ARTnews Guide On What To Do & See
Nashville is a city with a perpetual buzz, exuding a sense of excitement and anticipation. And that buzz extends far beyond Lower Broadway, the city’s pop country–style take on Times Square, once the perfect place for a honky-tonk bar crawl but now swarming with bachelorette parties, pedal taverns, and celebrity-owned/backed multi-level theme bars. In my 20 years of visiting Nashville, I’ve spent a lot of time getting beyond Broadway, and what I’ve found is a lively culture of artists, musicians, and other creatives doing great things.
The list of artists working in Nashville is long. It includes—in no particular order—Alicia Henry, Emily Weiner, Virginia Griswold, Brandon Donahue, David Onri Anderson, Rob Matthews, and Marlos E’van. Also Vesna Pavlović, Alex Blau, Vadis Turner, Paul Collins, Benjamin Anderson, Omari Booker, Beizar Aradini, Jessica Clay, Jodi Hays, Rae Young, and John Paul Kesling.
You’ll stay busy if gallery-hopping is on your Nashville agenda. Coop Gallery, Zeitgeist, Julia Martin Gallery, David Lusk Gallery, Unrequited Leisure, and Elephant Gallery are among the sites you can visit, along with Tinney Contemporary, Red Arrow Gallery, Gordon Gallery, and the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery.
This summer saw the first iteration of the statewide Tennessee Triennial for Contemporary Art, run by Carolyn and Brian Jobe through their Knoxville-based nonprofit Tri-Star Arts. The Triennial connected art venues in Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. While the exhibitions at the different venues were not connected by an overarching theme, it was beyond cool to have everything open at the same time. Venues suggested other venues, and the other venues suggested sites around town that were outside the larger exhibition. (And geez, that Alicia Henry exhibition at Fisk University as part of the Triennial was a knockout!) There was a palpable sense of togetherness and camaraderie, so important in a midsize art scene. I’m looking forward to seeing how the Tennessee Triennial grows.
For more cultural offerings in Nashville, read on.
You would be hard-pressed to find a prettier space than the Frist Art Museum. In the days of flashy museums with asymmetrical rooms, the spaces in this historic former post office, built between 1933 and 1934, only enhance the art. The masterful Art Deco cast-aluminum doors and grillwork are mostly in interstitial spaces, filling the hallways and stairwells with stunning decorative moments. The post office’s vast sorting rooms with high ceilings prove perfect as exhibition galleries.
Established in 1866, just after the conclusion of the Civil War, Fisk University proudly stands as the oldest institution of higher learning in Nashville. The university holds two gallery spaces, Carl Van Vechten Gallery and Aaron Douglas Gallery, for temporary exhibitions and selections from the permanent collection of more than 4,000 objects. In 1949 Van Vechten, a prominent Harlem Renaissance music critic, persuaded Georgia O’Keeffe to donate a large selection of her late husband’s art collection, including Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, and Diego Rivera. Just across the quad stands Fisk’s library, Cravath Hall. In the summer of 1930, the university commissioned the prominent Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas to paint a series of murals on the second floor. He described them as a “panorama of the development of Black people in this hemisphere, in the new world.” In 1939 Douglas returned to Fisk to teach and serve as the art department chair. He later became the founding director of the Carl Van Vechten Gallery.
Initially constructed for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition, the Parthenon, a faithful re-creation of its Athenian counterpart, serves as an homage to the zenith of classical architecture. The highlight of the museum is a 42-foot statue of Athena Parthenos, just as it is believed to have looked when unveiled in the 5th century B.C.E. in Greece. Nashville selected a native of the city, Alan LeQuire, to sculpt the monumental work. His sculpture is covered in 23.75K gold leaf, with Athena’s skin painted to appear to be ivory. It’s stunning. Back downstairs is a gallery space that hosts temporary contemporary art exhibitions.
