These days, it seems as though the arts in Nashville are on the verge of a major breakthrough. Cheekwood’s eagerly awaited outdoor sculpture trail is now open, its new Learning Center is humming with contemporary art exhibits and educational activities, and the renovation of its art museum will be complete by the end of August. The Frist Center for the Visual Arts has funding and its location secured and a director on staff, so there’s no turning back from transforming the old downtown Broadway post office into a city arts center, set to open in spring 2001.
After 65 years as a non-union theater, Nashville Children’s Theatre wrapped up its first Equity season in May. The NCT move to Equity status brought the total number of stage groups operating under union contracts to five, including Tennessee Repertory Theater, Mockingbird Public Theater, Nashville Shakespeare Festival and American Negro Playwrights Theater. Nashville Ballet completed its first season under young artistic director Paul Vasterling with a contemporary bang, dancing to the bluesy sounds of Nashville singer Jonell Mosser and her band Enough Rope.
Founded a few years ago, ArtSynergy finally became an entity to be reckoned with in May, when it moved its staff into offices on Fifth Avenue. The innovative consortium of small arts groups, which includes Tennessee Dance Theater, Nashville Chamber Orchestra, Nashville Shakespeare Festival, Visual Artists Alliance of Nashville, and several others, is an encouraging sign of the arts community’s ability to work together.
There have been some down notes this year as well: After 13 years at the helm, Mac Pirkle made his exit from the Rep, and David Grapes was named to guide the stage group into the new millennium. Kevin Grogan resigned his position as curator of art collections at Fisk University in late spring, and Nashville actor Teddy Giles announced his decision to leave Nashville Children’s Theater after a 20-year residency there.
In light of all these developments, one would be hard-pressed to name a year of more transition and progress in the arts than 1999unless, of course, one recalls 1989.
Ten years ago, Nashville’s visual arts community was at the top of its game with the Harlem Renaissance exhibition at Cheekwood (then under the direction of Kevin Grogan) and related satellite shows at commercial and nonprofit galleries all over town. It was an unprecedented cooperative effort that has not been attempted, much less duplicated, since. Downtown was home to art galleries like Zimmerman Saturn and the Metro Arts Commission’s exhibit space instead of the theme restaurants that now crowd Second Avenue and Broadway. The Artrageous fundraiser was more about checking out the art than about showing up at the evening’s finale party.
It was 10 years ago that Nashville Ballet presented the city with its first locally created and produced version of The Nutcracker, a ballet considered essential to any serious dance company’s repertoireand to its bottom line. TPAC was actually producing showsthe opera Rachel and the musical A Rock Weddingrather than just renting space to them. While neither production was a box office success, the enterprise was an admirable one. This same year, the fledgling Nashville Shakespeare Festival was incorporated, and the company presented Pericles in the Centennial Park band shell. Each year since then, the group has improved on the previous year’s production, and every August a few thousand more patrons pour into the park to enjoy free Shakespeare.
It was also a decade ago that Tennessee Repertory Theater debuted its short-lived Second Stage, an alternative season of off-off-Broadway-type plays, at West End Methodist Church. After only two productions (’Night, Mother and Bloodknot), the Rep abandoned the idea and began to focus on mainstream revivals and new American musicals, charting a course that led to steadily dwindling audiences and a mounting budget deficit. Meanwhile, Nashville Opera, which had operated for years out of a private home, hired its first general director and established a permanent officesteps that would soon lead the company to surprising box office success. And in July 1989, Nashville Symphony put its near-death bankruptcy experience of the previous year behind it by posting a $20,000 profit at the close of its fiscal year. Artistically and financially, the symphony never looked back.
Indeed, as Nashville prepared to ring out the 1980s and usher in the 1990s, its arts community seemed on the brink of surging forward. Despite that momentum, the arts began the new decade on a faltering note as Nashville Ballet artistic director Dane LaFontsee announced his resignation in the spring of 1990 to accept a position with Milwaukee Ballet. LaFontsee had been the company’s first and only artistic leader since the company moved from community to professional status in 1986; his departure was serious blow, though not, as it turned out, a knockout punch. The late Edward Myers was named his successor and the company quickly regained its footingfor a time, at least.
