Nashville’s mayoral hopefuls have been attending plenty of community forums, so you’d think by now they’d be used to them, right? Well, not when the subject turns to the arts.
Last week, the top five candidates were at Cheekwood for what was supposed to be an in-depth discussion about the state of the arts in Nashville. More often than not, though, the campaigners seemed like high schoolers who had forgotten to study for their exam.
“I’ve never been to an opera before,” said Buck Dozier, who talked about his plans to attend Nashville Opera’s upcoming production of Samson and Delilah with all the alacrity of a kid eating spinach. Some of Dozier’s opponents seemed equally out of their element. “I don’t have any talent,” admitted Karl Dean. Added David Briley, “We’re just lawyers.”
The arts may be terra incognita for most pols, but recent Nashville history has forced the current crop of candidates to do a little more homework. Last June, the Metro Council slashed $258,400 out of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission granting budget. The money—cut in a surprise move at the last minute—was transferred to the Davidson County Sheriff’s Office to fund (of all things) inmate cleanup projects. As you might expect, Nashville artists didn’t take the the loss of their funding very well. “It was unbelievable,” says Norree Boyd, executive director of the Metro Nashville Arts Commission. “We were blindsided.”
Politicians may think artists are easy targets, but in truth they’re the last people pols should want to make angry. A National Endowment for the Arts study last year revealed that people who participate in the arts are far more likely to engage in other social activities (such as volunteering or going to sporting events) than nonparticipants. These are people who think, vote and care about their community. No doubt, that explains why Nashville’s arts types packed Cheekwood last week. It’s probably also the reason the candidates were on their best behavior.
Among the hopefuls, only Howard Gentry, the vice mayor, seemed comfortable talking about the arts. “The arts is my life,” he said in opening comments. Interestingly, Gentry actually seems to fancy himself an artist—he handed out a flier at the forum that showed him playing guitar at what appeared to be a fundraiser picnic. (His campaign literature also points out that he once played Booker T. Washington in a production of Ragtime at the Nashville Senior Center for the Arts.)
Certainly, Gentry was the most supportive of the candidates, indicating a desire to double the arts commission’s current annual commitment of about $2 million. He gave little hint of where he’d get the extra money, but that doesn’t bother the arts community, which currently prefers the vice mayor above all other candidates. (Indeed, arts patron and patrician Martha Ingram is a Gentry girl.) Briley, though no artiste, also scored points at the forum with his proposal to raise arts commission funding to $3.5 million over the course of a first term.
Bob Clement, the former congressman, seemed to know little about the arts. But unlike most of the other candidates, that shortcoming didn’t seem to faze him; in fact, it apparently gave him license to say whatever he pleased. “Nashville is the arts capital of the world,” he declared early on. When asked whether he supports the current policy of setting aside one percent of the capital budget for public art, Clement at first seemed confused. (His campaign literature indicates he’s for it.) Later, he forcefully asserted, “I agree with everything that’s been said up to this time.” He did make one fascinating proposal to create a dedicated funding source for the arts. Unfortunately, the proposal was painfully short on specifics.
“We could live with a Clement administration,” said one prominent arts administrator. “But he’s not a detail guy, so the key would be to know his handlers.”
One thing not mentioned at the forum was the impact of last summer’s arts cuts. There’s a misconception among some people that reducing government funding for the arts does little more than cut off high-class entertainment to the privileged. In fact, the privileged keep their box seats; it’s education and outreach, usually to kids, that gets cut.
Nashville Ballet, for instance, lost $18,000 in funding it was counting on to produce a new ballet for children. “That’s the kind of thing we would perform free for kids at libraries, schools and at the Frist,” said ballet executive director Andrea Dillenburg.Stories like that have greatly personalized the cuts for local artists, and they’ve also fueled an intense interest in upcoming mayoral and council elections. Said one arts official: “This time we’re going to be watching.”