April 2017

Interview by Manuel Zeitlin; Photography by Jerry Atnip

On May 4 the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville will present to Shirley Zeitlin the Martha Rivers Ingram Arts Visionary Award for her business leadership and patronage of the arts. Her son, Nashville resident and noted architect Manuel Zeitlin, talked to her about the award and her thoughts on our great city.

I was planning to interview Mom on the way to dinner about her involvement with the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville and the award they will be giving her. I’m a little biased, but I can’t think of anyone more deserving. I thought she might have some interesting insights into Nashville, art, business, and how the three things work together for the benefit of our city. Mom always seemed to be connected to the zeitgeist—not our gallery, but the spirit of the times. She was connected back in the 60s, and she is connected now. As we worked our way downtown, our conversation took as many detours as the city streets. Nashville is an ever- changing landscape. And part of the reason for that is the lady in the car with me. Here’s a snippet of my conversation with Mom.

MZ: I’m thinking of taking you to Public House at Urban Cowboy; I think you’ll like it. We might eat outside— seems warm enough.

SZ: I always like trying something new. Not sure about sitting outside, though. What about that new place with the oysters?

MZ: Maybe . . . What is your earliest memory of art in Nashville, or maybe public art?

SZ: I’m not sure.

(Oh dear, not a great start!)
SZ: I remember Martin (Mom’s husband of 53 years) and I bought our first sculpture from Lyzon’s. It was the only gallery I remember in Nashville at that time, in the 50s.

MZ: The 50s. Are you sure?

SZ: Well, maybe the 60s.

MZ: It was the 60s. I remember when you brought it home. I liked it then and I still like it. How did you develop an interest in modern art, growing up back then in the relatively sheltered suburban environment of Nashville? Were you influenced by the Parthenon, or the public art that was starting to happen at the time?

SZ: I don’t think that was it. Martin and I used to enjoy picking out art when we traveled, and we usually agreed—and if we didn’t, I always went with Martin’s choice. He had a real eye. He was the more creative one, you know. He and you kids got all the creativity.

(This coming from a woman who created one of the most innovative real estate companies in the South, and I really am trying to be objective here. She has helped move every organization she has been involved with, from being of its time to being timeless.)

SZ: We always liked the existentialists.

MZ: Existentialists? Or impressionists?

SZ: The impressionists.

MZ: As I remember, you liked the existentialists too.

SZ: Right, but not for art.

(As we made our way downtown, we were both mesmerized by all of the activity as West End turned into Broadway. Cranes everywhere. I wondered what Mom thought of all this.)

MZ: Did you ever think Nashville would be like this?

SZ: It’s so exciting. It keeps me young. It’s pretty amazing to see what the art scene is today.

MZ: What would you like to see the Arts & Business Council (ABC) be five years from now? How would you like to leave it?

SZ: In addition to remaining financially sustainable, I envision that it will always exhibit relevance, be focused on its mission, and be thoughtful in its growth. I think the impact of the Arts and Business Council will be more widely felt as new opportunities arise that continue to merge the interests of the arts community and the business community in Nashville.

It’s also important to evolve and change over time as visions change and needs change. Getting involved in the growth of the fashion industry would be a great example of matching developing needs with what the ABC might provide.

(She was really getting fired up at this point.)

Like bringing to the business community an understanding of how important arts are to the success of Nashville as a city, and bringing to artists some of the business skills and knowledge necessary to help them grow and survive in their careers. We partially do this through the Periscope Program in collaboration with the Entrepreneur Center. And there’s always a waiting list! . . .

It doesn’t really matter what business employees get involved in, as long as they get involved in something. There are so many choices now: the Symphony, all kinds of music, dance, painting . . . so many possibilities . . . One of the things Martha Ingram was interested in was getting artists involved on corporate boards and business leaders engaged on non-profit arts boards. That’s so important to the long-term viability of both groups.

We also bring artists into businesses to provide artistic experiences as a way to help employees open up and bond with each other. It really assists in team building.

If employees are working on a piece of art together, they’re not thinking about failure; they’re not competing. They’re communicating; they’re learning to collaborate.

MZ. Have you ever had them do a workshop with your company?

SZ: Yes.

MZ: How’d it go?

SZ: It could have gone better. But we’ll try again.

MZ: I guess I need to think about where we’re driving, huh?

SZ: Yeah. Is that the SEC tournament blocking Broadway?

Along the way I missed our turn and we ended up in East Nashville. Mom loved the excursion. We had a wonderful dinner, and she especially loved being one of the youngest at heart in a crowd of young people who are firing up Nashville every day. And she can’t wait for our next adventure. Congratulations on the award, Mom.

—Manuel

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