Nashville's singing a new tune

Attractions: New visual arts center and new Country Music Hall of Fame give the city big boosts.

Destination: Tennessee

May 06, 2001|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,Sun Staff

Mention Nashville and most people think about the Grand Ole Opry. Chances are the city will never lose its country music image, and no doubt it doesn't want to.

But give this Tennessee metropolis of a half-million people a closer look and you will discover a thriving cultural center that can sound a lot more notes than just country.

The newest addition to Nashville's cultural scene is the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. The $50 million center, in the city's former downtown post office, opened last month.

"The Frist Center is going to be a major venue for art," says Vivien Green Fryd, an associate professor of art history at Vanderbilt University who moved to Nashville 16 years ago from New York. "We have some wonderful collections in town, such as at Fisk University, but it's small, and this is the first venue for large-scale traveling exhibitions. It will make people more aware of the art we already have here in Nashville."

The center is not designed to house a permanent collection. Instead, it will feature traveling exhibits and offer a variety of programs and education workshops. With more than 24,000 square feet of gallery space, the center includes a computer classroom, media and technology resource center and an interactive education gallery that provides hands-on education and art-making activities for visitors.

So far, according to Ellen Pryor, the center's director of communications and community relations, response has been "overwhelming. ... We've got people coming of all ages, from all walks of life. We've had international visitors and visitors from other states. I think one of the things people are enjoying most is the building. It's such a magnificent home for the exhibitions."

The art deco post office building, constructed in 1934, is on the National Register of Historic Places. The lobby has been restored to its former splendor, with gleaming marble floors and aluminum grillwork. The original building had a skylight that had been removed, but the addition of a clerestory re-creates the skylight effect.

Nashville's civic leaders talked about the need for a major visual arts center in the city for decades. A series of citywide meetings in 1993 and 1994 allowed residents to create a wish list of projects that included a visual arts center, and with grant money from the Frist Foundation, renovations to the post office began in 1999.

By focusing on traveling exhibits, says Chase W. Rynd, Frist's executive director, Nashville residents and visitors will be able to see a variety of art. (From Sept. 13 though Jan. 30, the center will feature about 100 pieces of medieval and Byzantine art from Baltimore's Walters Art Museum.)

Although the Frist Center has generated plenty of hoopla, Nashville is not resting on its civic laurels. Later this month, about eight blocks from the Frist, the new Country Music Hall of Fame will open, and in June, a new Nashville Public Library will make its debut downtown.

"People are calling it the Big Three," says Seth Alexander, the library's publicity and marketing coordinator. Alexander, who came to Nashville in 1998, the year the Nashville Predators joined the Nation Hockey League, has watched the city grow.

"Now there's a big arts buzz around town," he says. "It's not just a country music town."

But the music scene is by no means faltering, as evidenced by the new Country Music Hall of Fame. The original Hall of Fame was built in 1937 on Nashville's Music Row, between Centennial Park and nearby downtown.

The new Hall of Fame is on the west bank of the Cumberland River, a few steps from historic Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville's famous weekly radio broadcast, now in its 75th year, got its start.

The new Hall of Fame is centrally located downtown. It is close to the Gaylord Entertainment Center, where the Predators play. Nearby is Adelphia Coliseum, home of the Tennessee Titans NFL football team, and the Tennessee Performing Arts Center, where the Grammy-winning Nashville Symphony resides. The Frist and the library are close by.

The new Country Music Hall of Fame, spanning a city block, is twice the size of its predecessor. Allow at least three hours for a visit. There is a 214-seat theater that features a video presentation about country music, and a 75-seat Songwriter's Theater, where musicians will entertain museum visitors with concerts. A bridge between the main gallery space and upper level of the nearly 11-story rotunda highlights the building, which showcases 74 individuals, duos or groups elected to the Hall of Fame.

"Nashville certainly has become a very diverse city," says Linus Smith, 49, a city native who has driven cabs here for 27 years. "Essentially we're on the map in a different fashion than we were before. It used to be that as far as tourism was concerned, people came here for country music."

He points out that while music is still a big draw for Nashville, the city has always been "a business center and an education center."

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