The Frist Formula

The Frist Formula

By: TAMMY DOHNER    June 04, 2002

Once upon a time and not too long ago, Nashville, unlike many other growing
cities, didn’t have a large center dedicated to the visual arts. After more
than 30 years of discussion, 17 studies and reports, and a goal setting
process involving thousands of citizens, a report issued in January 1994
identified 21 goals for Nashville, including the public’s desire for a new
visual arts facility downtown. The Frist Family, through the charitable
Frist Foundation, decided to develop and support the facility as a major
focus of its activities and philanthropic support, and in April 2001, the
Frist Center for the Visual Arts opened its doors to the public.

In just over a year, the Frist Center has presented a broad range of artwork
to the approximately 166,000 visitors who’ve passed through the Art Deco
portals. Its very existence has affected the arts scene in Nashville and
beyond. According to Tom Turk, executive director of the Metropolitan
Nashville Arts Commission, “The Frist Center for the Visual Arts has had a
sizable impact on the visual arts in the region because of the exhibits it
is presenting, the physical size of the building, its budget, its
educational program (free for students) and the overall value it adds to the
mix of cultural activity.” He adds, “Nashville was perhaps the last of the
30 largest U.S. cities to build a large visual arts center — the Frist — so we
have some catching up to do in the visual arts.”

In spite of Nashville’s late entry, Barry Lord, of LORD Cultural Resources
Planning & Management, Inc., of Toronto, Canada (a worldwide consultant to
museums and the firm that conducted the feasibility analysis for the
center), says on his company’s website that the Frist Center “is clearly
emerging as a major new exhibition venue in America.”

The building is impressive, with an Art Deco lobby and spacious galleries.
Ned Crouch, executive director of the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center
in Clarksville, says, “It’s sort of an out of body experience when you
realize you’re in Nashville. Even in Nashville, it’s a very sort of L.A. and
Chicago kind of an institution … The building, of course, is a jewel, in
and of itself.”

A Different Philosophy
According to Ellen Pryor, an advisor to the Frist, the organization differs
from other museums in that they’ve “never gauged the success of a show by
attendance.” She says “a lot of people in the museum world don’t
understand,” but the Frist believes “success is measured in other ways,
almost none of which have to do with numbers.”

In addition, while Pryor says some museums judge success by income, the
Frist’s admission prices are always low ($6.50, regardless of the show) and
free for members and kids. She adds, “We’re presenting shows for reasons
other than to make money. As long as our doors are open and there are people
inside, we’re happy.”

One of the Frist’s primary aims is arts education, and Pryor says “many who
come to the door may know nothing about art.”

At the helm of the arts center with the different philosophy is Chase Rynd,
a museum executive director with a different background than most of his
peers. For one thing, he didn’t rise to his position from a college major in
art history. His bachelor’s degree and graduate studies were in
international economics at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign
Service, and his first career was in financial analysis and portfolio
management in New York City, followed by work at a private investment firm
in Seattle.

In Seattle, Rynd became professionally involved in the arts, studying
architectural photography with the idea of publishing a photographic survey
of Seattle’s buildings. The publication didn’t happen, but Rynd did open his
own gallery, which allowed him to combine his love of art with his
background in management and finance. His gallery programmed more than 90
exhibitions in eight years, and Rynd served as the U.S. representative for
25 international artists. He also consulted for a number of museums, private
collectors and major corporations, including Nike and Eastman Kodak.

Rynd was appointed by the mayor to the Seattle Arts Commission, serving two
terms as chairman. He was tapped by Security Pacific Bank in 1990 to develop
a public gallery space to serve the community with activities and programs,
resulting in the first major, non-commercial, contemporary art gallery in
the Pacific Northwest. In 1993, the Tacoma Art Museum chose Rynd to serve as
executive director and CEO, a position he held for six years. According to
published reports, the Frist came looking for Rynd; he wasn’t looking for a
new position.

Asked if his unusual background causes others in his field to view him
differently, Rynd replies, “Not really. Not anymore. I will admit that my
first six months to a year of running an accredited art museum, it took that
long to really build the trust of the staff, because they were used to
having someone out of the museum ranks as their boss … But ever since
then, it’s never been an issue.”

Blazing Trails
The Frist opened its doors with a major exhibition of European paintings,
including works by Degas, Monet, Picasso, Rembrandt, Renoir and Rubens, on
loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto. At the same time, the work
of Nashville sculptor Michael Aurbach, a history of the Frist building, and
the Art of the Americas from the Nashville Collections were exhibited.
Subsequent shows featured works of Modernism & Abstraction from the
Smithsonian, manuscript illuminations, and the works of postmodern artists.
An exhibition of works of Faberge from the Forbes Collection and another of
Indian miniatures are currently on display.

