Lasting Impressions 

Cumberland Gallery celebrates two decades in Nashville

Cumberland Gallery celebrates two decades in Nashville

20th-Anniversary Exhibition

Apr. 8-May 13

Cumberland Gallery

4107 Hillsboro Cir. 297-0296

Opening reception 6 p.m. Apr. 8

When it comes to the visual arts, Nashville has a lot to be grateful for and even more to look forward to: Contemporary art galleries have cropped up all over town, Cheekwood is on the move, and by mid-2001 the Frist Center for the Visual Arts will be a reality. In the midst of all this activity, the 20th-anniversary exhibition of Cumberland Gallery, opening this Saturday night, offers a chance to celebrate 43 artists, a gallery, and a dealer who have helped pave the way for Nashville’s thriving art scene today.

The city has come a long way. When Carol Stein opened Cumberland Gallery on Bandywood 20 years ago, Nashville was a different place: There were no contemporary art venues, the country was in an economic recession, and within six months, her two original partners had sold their shares in the business. But Stein persevered. Understanding that the public needed to be educated about 20th-century art, she initially began showing museum-quality posters and prints by significant modern-day artists. But it wasn’t long before she realized that Nashville possessed a bevy of artists whose work was just as good as, or better than, that of artists in many cities across the country.

Once Stein got the picture straight, she started attracting an extraordinary group of artists from the local community and from the country at large. Within just a few years of the gallery’s opening, she was able to bring in such Nashville-based artists as John Baeder and Barry Buxkamper, both of whom had well-established careers: Baeder was already represented by New York’s OK Harris, and Buxkamper was a participant in the 1975 Whitney Biennial. In addition, she attracted some big national names, including native Nashvillian Red Grooms, Ida Kohlmeyer, and Lynda Benglis.

Unlike many of its New York counterparts, though, Cumberland could never afford—and never wanted—to specialize in a specific genre or medium. Instead, it has shown a range of work, which these days Stein calculates as being something close to 40-percent abstraction and 60-percent realism. But what really binds the various gallery artists into a cohesive group is Stein’s own sensibility.

”When I consider bringing new artists into the gallery, I have three major considerations,“ explains Stein, who developed her eye under the tutelage of her father, a publisher of distinguished art books and friend of such artists as Raphael Soyer and Chaim Gross. ”A display of technical skill is absolutely bottom-line to me, and then I want to see an original, non-derivative approach, and what I can call a certain visceral honesty. I like work that asks more questions than it answers, and although I have little patience for the pretty, I have a strong preference for narrative work.“

Cumberland Gallery was never intended as a place to view the cutting edge, but Stein has always been committed to showing challenging work. Even when an artist is moving through a transitional period—as John Baeder was a few years ago, when he turned away from his acclaimed diner paintings to take on still lifes—she has never shied away from mounting a scheduled show. And she seems to take a certain pleasure in work that is just plain difficult.

”When I first met Carol in 1985, I showed her some very tough work,“ Barry Buxkamper says. ”I have never done a lot of ‘parlor’ pieces—my images can range from guns to crashing airplanes—but that didn’t prevent her from being enthusiastic about representing me. Later, when I would bring in work quite different from what had sold in the past, she would never say a word. Very few dealers will do that. A dealer may take you on early, but if you don’t sell, your relationship fizzles. But if Carol believes in what you are doing, she is very supportive.“

Stein is so supportive of her artists, in fact, that she has worked to develop relationships for them with out-of-town galleries and to give them a presence at such national venues as the Seattle Art Fair. At the same time, she has a strong stake in the local arts community. Although she is the first to admit that she is competitive, she welcomes new galleries into the Nashville mix: ”Having more galleries is like having two gas stations on the same street,“ she says. ”It creates more business for both.“ Cumberland was among the original galleries to participate in Artrageous, the Nashville CARES benefit now in its 11th year, and Stein was instrumental in developing the Nashville Association of Art Dealers, of which she is now president. In addition, the gallery talks she began hosting two years ago have helped to further relationships among artists by offering them the opportunity to show and discuss work with peers outside their own communities.

”When I started with the gallery in early ’80s, I knew all five of the serious artists working in Nashville,“ says Marilyn Murphy, who had her first solo show at Cumberland in 1984. ”But today I hear of someone new almost every day. I’ve seen an incredible change in the art scene here, and, along with a lot of really good people working in arts administration and as independent curators, Carol has been one of its instigators. The gallery has had a remarkable effect on the community for its time. In the absence of an MFA program in Nashville, Cumberland has been the place to meet and talk about art.“

This Saturday night, the Cumberland will once again be the place to meet and talk about art. Many of the gallery’s out-of-town celebs will be on hand to ogle at, comment on, and debate over the 43 signature pieces, most created especially for the show, and to celebrate this significant milestone in the history of Cumberland Gallery and Nashville’s visual arts community.

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