Now this is a by-God art museum. Let's leave aside for a second the question of which particular exhibits happen to be on display in the generously proportioned gallery spaces of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts. Before you ever buy a ticket or even get past the information desk at the entrance, you are already immersed in one of the finest pieces of art a city could offer: the building itself.
It's a building that will undoubtedly feel familiar to visitors from Knoxville. The Frist Center, which occupies most of a block of Nashville's Broadway Avenue between 9th and 10th streets, opened last year in an imposing granite and marble edifice that originally housed the city's main post office. The 1934 structure is an almost exact replica of Knoxville's own magnificent post office and former federal courthouse on Main Street (well, not really a replica—although the Knoxville building was completed a year earlier, both were based on Treasury Department blueprints by French architect Paul Cret). The exterior, in the spare but monumental "stripped classicism" style, is adorned with fierce hook-beaked eagles similar to the ones you can find facing Main Street. The most notable difference on the outside is that the Frist Center has been restored, thanks to an intense cleaning, to a luminescent pinkish white.
In the lobby, Art Deco design work takes over. As in the Knoxville post office, the hallway is lined with intricate S-curved grillwork. The Frist logo actually incorporates the S-curve into the word "FriSt," one of many ways the building's new function strives to echo its original design. The grillwork is topped by 12 repeating bas-relief icons of 1930s progress and civilization: an airplane, a test tube, a book press, and so forth. Office doors along the entrance hall sport yet another repeating image, a stylized, spiny sun that the Frist Center has adopted as its own icon.
The interior of the building, which was the mail sorting area until the Nashville post office moved its headquarters out of downtown in 1986, has been retooled in keeping with Deco principles. Nashville architect Seab Tuck (a partner in the Tuck Hinton firm that also designed the city's new Country Music Hall of Fame) designed facing staircases on either end of the ground-floor gallery hall supported by streamlined burnished steel arcs that rise from the floor like batwings. One gallery along a side entrance hall, which is expressly reserved for locally-themed exhibits, currently holds a detailed display on the history and renovation of the building.
The Frist Center grew from a happy synchronicity of interests. In 1993, the Leadership Nashville group (analogous to Leadership Knoxville) organized a community project called "Nashville's Agenda." In a long series of public-input sessions throughout the Nashville area, local business and political leaders gathered ideas, comments and priorities for the city's future from thousands of local residents. One of the top items on the list of new projects was a new downtown art museum (something that had been discussed by various groups and commissions for 30 years without ever taking hold). At the same time, the old post office building was sitting almost vacant and had even been threatened with demolition.
Enter the Frist Foundation, the charitable organization founded by Nashville health care mogul Thomas Frist Jr. (brother of Sen. Bill Frist). Working with the city and the U.S. Postal Service, which still owned the building, the foundation orchestrated the purchase and conversion of the facility. The city committed nearly $20 million to the project, with the Frist Foundation pledging a minimum of $25 million (plus an additional $5 million to purchase space for parking).
From the start, the team developing the Frist Center decided not to acquire a permanent collection. Ellen Pryor, who does public relations work for the Center and was on staff during the planning, says that frees the Center to focus on constantly bringing new perspectives and exhibits—to "open a window on the world" for Nashvillians—rather than devote energy to acquisition and maintenance.
The Center, which opened to the public last April, also set a policy of free admission for anyone under the age of 18, to encourage children and students to visit often. (Adult admission is $6.50.) "The whole notion of the Frist Center from the beginning was to create an institution for the many, not the few," Pryor says. To that end, a bank of touch-screen computers near the entrance provides information on current exhibits and gives some background and context to the works for people who may feel intimidated by the idea of visiting an art museum.
The gallery spaces themselves are huge, with a combined area of about 25,000 square feet. The day I visited, the downtown gallery was closed for the installation of a new exhibit (From Twilight to Dawn: Postmodern Art from the UBS PaineWebber Art Collection, which opens Feb. 8 and features works by contemporary artists like Edward Ruscha, Alighiero Boetti and Gerhard Richter). But the upstairs gallery still housed its inaugural show, which is a fine introduction to the Frist Center's mission. Dubbed An Enduring Legacy, the exhibit is an assemblage of American art of all sorts on loan from dozens of public and private collections throughout Nashville. Pryor says the idea was to both expand visitors' sense of what art can be (items include pre-Colombian pottery, a 19th century banjo, Victorian dresses and a Rock-Ola jukebox) and also their sense of Nashville as a city of art. And it is indeed heartening to discover that so much spectacular work—paintings by Diego Rivera and Georgia O'Keefe and Thomas Hart Benton and (my personal favorite) Charles Burchfield, photographs by Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams, a gaudy Jesus-emblazoned Nudie suit designed for country singer Johnny Dollar—resides in one mid-sized Southern city. The exhibit is on display through March 10, and is certainly worth a visit.
Also on the second floor is the Art Quest center, an innovative hands-on area where visitors (children especially, but everyone's welcome) can try their hand at everything from line drawing to printmaking to photography. The displays make reference to current exhibits, turning the entire museum into an interactive classroom. There is even a display wall reserved for work by visitors and community groups.
In short, the Frist Center strikes me as an almost perfect institution—it not only allowed the preservation of a beautiful building, it also turned it into a space by and for the public, making art accessible without in any way dumbing it down. Makes you wonder what Knoxville could do with a building like that...