visual arts institution. And like several others who know the institution intimately, she tells the Scene that Cheekwood's biggest obstacle is its image of wealth and exclusivity.

"They're starting at a perception of elitism — they're in a mansion," she says. "The perception of cultural institutions is that this is elitist. You almost have to bend over backwards to get people to realize that this is for them too."

During her 10-year tenure at Cheekwood from 1995-2005, Smith brought in work by acknowledged contemporary greats such as Robert Ryman, William Eggleston, Bill Viola and William Kentridge, alongside top local artists like Adrienne Outlaw, Mark Hosford and Patrick DeGuira. The openings for the exhibitions — which at the time were free and open to the public — were always crowded. On a bad day the numbers were about 200, Smith says, but if the weather was good and the art was compelling, they could expect upward of 400 visitors, sometimes 1,000 or more when the contemporary opening was combined with another event in the main building.

Those public openings helped strengthen Cheekwood's audience, according to John Wetenhall, who served as Cheekwood's museum director from 1995 to 2001. "What was so great about having public openings," he tells the Scene, "is that it brought a lot of different people to Cheekwood ... young people. It really helped diversify our audience."

Smith says Wetenhall helped make those openings happen. "He understood that openings were the cheapest form of advertisement and audience-building method," she says, noting that any divide between haves and have-nots closed at the wine-and-cheese table.

But in recent years, openings have been closed to the public. The logic: Membership numbers might increase if admission to openings were one of the perks. The result, however, is that openings are now sparsely attended. In an attempt to increase revenue, Cheekwood may have unwittingly diminished its visibility as a public art institution.

Which would be a shame. Under Smith's leadership, Cheekwood received national recognition through a $50,000 Warhol Foundation grant to continue the contemporary art program. It wasn't long ago that the Temporary Contemporary Gallery featured some of the best exhibits in town, and Cheekwood's row of old horse stalls was Nashville's premier venue for contemporary video art. Last year's exhibit Soaps, Flukes & Follies included videos from artists Kara Walker, Paul McCarthy and Ryan Trecartin. (Trecartin has since had critically acclaimed solo shows at MoMA's PS1 and The Museum of Contemporary Art in LA.) In the past decade, Cheekwood has brought in artwork by Damien Hirst, largely acknowledged as the seminal artist of the contemporary canon, along with pieces by Richard Prince and Gerhard Richter. San Francisco street-culture artist Chris Johanson showed work alongside international icon Werner Herzog. The sculpture trail, which has been a popular Nashville destination since its installation in 1999, features work by Jenny Holzer and James Turrell, whose "Blue Pesher" is one of the few examples of the artist's oeuvre in the Southeast.

 


Come October, though, when the Visions of the American West wagon train rolls into town, the galleries will be brimming with antique rifles, cowboy hats, moccasins, blankets, Western landscapes, saddles, spurs and a whole bunch more. Offenbach says the horse stalls will be used to show Western movies, and that they'll be using every space so they can "really turn Cheekwood into a Western extravaganza."

Offenbach's enthusiasm for Visions of the American West is understandable. Sure, it may sound hokey to the art crowd, but it will likely be a hit with families with young kids, a demographic that turned out in overwhelming numbers for the Chihuly exhibit last summer. Offenbach is clearly determined to make Cheekwood succeed, and even though some may complain that her primary measure of success is financial, her focus on the bottom line is likely the reason she was hired.

After all, even a nonprofit organization like Cheekwood can't afford to lose money — and these are challenging times for art institutions. And while the estate will always occupy a place of pride on the civic landscape for its grounds and gardens, it no longer enjoys unchallenged status as the tiara atop the city's arts community. Just like the prairie wind that blew across Buffalo Bill's Wild West, the winds of change are blowing across Nashville's art scene, down Fifth Avenue, through the Arcade and up Broadway. 

Still, many Nashville art lovers hope that Cheekwood will continue to be one of the city's leading venues for contemporary art. Even in a city built on country-and-Western music, there are those would trade all the lassos and six-shooters in the world just to have one more chance to see Ryan Trecartin painted up in a blond bob wig, mom jeans and zombie contact lenses, projected on a Belle Meade horse-stall wall. If Cheekwood wants frontiers to explore, there are always the wide open spaces on its own blank walls.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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