The 1990-91 season saw Circle Players putting a stronger emphasis on presenting fresh-from-Broadway hit plays in Nashville. In February 1991, its presentation of August Wilson’s Tony-winning drama Fences, about the strained relationship of an African American father and son, was a benchmark in the company’s racially-inclusive programming, which continues today. The theater group solidified its niche throughout the 1990s with productions of The Piano, Dancing at Lughnasa, Sylvia, and many others. Today it is at Circle, not at the Rep, that Nashvillians can expect to see the latest New York plays produced locally.
The closing of Zimmerman Saturn in early 1992 hardly registered on the media’s radar screen, but it was a significant event in the arts community. Art galleries come and go with astonishing frequency in Nashville, but with the passing of Zimmerman Saturn, cutting-edge contemporary art seemed forever to have lost its foothold in downtown. Today, with Cumberland Gallery solidly entrenched in Green Hills and Zeitgeist favoring Hillsboro Village over downtown, The Arts Company and Ruby Green, both on Fifth Avenue, have a tough row to hoe in attracting the visual arts patron. All that could change, of course, if they can hang on until the visual arts center opens on Broadway in a few years.
With improved marketing and outreach efforts, not to mention more innovative programming, Nashville Symphony has grown through the 1990s into an arts entity bearing little resemblance to its stuffy pre-bankruptcy self. And surprisingly, there has proven to be room for another classical group in town. With its 1992-93 debut season, Nashville Chamber Orchestra began filling a niche for more intimate classical performances, and today the group presents a full season of traditional and nontraditional chamber pieces to sold-out houses.
Nashville’s theater community welcomed a new professional company in 1993 as well when Barry Scott established his American Negro Playwrights Theater and presented a first-rate production of A Raisin in the Sun. The group’s performance schedule is unpredictable and the quality of its productions uneven, but Scott’s company remains, along with Circle Players, the only non-educational local theater that regularly stages works by or about African Americans. Another new stage company, Mockingbird Public Theater, debuted in 1994 with a production of Becket. The company really hit its stride, however, during its 1995-96 season with original Southern-flavored shows like A Southern Christmas Sampler and Dearly Departed. A venue move for the ACT I theater group in 1995 was just the thing that company needed to find an audience for its presentations of theater classics. The group had languished for years trying to draw people to the Looby Theater at MetroCenter but now plays to full houses at Darkhorse Theater on Charlotte Avenue.
Sold-out opera proved to be no oxymoron when Nashville Opera presented Aïda in 1997. The lavish extravaganzacomplete with an elephant from the Nashville Zoofirmly established the company as one of the city’s most artistically and financially viable arts groups. In fact, the number of people in the seats for opera at TPAC rose from 3,200 in 1995-96 to over 13,000 by the final curtain of Der Rosenkavalier in 1999. Subscriptions are way up too: from 300 just three years ago to 1,500 today.
No ballet company in its right mind produces two Swan Lakes in one year. But in 1998, Nashville Ballet had little choice. Its costly production of the full-length classic was ready to go when the April tornado tore through TPAC and the rest of downtown. Cancellation of the scheduled performances devastated the already financially strapped company, and the surprise resignation of artistic director Benjamin Houk in June only added to the company’s troubles. The group was back on its toes by the start of the 1998-99 season in September, however, and unveiled its Swan Lake at long last in December to large and appreciative audiences.
From key personnel changes to the founding of new arts groups to pivotal individual productions, each year of the past 10 has set the stage for what many hope will be a golden age for Nashville arts in the next millennium. Those of us who observed the promise of the late 1980s crumble into complacency in the early 1990s, however, can only issue a strong warning against laurel-resting at this point. The Nashville arts community remains fragmented, arts funding is still precarious, and arts audiences are mostly at home or at the movies.
Changing that picture in the next century won’t just happen because a new arts center opens or a new city Council convenes. It will happen when all arts groups, large and small, focus as much energy on coming together to solve their common problems as they do on creating the stage productions, concerts, and art exhibits that so enrich our city.
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