Downtown arts maven Anne Brown talks about the community, presenting works in new formats and the need for public funding [From our print edition featured in Monday's City Paper]
Published December 13, 2009 by William Williams
Anne Brown is owner of downtown retail icon The Arts Company and a veteran leader of Nashville’s visual arts community. She ranks as a pioneer of sorts, having helped lead the charge in the late 1970s to bring contemporary art and artists to the city.
With a new printing division now in operation and various moves to improve the city’s always-changing arts community, Brown is staying busy. However, she recently took the time to chat with Post correspondent William Williams about matters related to all things art.
You recently created The Arts Company Press. What did that entail in terms of logistics and personnel?
The Arts Company Press is a natural extension of our company’s business. Personally, I am a lifelong lover of books, music, theater, literature — you name it. This new publishing venture offers me the opportunity to highlight distinctive and legendary artists in all fields who have made significant artistic contributions. The flexible infrastructure of our business model allows for such enterprise to be added as opportunity arises. While publishing requires a variety of expertise — from design to editing to marketing to printing — all of those can be managed through professional associates, not necessarily additional staff. This is a cost-effective approach to add depth to our business.
The first publication, "Brother Mel: A Lifetime of Making Art," will be available in bookstores (and at The Arts Company) in December.
Where do you envision The Arts Company in five years?
The Arts Company was founded and even named to accommodate an expansive business model. We have intended from the beginning to be unlike traditional galleries. We expect to continue to stay ahead of the curve as our business morphs into new models to deliver art experiences to Nashville.
At The Arts Company, the storefront gallery is only the tip of the iceberg. Our five-year plan is to continue to design new models to get art, artists, and patrons/clients/customers together in new formats. We have already developed a cost-effective model for designing rotating exhibits for business clients. We have added a role for the art of books in our repertoire, and we have curated and presented exhibitions of the estates of various artists.
We will continue to expand our stake in Internet positioning and transactions. Our interest in curating traveling exhibits in partnership with selected galleries in the country continues. In addition, there are various writing projects on the drawing board.
From a business perspective, how would you characterize Nashville’s community of art gallery owners?
There are 10 to 15 galleries using various business models that have joined The Arts Company on Fifth Avenue of the Arts in just the last two or three years. As the first gallery on the block for 14 years, we welcome our new neighbors.
For many years, we hosted a monthly series called Salon Saturdays. That event has morphed into the First Saturday Art Crawl, a collective downtown art crawl opening on the first Saturday every month. This event attracts approximately 1,000 people every month to come to the Fifth Avenue of the Arts galleries, and an average of 600 of them take the free downtown trolley to go between the Fifth Avenue galleries and three galleries located nearby at Eighth and Broadway.
Art galleries are not a business for the faint of heart. Even so, other long-established galleries citywide have been in business for decades and are weathering the current economic realities. The Nashville Association of Art Dealers has initiated a monthly event for galleries citywide called Art After Hours, scheduled for the first Thursday of every month. Participating galleries are encouraged to stay open until 8 p.m. for people to drop by after work on their way home.
Collectively, these galleries — maybe 30 or so now in the city — are a testament to the relative health of this particular business niche in Nashville.
Beyond the art gallery community, how are related entities positively impacting Nashville’s visual arts community?
In just the last year, an informal group who describe themselves as the Downtown Arts Partners has gotten together to devise ways to identify and market the variety of art-related venues available in downtown Nashville. From the Symphony Center to the Frist Center to the honky-tonks, museums and art galleries, the business of art is alive and well in our city, every day and every night. That represents a stunning change for a city that for a century paid little attention to the arts as an integral part of the city, much less as businesses.
A common goal of art-related businesses downtown, profit or nonprofit, is to initiate partnerships with other businesses to enhance collectively the liveliness of the public life of the city, the very creative and artistic personality for which Nashville is known.
