Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Conversation with Frist Center's CEO Susan Edwards: Art, Culture, and Community










On Sunday, September 12, I said “so long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye” to The Golden Age of Couture exhibit at the Frist Center. As many of you know from my blogging, Twitter and Facebook postings, I spent my entire summer at the museum in my self-appointed role as Chairperson of the Committee of One. I am determined to make this the “best year yet” for the city’s iconic building that is fast becoming the epicenter for art in the South. The Frist Center's summer exhibits included Chihuly, the photographs of Tokihiro Sato, and the wildly popular Victoria and Albert Museum’s The Golden Age of Couture, an exhibition in which history and fashion are woven together with intricate and gorgeous precision.

After the outpouring of encouragement from readers of the Tribune in response to the lifestyle fashion section that was produced to show the positive influences of the exhibit on young ladies in our community, I reached out to Ms. Edwards for more details about the exhibit, the museum and to go more in-depth with you about by my adventures at the Frist Center. We heard from hundreds who wanted to know how Nashville was chosen to host the collection that influenced Paris and London designers during 1947-1957. My meeting with Ms. Edwards felt more like two lifelong friends chatting about relatives from back home. I was armed with questions and wanted to learn firsthand about the museum’s mission to integrate art, culture, and community together in ways that have the potential to impact our region and possibly the nation. Ms. Edwards graciously spent Sunday morning sharing with me her life, her passionate love of the arts and the future plans for the Frist Center.

There were common bonds that were recognized right away by learning of our shared heritage of being from small towns with mothers who insisted that dressing in your Sunday’s best was not limited to Sundays. Although her education was not part of our conversation, Ms. Edwards is an Adjunct Professor at Vanderbilt. She is a graduate of City University of New York. Ms. Edwards has a Ph.D. in Modern and Contemporary Art and Photography. She has been the CEO of the Frist Center for over six years.

Our conversation started out with both of us admiring several vintage pieces of clothing loaned to me from Joyce Searcy. In my possession was Joyce’s mother’s black Sunday suit and the opera coat worn by Joyce to the Schermerhorn Symphony’s Inaugural celebrations. As we both admired the pieces, I told Ms. Edwards that my words to Joyce at that time were that her regal dress and coat were worthy of being in a museum because she looked so stunning. Who knew that four years later, I would have her clothes photographed in a museum! That info was an icebreaker as we started thumbing through the pages of Sunday’s top seller, The Golden Age of Couture catalog from the exhibition. From there Ms. Edwards took me into her world as leader of the Frist Center.

Ms. Edwards said, “This year was a perfect storm of bringing many unique art shows together at once. The year started out with the Heroes exhibit during which we worked with the Parthenon and the Chihuly exhibit with us working with Cheekwood.”

I have enjoyed each exhibit but the one that has been dear to my heart was the couture show. The most asked question after the photo shoot was how did the Frist Center obtain the collection? Ms. Edwards said, “It was always the goal of the Frist center to bring a fashion show to the museum.”

The staff began researching the possibility of the Victoria and Albert exhibit nearly three years ago. A show as intricate as the couture show was a feat that could not be done on a short notice.

“We are always mediating mediums, culture, time periods, and of course budgets when we are considering bringing an exhibit to the museum,” Ms. Edward stated. The only time the couture show could come to Nashville was this summer. Since the exhibit was already in North America in Canada, bringing it Nashville helped lower the international shipping costs.

Ms. Edwards explained that the couture exhibit involved months of design planning and installation details. The mannequins were custom built for each piece of clothing and all of the cases were specially designed to hold such rare and fragile works of art. The mannequins and cases were already made and loan to the Frist Center which was another cost saving measure. Even the exhibition guide took untold hours to design to help bring the show to life. Years of planning were unveiled on June 18, 2010 and visitors filled the galleries of all the exhibition halls.

I personally hosted socials events and educational tours at the Frist Center. Women group like Les Gemmes’ and Brentwood Woman’s Club, to name a few, brought friends and family to the show. On August 7, 'Cocktails and Couture" was held at the Frist Center. The social event brought out the faithful, the curious, and the fashionably chic crowds to support the museum. Nashville Parent magazine sponsored Family Day a week later and nearly 4500 spent the afternoon marveling over the unique and different collections. With all the excitement, we could only build on the success of the summer shows for an incredible fall exhibit with the Birth of Impressionism.

I left in the middle of the last week because of a family emergency but promised everyone I would return for the final curtain call for The Golden Age of Couture exhibit. I had barely put my luggage down when emails from members of the community asking about the judge’s ruling in regard to Fisk University’s Stieglitz art collection and involvement of the Frist Center. After reading a few more emails that left me confused, I called the Frist Center to let them know my family was okay and asked if our interview for Sunday was still on.

While waiting for our interview on Sunday, I watched the storylines about Fisk University’s Stieglitz Collection that is awaiting a judge’s ruling if it can be sold or not to help school financially, go from one scenario to another. Since my meeting was already scheduled, I contacted Ms. Edwards to make sure we could address the Frist Center’s involvement in the new turn of events with the Stieglitz Collection on Fisk’s campus. Here is our exchange about the Fisk University and the Frist Center.

Genma: "As we were wrapping up the summer and I was looking forward to this great weekend I had planned with tours booked back to back. I think it is important that if I am asking someone to come to the Frist Center, I need to be at the door to greet them when they come in. That is my way of giving back and showing the wonderful things we have at the Frist Center. On Friday I received an email wanting to know what is happening with the Frist Center and Fisk. I was thinking “I don’t know let me make sure I find out.”