During the pandemic, Nashville opened its newest museum, the National Museum of African American Music, in a fitting location, Lower Broadway, the heart of the country music capital. The museum is the anchor of a new development, a huge complex of shops and restaurants, and it’s a triumph for the city. The 56,000-square-foot museum is a true tribute to the originators of the earliest distinctly American music, unfolding over the past 400 years through more than 50 musical genres and subgenres. Starting with the musical traditions of enslaved individuals, the museum’s interactive displays celebrate the rich legacy of contributions that African American musicians have brought to classical, country, gospel, jazz, blues, and hip-hop, among other genres. Technology plays a key role in the museum, and I spent a fair amount of time watching people across generations wearing headphones and bobbing their heads. In the One Nation Under a Groove Gallery, there is an interactive dance space where one can move to Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” or learn how to style and produce an R&B beat. The whole experience is informative and fun, and I cannot wait to return with my son.
The bustle of Broadway got you frazzled? Refuel your soul with a peaceful escape to the Cheekwood Estate & Gardens. You’ll find 55 acres of cultivated gardens and greenhouses and a 1.5-mile wooded sculpture trail (with works by Alicja Kwade, James Turrell, Jenny Holzer, Siah Armajani, Ian Hamilton Finlay, and others). Tucked within the gardens lies an on-site art museum housed in the original Georgian-style Cheek family mansion. It’s a treasure trove for art connoisseurs and history enthusiasts, with period rooms filled with American Arts and Crafts furniture and decorative arts. Bonus for those who missed the big William Edmondson show in Philadelphia over the summer: Cheekwood has the world’s largest collection of sculptures by the Nashville native.
Other Sites and Stops
Speaking of Edmondson, the Edgehill neighborhood arose after the Civil War, becoming home to individuals who had been enslaved and their descendants. Edmondson was one of the most prominent figures to emerge from the neighborhood, his residence a dual-purpose dwelling and open-air studio. In the backyard he created all of the works that went into his 1937 solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art—the first such show by an African American artist. The homes that once stood in Edgehill were cleared in 1950 to make way for a school and park; today a historic marker designates where Edmondson’s home once stood. In 2018 the city abruptly announced a plan to sell the entire property to private developers. Now the Edmondson Homesite Coalition is working to preserve and protect the place and to someday transform it into the William Edmondson Cultural Arts Center and Museum, with an adjacent sculpture garden.
Also speaking of Edmondson, in 2013 the Metro Nashville Arts Commission hired a pair of artists to create sculptures in a park dedicated to the artist’s memory. Visit Edmondson Park to see the two commissioned pieces, Lonnie Holley’s Supported by the Ancestors and Thornton Dial’s Road to the Mountaintop. A third piece, by Tennessee artist Sherri Warner Hunter, was moved to the park from a nearby location.
Everything seems more important in the Ryman Auditorium; you can feel the history in the air. A Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Landmark, a National Historic Landmark, and the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943 to 1974, the venue holds immense significance in popularizing country music. Every prominent name in country music has taken the stage there: A teenage Elvis Presley had his only Opry performance in 1954; in 1956 Johnny Cash made his debut; there was recently a celebration to mark 50 years of Dolly Parton performing on the Opry. If you cannot make it to a show at the Ryman, at least take the self-guided tour and go home with a souvenir photo of yourself up on stage. Side suggestion: Ryman Alley. Back when the Grand Ole Opry occupied the auditorium, there was no backstage, so the Lower Broadway honky-tonks, especially Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in the 1960s, became the place where the talent would hang out before an appearance. Willie Nelson had the famous quote about getting a couple of drinks before a show: “It’s 17 steps to Tootsie’s and 34 steps back [to the Ryman].”
I’ve known about David Onri Anderson since his time as one of the cofounders of the excellent Mild Climate, an artist-run space and curatorial collective in Wedgewood-Houston. In 2018 he opened a new space in the backyard of his South Nashville home. From the outside, the Electric Shed is a simple structure of the type that would store gardening tools, lawn mowers, and bicycles. But Anderson has paneled the shed to create a perfect, nearly ready-made art space. Shows have included Rahn Marion (Memphis), Mika Agari (New York), and Beizar Aradini (Nashville)—with music programming by Eve Maret.