The Frist has no permanent art collection. Pryor says exhibitions come about
in a variety of ways, and “for as many exhibits as are out there, there are
as many ways they were developed.” She says sometimes the staff gets an idea
and puts an exhibit together, some exhibits become available as they tour,
and sometimes, as in the case of the Faberge pieces supplementing the Forbes
Faberge exhibit, pieces are added to an exhibit through the “friend of a
friend” network. Pryor likens assembling some exhibits to building “a huge
three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.” She says “it’s an amazingly intricate kind
of dance” involving elements such as gallery spaces, timing and how an
exhibit fits with previous ones. Some are booked as much as five years in
advance, and the process can become highly competitive.

In what may the biggest arts coup in recent memory, the Frist secured an
exclusive exhibition of works by Americans James McNeill Whistler and John
Singer Sargent and British Impressionist Philip Wilson Steer from London’s
Tate Museum. Not only is the upcoming fall exhibit exclusive to the U.S.,
Rynd says it’s “exclusive to the planet.” The Frist showing will be the only
time the works will be displayed together in such a space. Even at the Tate,
they are housed in separate galleries or in storage.

Just how, in its first years of existence, did the Frist score the Tate
exhibit when other, more established museums have been waiting for years to
borrow some of the same works? Rynd knows the right people for one thing (he
says “it’s all about people relationships”). He also had excellent timing.

Rynd says he was “in London three years ago, shortly after he was hired at
the Frist,” and he was “paying a courtesy call” on colleague Sandy Nairne,
director of programmes at the Tate. Nairne had formed a new department of
international exhibitions just that week. Rynd says he “had gone there with
a slightly different idea as far as what artwork I wanted to borrow from
him. The more we talked, the more he became willing to eventually look at us
as a guinea pig for his program, and he had a different idea about the
exhibition and which artists and so forth.”

Rynd adds that the show was further developed after conversations with a
Tate curator who “had a thesis he really wanted to pursue. And that appealed
to me, because I knew he wanted to do a catalogue, a publication, and
because this curator from the Tate had an unusual thesis tying these three
artists together. What it meant was the scholarly essay would be
contributing to the annals of art history, and that was very appealing to
me, because I think that’s one thing that museums, when they have the
resources, should be doing — legitimate research and contributing to the art
history knowledge — and this was the first real opportunity we’ve had to do

“The whole thing just sort of fell into place, and I will say that there are
any number of colleagues who are surprised. As Sandy Nairne told me, there
have been people waiting for years to borrow these very canvases. But I was
there at the right time, the right place, with the right facility in the
right part of the country. All the different factors for something like this
just worked out.”

Rynd says that Nairne has since told him that other American curators and
directors have asked to borrow some of the paintings, and when Nairne tells
them they are on reserve for the Frist exhibition, they say, “Wait, we have
to go where to see this painting?” He adds, “It’s a wonderful surprise. The
people of Middle Tennessee should be very pleased that we have them coming.
I’m sounding a lot like a broken record, but I’m constantly repeating the
fact that this is exclusive to the Frist Center, therefore exclusive to the
state of Tennessee, exclusive to the Southeast, and that’s a really exciting
proposition. The only way to see all these paintings is to go to London, and
you’d have to search for all 38.”

Developing the Arts Community
One of the primary missions of the Frist is to engage in community outreach
and education, and efforts have focused largely in Davidson County. Rynd
says, “We will be reaching out to a degree somewhat more. One of the reasons
why the emphasis is Davidson County is the county was an initial investor in
the institution — the county put $20 million into the program, so clearly, we
feel a strong part of our commitment should be to the community that
actually paid to have us in existence.

“Clearly as we grow and develop, and mature and become more familiar to the
local audiences, we’ll be reaching farther and farther out into contiguous
counties … I really do think that we are in a position to make a

The presence of the Frist influences the Nashville arts environment, and
Turk says, “Having another art museum helps Cheekwood and all the visual
arts facilities here, in my view. The Frist Center, Cheekwood, the Fisk
University galleries and the Parthenon complement each other in what they
present and what they do. The Frist is not a collecting institution, so
there is really no overlap in the art works that it and the other local art
museums/ galleries exhibit.”