Ms. Edwards: “First, let me say we believe the Stieglitz Collection should remain at Fisk University in the Van Vechten Gallery as Georgia O’Keeffe intended when she gave the art to the school.

The Frist Center and Fisk University have shared an institutional partnership since before the Frist Center opened in 2001. We have worked over the past 10 years in productive collaboration in many ways, including lectures, discussions, presentations, tours of the campus and being asked by the university to store the Stieglitz Collection from 2005 until 2008 during the renovation of the Van Vechten Gallery where it’s currently on view.

What is at issue here in the court case is Georgia O’Keeffe’s intent when she gave this collection to Fisk University. She gave it – 101 works in 1949 -- to Fisk for the specific benefit of Nashville and the South. There were several terms attached to the gift: that it never be sold, that it must be shown in its entirety on white walls, that it not travel, that it be shown in the way she laid it out to be seen.

“This art is valuable. Very valuable. As times have become difficult economically, it’s tempting to look to the sale of the art to raise funds, and this has happened on other college campuses. It’s a difficult place to be, but what the state is looking at is… ‘What did the donor intend to do with the gift?’

“The attorney general is charged to protect donors wishes when it comes to gifts to colleges, museums, foundations, religious organizations and other recipients of gifts and bequests, and it is on these grounds that this issue has ended up in court.

“The attorney general of the State of Tennessee was asked by the Chancery Court to offer a proposal that would keep the Stieglitz Collection in Nashville and on view, as O’Keeffe wished, and asked the Frist Center if we would be willing to temporarily place the works on view, should the Chancery Court look favorably on the proposal. Our Board of Trustees discussed the matter at great length and determined that should the court select the attorney general’s proposal, we would agree to temporarily place the works on exhibition and make the collection available to all visitors free of charge until such time as the court determined it should be returned to the Fisk University campus.

“There may be some who might think the Frist Center wants the Stieglitz Collection. We do not. The Frist Center was conceived as, and remains, a non-collecting institution. The intent of the Frist Center is NOT to have a permanent collection of art.”

As our conversation transitioned from Georgia O’Keeffe's Gift to Fisk University to the upcoming Birth of Impressionism, Ms. Edwards’s eyes beamed vibrantly. She spoke excitedly about the upcoming exhibit. As thrilled as I was about The Golden Age of Couture collection, I could feel her love for this period of art history. Her passion for this period of art history encouraged me to become an official docent tour guide. So long, farewell to my chairperson of the committee of one title! More than ever, I am committed to bringing as many members of the community to the Frist Center.

“The vision of the Frist Center is to inspire people through art to look at their world in new ways.” I was inspired this summer to look at the world around me with a fresh perspective. My spirit as a volunteer was renewed. I saw the value of my community like never before. The friendships that were built by many of us coming together for our community to have the best year yet, will always be with me. I am hoping that as we move through next few weeks that everyone in the community will work for the greater good for all our wonderful institutions that we have in Music City. Rather it is a museum that is in an old post office or an institution of higher learning whose main goal is to educate students to become productive members of society. Art can inspire us to look at our world in new ways.

Photos credit: http://www.davidfarmerie.com/ Photographer *Filmmaker

P.S. I met David at the Frist Center one evening in August...enjoying music, art, and the wonderful exhibit.

Update: In three months, the Frist Center had a record breaking 196,000 visitors! That attendance record beat all markets except one for visitors to a Museum!

Update:"Chancellor Ellen Hobbs Lyle rejected the proposal Tuesday afternoon, saying Cooper had not come up with a "long-term solution to keep the collection in Nashville full-time."

4 comments :

Cass Teague said...

Genma,

Thanks you so much for getting to the heart of the matters, both the Couture exhibition and the Frist offer to assist Fisk. I am glad you are making this information available, and hope the word gets out.

I have been a friend of the Frist Art Center since before it opened, and provide preview articles on their exhibitions for the newspaper group I currently write for and have since 2005, just as I did when I wrote for the Tribune from 1999-2005.

I have come to know Susan as a person of depth, insight, passion, and integrity, and appreciate your sharing her perspective on these situations. I frequently use her words in my articles, and look forward to every chance i get to tour the galleries with her.

In that my only sibling is a proud Fisk alumna, and I live one block from the campus, I have a deep love for their struggles, and wish them the best in achieving their motto, "Fisk Forever!"

Cass Teague said...

Genma,

Thanks you so much for getting to the heart of the matters, both the Couture exhibition and the Frist offer to assist Fisk. I am glad you are making this information available, and hope the word gets out.

I have been a friend of the Frist Art Center since before it opened, and provide preview articles on their exhibitions for the newspaper group I currently write for and have since 2005, just as I did when I wrote for the Tribune from 1999-2005.

I have come to know Susan as a person of depth, insight, passion, and integrity, and appreciate your sharing her perspective on these situations. I frequently use her words in my articles, and look forward to every chance i get to tour the galleries with her.

In that my only sibling is a proud Fisk alumna, and I live one block from the campus, I have a deep love for their struggles, and wish them the best in achieving their motto, "Fisk Forever!"

Lisa McGee said...

I, too, am appreciative of the interview between Genma and the CEO of the Frist Center as it dispels the erroneous information out there about their intent. The Frist never collects art, rather they historically provides a venue for all of us to view art. Fisk does need dollars to sustain its ability to educate students, however, money needs should not supersede one's word in exchange for anything. Isn't that a valuable educational lesson that we should be imparting to our children-the next generation?

Obsessedwithlife said...

Thanks for the post! I enjoyed the Frist Center when I was there for my speech :).

Rachel