Published: September 23, 2003
– Tennessee was the American frontier when Andrew Jackson moved from the Carolinas to Nashville and opened his law office in 1788. After representing the state in Congress during the late Eighteenth Century and fighting various native and nonnative people around the Southeast, Jackson became the nation’s seventh president in 1828. He was the first of three Nineteenth Century presidents from Tennessee, followed by James K. Polk and Andrew Johnson. Gradually, folks back east learned more about Tennessee and, in turn, the cultural vitality of the state was enriched by settlers and artisans drawn by new opportunities in the west.
These early presidents are among many historical and artistic figures profiled in an exhibition devoted to the “Art of Tennessee,” which is currently open for a four-month run at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville. The 270-object show presents a complete overview of the state’s aesthetic history through works made by everyone from prehistoric potters and pioneer chair-makers to living painters still working at their easels.
The center is named after the prominent local family of philanthropists, which includes Tennessee US Senator Bill Frist. The splendidly modified Art Deco post office building on Broadway has no permanent collection but provides an ideal display space for traveling exhibitions, as well as shows organized at the institution, such as “Art of Tennessee.” Long before they opened their doors in 2001, museum executives began to visit local collectors, calculating what was available and soliciting good ideas for future exhibits.
To start, the collector showed the Frist staff catalogs from the 1971 “Made in Tennessee” exhibitions at Nashville’s Cheekwood Museum of Art and the 1994-1996 traveling show organized by the Birmingham Museum of Art called “Made in Alabama: A State Legacy.” Hicks says, “And then I told them, this has nothing to do with what I want to try. What I perceived was something much more extensive. I didn’t care what people in Tennessee’s neighboring states think. I wanted people in New York and Los Angeles reaching for their atlases and saying, ‘Where the heck is Tennessee? Why didn’t we think of this first?'”
What will make the “Art of Tennessee” so different from a sharply focused show like “Made in Alabama” is its vast scope, particularly in the range of time it covers. There are the expected Nineteenth Century antiques — pitchers, quilts, sugar chests and portraits of President Jackson – but visitors will also see modern paintings by Suta Lee, Carroll Cloar and William Eggleston in one place and prehistoric Native American sculpture in another.
Hicks outlines other criteria used in their selection: “We felt we could only tell part of our visual arts history if we just included what was made here in Tennessee by Tennesseans. So we’ve collected things that were made by Tennesseans, things that were made in Tennessee by visiting artists and things made for Tennesseans. If we had a chance to borrow a painting from a local collector or from The Metropolitan Museum of Art, we went to The Met, because we wanted to have institutions such as The Met and the National Portrait Gallery and The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston as lenders.”
The exhibition eventually acquired two co-organizers to assist Hicks: Mark Scala, a contemporary art expert who came to the Frist as curator in 2000, and Dr Benjamin H. Caldwell, Jr, who put together the Cheekwood show more than 30 years ago and is the ultimate authority on Tennessee silver. Scala was pleased that the two local collectors had gotten the project started: “They knew many of the lenders personally and they knew what was where.” Familiar faces to collectors, Hicks and Caldwell serve on the advisory board for the Heart of Country antiques show, where they have organized educational symposia and personally lead those famous early bird walking tours on opening day.
The three men also edited the exhibition’s illustrated catalog with informative essays by several dozen scholars, including Wendell Garrett on “Young Tennessee and the Spirit of America” and Jonathan Fairbanks on “The Material Culture of Nineteenth Century Tennessee.” Hicks put together the extensive multiauthored section on “Antebellum Furniture,” while fine art is grouped into four chronological divisions beginning with “Antebellum Painting” and ending with Mark Scala’s essay on “New Directions: Contemporary Art in Tennessee.”
The exhibition fills the entire first floor of the Frist Center, but the sweep of the show still required additional space, so the curators arrived at a creative solution. As would be expected, Nashville’s Tennessee State Museum turned out to be the largest lender with 35 objects. While some of these will travel to the Frist, 21 of these exhibits have become a separate “Art of Tennessee” exhibition at their home institution.
Hicks honors the often-overlooked Tennessee State Museum as a “great treasury” and points out that the collections formed in the early Nineteenth Century by Ralph E.W. Earl became the nucleus for one of the first state museums in the country. He notes, “We had so many exhibits from that source. On the one hand, we wanted to pull them out of their permanent displays and give them a fresh look. On another level, we wanted to get people to go over there, and we needed more exhibition space.” All the objects on view at both locations are included in the catalog.
Among the loans from the state museum is a sophisticated silver tea service decorated with floral repousse work, circa 1855, marked by Nashville artisan William H. Calhoun, and a slant front desk of walnut with elaborate inlay in geometric patterns, circa 1814, made by a member of the Quarles family working in Wilson County. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg has contributed a paint decorated chest dated 1829 from Northeast Tennessee, and Andrew Jackson’s home outside of Nashville, The Hermitage, is loaning a walnut bureau with four drawers, circa 1800-1810, attributed to Joseph McBride of Davidson County.
“I have two ideas about what people should get out of the show,” says Scala. “One is that we are a microcosm of the national experience — we’re not New York or California, but we are similar to other frontier states in our development. Most of all, we want people to know there was meaningful, beautiful and important art produced here.”
Hicks, who proved the inspiration for the exhibition, hopes that it will open many eyes to what we have right here at home: “Tennesseans can say our visual arts patrimony is composed of amazing treasures. We’ll have objects back together that haven’t been together for a hundred years. We’ll have objects that have never been seen by the public, and, sadly, we’ll have a lot of objects that may never be seen again.”
Although the show will not travel, scholars around the country will be able to add the catalog to their reference shelf for $60 hardcover or $40 softcover, plus handling. For more information, call 615-244-3340 or visit .
Antique collectors will gather at the Frist on Saturday, October 25, for a special daylong symposium titled “Ignorance or Prejudice? Changing Perceptions of Tennessee and Southern Furniture.” Timed to coincide with the fall Heart of Country show at the Opryland Hotel, the 10 am to 4 pm event will be $100 for non-Frist members; call 615-744-3342 for registration forms.
“Art of Tennessee” is on view until January 18. The Frist Center for the Visual Arts at 919 Broadway is open seven days a week: Monday-Saturday, 10 am to 5:30 pm, with extended hours to 8 pm on Thursday; Sunday, 1 to 5 pm.
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