He adds, “The research we have conducted — seven annual Arts & the Economy
studies and two major arts marketing studies — shows that people in Nashville
traveled extensively out of state to larger cities to visit museums. I think
there was a real hunger for the creation of a visual arts center in

Nashville Scene reports that since the opening of the Frist, three new
galleries have opened in Nashville: the Madison Art Center, International
Gallery and Plowhaus Gallery.

Rynd says, “I do think that we have contributed to the vitality of the arts
community, and I would hope that that does have a ripple effect, and that
more artists are interested in staying in the community and working in the
community and wanting more organizations. I’m not sure we would be the
direct detonator for that, but we’re certainly adding to the electricity of
the atmosphere. I also think other arts organizations — Cheekwood, the
Parthenon, the State Museum — we’re developing good relationships with one
another, and have high regard for what each of us is doing. I think that at
this point, everybody is very excited about the fact that we’re all
contributing a lot to the cultural vibrancy.”

Jane Jerry, president of Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art,
commends the Frist Center’s efforts, saying, “The Frist Center has done a
great job of bringing different arts institutions together to think about
ways we can collaborate — from programming to marketing.”

Ned Crouch adds, “The Frist is really super. It makes everyone who sort of
keeps up with the arts a lot more aware … The exhibits are unparalleled in
this region, the way they can do these boxed shows, it’s all absolutely
first rate … I’m proud that we’re that close. It’s a quick ride into
another world. It’s all extremely positive.”

Nashville — A Cultural Mecca?
While it could never hope to compete with arts culture capitols like New
York City, Chicago, or Washington, D.C., Nashville has its own interesting
identity and unique cultural scene that extends beyond the “Music City”
label. At a time when arts funding is being cut around the country,
Nashville’s cultural scene is showing signs of growth: Plans for a new
symphony hall are moving forward, which will allow the organization to stage
much larger productions than were possible at the Tennessee Performing Arts
Center; the Tennessee State Museum is undergoing major renovations; the
Country Music Hall of Fame recently celebrated its first anniversary in its
new facility; and the Cumberland Science Center is rebuilding and
reevaluating, and recently donated items from its warehoused collections to
16 institutions.

Turk says, “Nashville is the nation’s 24th largest city, so it is unfair to
compare it to New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, the three largest U.S.
cultural centers. I think we should be the best mid-size city we can be in
the fine arts, plus be glad we are one of the most important commercial
music centers. After all, many of the musicians who play in the Nashville
Symphony also do sessions work for record companies, play in the clubs,
teach and do other gigs.”

Rynd says, “We have a great opportunity to at least become recognized as a
city with a varied, healthy and interesting cultural environment. When a
visitor comes to Nashville they know they really want to go to the Titans
game, and they know they want to go to the Ryman, but they also know they
can go to the Frist, they can go to the Parthenon, we’ve got a wonderful
ballet company…

“I watched this all happen in Seattle, with all the fledgling or adolescent
arts organizations that were doing very credible work … While I was there,
the Seattle Opera became world class, the art museum became world class, the
symphony became world class. A lot of it had to do with building the
infrastructure first to house these organizations, and to provide an
environment where artists wanted to stay. I think that’s really happening
here in Nashville right now.”

Jack Becker, director of the Museum of Art at Cheekwood, is a recent
transplant to Tennessee from Connecticut. In his view, “There’s a really
strong, vital arts community in Nashville. There’s a growing interest in
visual arts here and in Middle Tennessee.” He says one of the things that
appealed to him about Nashville was the “wealth of resources in terms of
museums, historical homes, the Country Music Hall of Fame … There was a
lot going on culturally, which the visual arts are part of. I thought it was
a pretty vibrant place. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have packed and

In spite of all the positive vibes, there are still competitive aspects to
be dealt with. The atmosphere for arts organizations “is firmly publicly
stated as cooperative,” according to Couch, but there is still a level of
competition “because of the nature of the animal. Everyone is all fighting
for the same corporate dollar.” And in a difficult economy, he says, “The
arts are always the first to fall under the knife. They’re often perceived
as not a life surviving kind of thing — it’s not cops, it’s not bread and

Rynd classifies the level of competition as “competitive in the best sense
of the word, on the most friendly, professional level … and the bottom
line is that the audience benefits.” In spite of the impression of having
bottomless pockets, Rynd says “We are, believe it or not, living by a
budget. We have X-many exhibit dollars budgeted for any given year. If a
proposal comes in that’s incredibly exciting, but the loan fee is beyond our
reach, we move on.”

Frist Center for the Visual Arts is located at 919 Broadway, Nashville. For
more information, call (615) 244-3340.

©Our City Weekly†2002

Recent Posts