There are many reasons why Nashville is often referred to as the creative hub of America. You’re looking at one of them.
by Cassidy Conway
Twenty years ago you could lie down in the middle of 5th Avenue North and take a nice long nap. No traffic and hardly any people. The street was pretty much a wasteland of failing businesses, abandoned buildings, and the occasional homeless person looking for a warm place to spend the night. But that was before a tour de force of nature named Anne Brown decided to do the unthinkable and open an art gallery in the middle of that creative purgatory. That’s right, an art gallery. Who would even think to venture downtown back then, let alone to an art gallery? Well, nobody at first, but as the old saying goes, if you build it they will come. And did they ever. Over the next few years Anne and her cohorts slowly transfigured the street into a major art center attracting other galleries, Nashvillians, and tourists from all over the world. Today the monthly art crawl on 5th Avenue attracts over 2,000 art lovers making their way from one gallery to another, enjoying the very best of local and international art. But all that didn’t happen by accident . . .
Cassidy Conway (CC): The Nashville visual art scene is thriving today, and so is the downtown neighborhood. You have been instrumental in bringing both to life. What was downtown like when you opened the gallery 20 years ago?
Anne Brown (AB): To be blunt, the 5th Avenue streetscape was bleak in the 1990s—lots of people working inside buildings, but little street life. There was foot traffic during the day but no activity after 5 p.m. Two small restaurants, a few small businesses, and no residential activity. In 1996, I was working on developing a new art business model designed to be set up in the middle of the city to see if an art enterprise could thrive there. I called it The Arts Company, a name that would allow the business to be expansive as needed. We would have a gallery backed by a one- stop shop for art—for homes as well as work spaces.
CC: And the gallery opened in 1996?
AB: Yes. When the printing company downstairs moved out, Ron Gobbell asked if I would help him keep the lights burning on the street by setting up the art gallery and offering people something to see and do downtown. We each spent $500 to clean the carpet and paint the walls; I called some artist friends, and The Arts Company opened on December 3, 1996.
“I am driven to find ways to connect art with people in the middle of an animated commercial environment.”
CC: You were a theatre and literature professor for several universities in Nashville. How did that background help you create your vision for The Arts Company?
AB: In theatre, you set the stage and present the story in ways that engage others. In this art gallery, setting the stage is of the essence. My goal was to present art in a surprising, casual environment that would engage rather than intimidate people.
I wanted everyone to experience the unexpected in ways that prompted interaction with the art—eclectic selections in photography, painting, sculpture, outsider art, and more. New inventories, more options, unlikely pairings, regular monthly openings, plenty of places to sit and look or talk, and a visceral invitation to viewers to be included in the lively world of art. Just like scenes change in theatre productions, we move art around in 6,000 square feet of space in hopes of making every visit to the gallery a new experience, just like a good book or poem.
CC: Personally, you have discovered and nurtured numerous artists, finding them locally or bringing them to this marketplace. Can you give some examples of creative individuals you’ve collaborated with?
AB: This gallery has always been partial to prolific, inventive, and surprising artists. St. Louis-based Marianist monk Brother Mel [1928–2013] is a prime example of finding an under-discovered artist with a vast amount of output— over 10,000 documented pieces of art in his lifetime, placed all over the world. I ended up even writing a book about his “lifetime of making art.” Then there were emerging artists such as April Street, who came to us as an intensely involved young artist, producing a stunning body of diverse work every year. And there was the then- unknown Thornton Dial [1928–2016] and the Gee’s Bend Quilters, whose work ultimately elevated them to become known as Great American Artists. A collection of their work is now part of the Metropolitan Museum. Of course, I want to mention Nashville native and legendary LIFE magazine photographer Ed Clark [1911–2000], who was the first featured artist when we opened. And many many others over the years, from emerging to legendary.
CC: You must be very proud of that?
AB: Yes, to put it mildly. I have gotten to work with some artists who really think about what they do and why. They are inspired by what they understand from their experiences and passionate about creating their own distinctive visual alphabet, their mediums of choice, and the styles they develop—all to offer important insights to the rest of us. It has been exciting to work with world-class as well as emerging artists. I have offered platforms to all of them at one time or the other. The ones who continue to evolve are the ones who inspire and sustain interest from viewers, who are an equal part of the process. They purchase what moves them to select and take it out the door to homes and offices. I never tire of seeing that connection happen between viewers, artists, and art.
CC: What are some of the key factors in keeping your gallery consistently relevant?
AB: The business model is about people. Referring again to theatre, my staff is structured as an ensemble who work with our customers through conversation and most important—Interaction, Interaction, Interaction! The idea is to get art, artists, and the rest of us acquainted with each other in an environment that refreshes regularly. Three words identify what we offer: Fresh, Original, Contemporary—key words that define the ethic of the place, guiding us in everything we do. At The Arts Company, you can get up close to the art, maybe even touch it, and take what you see home with you to sustain your personal experience or to add connections in your workplace.
CC: And how do you keep it economically viable?
AB: To make a commercial business thrive, you have to keep the inventory fresh and moving, but be consistent as well as creative. Continuity is critical. Twenty years ago, I started our first regular monthly art event with artist meet-and- greets and art talks. As more and more people came downtown, so did new galleries, and with our new neighbors we created, in August 2006, an evening event called First Saturday Art Crawl Downtown, with 15 to 20 galleries participating and approximately 2,000 visitors a month—collectively making a difference in how Nashvillians and visitors perceive art in Nashville.
CC: What keeps you going? What excites you these days?
AB: I am driven to find ways to connect art with people in the middle of an animated commercial environment, not just a classroom as in my academic career, but still influenced by my intense interest in literature, history, poetry, and theatre. Art challenges all of us to add new visual perspectives to our lives.
For the first 10 years, I certainly hoped for significant growth not only in business but also in the city. In the following 10 years, growth in both of those areas has been surprisingly exponential.
CC: And the next 20 years?
AB: For the next 20, my wish would be that the gallery continues to be part of enhancing all the arts in Music City by adding visual art as a form to support and expand the iconic institutions that are our neighbors, including the new ones arriving. Just think of what’s to come—a new Tennessee State Museum, the 21C Museum Hotel, the National African American Music Museum, and more, much much more!
The Arts Company is located at 215 5th Avenue North, 37219. For more information visit www.theartscompany.com.