I can speak especially to the collective art-related venues downtown. Not every city can boast of as many significant art-related venues that exist within walking distance in the same neighborhood. Just in the last three years, more art gallery enterprises have begun to emerge. The art galleries are definitely the upstarts in this critical mass of artistic enterprise, but they have quickly presented themselves as active participants in the downtown mix.
A full-fledged artistic industry has begun to take shape. Another significant and complementary impact from a related entity is the Nashville Arts magazine. It is a full-blown, elegant presentation of the legends and surprises of the visual arts in Nashville. It promises to be a world-class publication, adding new dimension to the presence of art and artists and bringing new ideas about art to Nashville. Each issue is a keeper, not just because it is gorgeous, but because it is documenting the history of the arts in and for our time. It is an exhilarating partner for the growth of the arts industry in Nashville.
What are your thoughts on gains and losses in the last year of arts businesses in the Arcade and downtown?
Art in the Arcade offers a great example of how art galleries in close proximity can support each other. Other businesses have long since used that model — car dealers, grocery stores, department stores and drug stores, for example. In addition, artistic businesses are by their nature entrepreneurial. The galleries in the Arcade have a real chance for success as long as rents stay low and their camaraderie prevails. Their nearness to the galleries located on Fifth Avenue gives them more opportunities in their programming and access to a larger customer base. They are a lively presence in the middle of downtown.
Like any other small businesses, galleries come and go. It’s always up and down for new businesses.
Your space recently showcased the work of Brother Mel. How does that type high-profile presentation aid the city’s visual arts effort?
It has to be a plus anytime any gallery has access to an artist such as Brother Mel, and has the opportunity to engage people with his life and work through exhibitions and publications. There is something to be said about a person who has already been a prolific artist and continues daily his life of making art. He is a one-of-a-kind artist with a rare story, an anomaly in our culture. It doesn’t get any better than to be able to showcase the richness and fun of what such artists and art are capable of creating that literally uplifts the rest of us.
Virtually all galleries feel a great sense of accomplishment in discovering artwork they feel has merit beyond the norm, and we all long to engage people in that experience. That describes a lot of what the art gallery business is about. We are all lifted up by exceptional artwork that we can experience personally. Galleries make those kinds of experiences available whenever possible.
You are considered one of the veteran local visual arts industry movers and shakers. How do you view your role?
I am enterprising about making first-hand artistic experiences available for lots of people, both in traditional and in non-traditional presentations and venues. My gallery itself is non-traditional in scope and presentation. It is intended to take people off guard and welcome them into the world of art.
I see my role as being selective about artwork that matters, that makes a connection with people. I like to present it in ever-changing ways, engaging as many people as possible in as many places as possible — public lobbies, workplaces, on the street, in our Avant-Garage, etc.
The business of art undergirds a rich public life. The prime business of public art is statesmanship for a community. The trick is to maintain this peculiar business as a healthy and productive entity. It all comes down to this: I like living in a city where such enterprise is possible.
Where does Nashville rate in the U.S. visual arts art gallery industry?
There’s the East Coast and the West Coast, and then Chicago and Atlanta. My sense is that in Nashville we want to be our own place with our own identity. If we are thinking of the art galleries as defined by the art star system, that could be decades away, and by then may be archaic anyway. I think the prevailing goal among my colleagues here is to continue to be inventive and successful in presenting new and exciting art in Nashville.
Nashville is becoming a hub of artistic creativity. We have many artists who are pocketed here and in surrounding communities and cities. As more galleries bring more of these artists and others to the surface, our own Nashville profile as a city where art is plentiful and distinctive begins to emerge. That’s the direction in which to think of comparisons, not with other places, but with our own invention of what galleries are and can be — successful businesses that serve the public in interesting ways.
What are your thoughts on Metro’s ‘Percent for the Arts’ and Councilman Charlie Tygard’s efforts to modify that initiative?
I have already noted that art is by its nature is part of the public life of any city, in museums, galleries, or wherever. Art created specifically for public projects is especially important to the vitality of any community. My hope is that the current process can accelerate over the years and ultimately reach out and touch all of our community. This calls for vision and statesmanship, not politics.