Hatch Show Print is just a visual delight. Influencing the visual vocabulary of Music City since 1879, this is one of the country’s oldest letterpress shops. Across the 20th century, it played a pivotal role in advertising southern entertainment and music, creating posters for the Grand Ole Opry and etching the images of many stars into history. In 2013 the press and its archive were donated to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
In a city full to the gills with cool recording studios, Third Man Records is fun and different, even if you have left your lo-fi, White Stripes phase behind you. The spot is a blend of record store, novelty lounge, and live venue, all in equal measure. It is also the world’s only live-to-acetate recording facility in the world. A refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph machine records 150 seconds of audio and dispenses a one-of-a-kind 6-inch vinyl record. Neil Young once used it! Want a little red memento? The Mold-A-Rama machine sculpts brightly colored wax mold souvenirs of a miniature model of Jack White’s classic Airline guitar.
Food and Drink
While Charleston and New Orleans were stealing the culinary headlines, Nashville swooped in and became the best food city in the South. The continual innovation, mirroring the city itself, and a willingness to break from long-held traditions make Nashville a gold mine of restaurants.
At this point I should mention that I’ve eaten vegetarian for more years now than I ate meat, so you’ll notice the absence here of the meat-and-threes and the fiery fowl that have swept the nation and brought Nashville cuisine to the masses. That said, one of the things this city does better than just about anyone is to take a vegetable you’ve had a thousand times, a thousand ways, and set it down in front of you with such a simple and transformational preparation that you’ll never think of that veggie the same way again.
I have to admit being a sucker for the Urban Cowboy. The Victorian-era Queen Anne mansion holds eight suites where you can stay overnight, each outfitted with kitschy cowboy-culture wallpaper by the “wall-covering studio” Printsburgh. The lobby palette is reminiscent of the Dust Bowl and adorned with an assortment of musical instruments. Tucked out back you’ll find some of the best cocktails in the city at the Public House Bar, which has recently been joined by an outpost of Roberta’s wood-fired pizzas. Pick one and pair it with the Town Prince, a cocktail made with pisco, passion fruit, lemon, egg white, and fresh cinnamon.
Have I structured a whole day around having the latest lunch possible at 5 p.m. at Rolf and Daughters and then coming back for dinner at 9:30? Yes. And I’m proud of it. The menu changes frequently, almost daily. I’ll eat any pasta they make; a few years back, they had this dish with raw squash, salsa matcha, and Mimolette cheese that was so simple (seeming) and so special that when I got home I found myself running back and forth to the market trying to recreate it (a big fail).
A big part of having dinner at Lou is that you are stepping into an intimate 1930s craftsman house in Riverside Village. It’s a place to lounge, drinking natural wine and sampling all the veggie-heavy small plates, like local soft greens with bee pollen and Peruvian lima beans.
Bastion offers up two distinct experiences. On one side, behind a semi-secret sliding door, lies a 24-seat tasting-menu restaurant where it’s difficult to secure a reservation. On the other side, at the Big Bar at Bastion, a big rolled-up garage door invites us into an industrial space where Nashville’s young professionals sip cocktails like the Damaged Goods (mezcal, Campari, and blood orange). On the food menu they offer only one option, nachos, available with meat or a concoction of cauliflower, sundried tomatoes, and black beans that somehow comes out tasting like chorizo. It’s worth all the hype.
For a different experience, slide right up to the bar at this fan favorite: Dino’s. It claims to be East Nashville’s oldest dive bar, and I’m not inclined to argue with that. However, I will get a cold house beer—a Dino’s Armadillo Ale—and a basket of animal-style fries with Velveeta cheese and special sauce.
Every time I leave Nashville, it’s the same story: I swing by Proper Bagel on Belmont and order my usual: salt bagel with a generous schmear of dill pickle cream cheese, Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry Soda. Perfect. The ritual remains the same. I promise myself half now, half somewhere around Chattanooga. I’ve never made it past Murfreesboro.
ARTnews Guide On What To Do & See