by Liz Scofield
Liz Clayton Scofield is a multidisciplinary artist, writer, thinker, all-around adventurer, and nomad. They hold an MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington. See their art at
I’ve recently returned to the Nashville area after a five-year hiatus. Of course, of course, I can jump in the conversation: “Oh, how the city has changed!” highlighting the city’s constants even more. I moved to Nashville for my undergraduate studies in 2006, and I remember a conversation with a friend shortly after: “You know, it’s not just Music City anymore. Nashville really is the next Art City.” And of course, no Nashvillian will forget The New York Times 2013 declaration of Nashville as “It City.”
I left It City in 2012 to pursue an MFA from Indiana University, Bloomington. I continued regular involvement in the Nashville community over the years. Like broader Nashville, the arts community has changed. I witnessed and participated in the emergence of a vibrant scene in Wedgewood-Houston. I saw artist-run spaces become sandwich shops. I saw condos sprout like kudzu. Plant it and run, my grandmother would say.
By the time I finished my MFA, I was essentially priced out of Nashville. Rents have risen above a comfortable artist-bumming-it level. In a cost-benefit analysis, why pay so much to live in a third-tier arts city? On that surface, Nashville has less and less appeal for young and emerging artists finding a place to settle even momentarily to develop their practices.
What can Nashville do to draw young artists, to nurture its current artists, and to develop a robust art community? I’ve had many conversations about how to solve local artists’ frustrations. An art fair! More collectors! Entrepreneurship! Microgrants! An art boutique hotel! Commissioned murals!
Nashville has worked to offer more opportunities for its artists: 21c is a great resource. Periscope offers training for artists, but with a focus on entrepreneurship. THRIVE is a program that provides small grants to artists for social practice projects through Metro Arts. These resources provide support to a continually emerging arts community. There are many programs in Nashville that are doing a wide range of great work to support and grow our artists and invest in the community. That work builds the foundation for continued growth.
I began writing this to consider the need of an MFA program in Nashville. Watkins College actually now offers a low-residency MFA program. This is great growth, but a low-residency program isn’t an embedded community that a traditional MFA offers.
As Nashville artist Mary Mooney said: “I know a lot of artists, but I don’t feel like there’s a space where people who are making more conceptual work with the goal of having a connection or conversation meet and discuss and critique. It feels like there’s this barrier here where if you have your MFA—it’s real. You’ve done a certain amount of work. There’s a credibility with that. I want that credibility. I want to do that work, but it’s at odds with my life and where I want to [be].”
Nashville needs to support and nurture artists outside of commercial, institutional, or social demands. We need educational opportunities to develop rigorous practices without having to leave. After all, this entire industry of art depends on artists and the exploitation of their labor. Our universities do provide great resources, but these can feel inaccessible. However, even if there were MFA options in Nashville, artists likely should still leave to pursue their best educational option. I wouldn’t encourage Nashville artists to get their MFA in Nashville just because it’s geographically convenient if it’s not an established, developed program.
Artists need nourishment, and that nourishment requires time and space. Community and critical discourse and collaboration feed artists. Artists need places to congregate as a community, wander, climb trees and play in fountains together, break bread or break donuts. If a city wants its creative communities to flourish, it has to feed them.
With the value of an MFA already controversial, an MFA from a newly established program seems even more questionable. Instead of trying to be other cities, why not create a new program that is specific to Nashville’s community? An established Nashville arts institution with its own space, time, resources, community, and yes, budget, creates a residency program that hosts national and international artists. This residency would bring emerging and established artists that have demonstrated rigor and investment in their own practices. Local artists would be invited into this community. This residency should be developed as a uniquely Nashville experience that creates space and provides opportunities for artists to congregate.
What does an MFA offer after all? It gives time, space, and access to mentorship and rigorous discourse, while immersed in a community of artists seeking similar depth of exploration and development of their practices. (I would advise anyone desiring an MFA for job opportunities to reassess.)
Instead of waiting for institutions to develop the programs to sustain us, artists can show up and build the community that nourishes our specific needs. But this requires dedication and investment. It requires artists and the surrounding community to show up even when it becomes inconvenient or uncomfortable. Challenge each other, and don’t throw in the towel if someone gets critical. Support each other and keep showing up.
Does Nashville need an MFA program? Maybe instead of focusing on catching up, let’s jump ship and figure out how we can get ahead in a way only Nashville can offer, before Nashville gets too expensive for all of us, and we all go live in Ashland City. (It’s beautiful, by the way.)