As we are in the midst of Artober Nashville, a monthlong celebration of all things art, you may have heard Jen Cole on the radio or read about her in the paper. She’s the executive director of the Metro Arts Commission (Metro Arts) and in her five years in this role, the Nashville art scene has exploded. Metro Arts serves as the largest arts funder in the city, giving nearly $2 million annually to the arts and community nonprofits, managing programs like Artober Nashville and the city’s public art collection. Prior to 2010, there were just three public art installations in our city: The Ghost, Citizen and the Bike Racks. Now there are 47 that have been installed or are in progress. It’s obvious that Jen not only loves her job, but her staff, as well. We are thrilled to include her in our FACES of Nashville series.
How did you make your way to Nashville?
I’m a military kid. While I was working in Washington, D.C., after college, I met my future husband, Erik, a native Nashvillian and we wanted to make our home in a city he loved and so we did, in 2000.
What was your first project when you took the position as executive director of Metro Arts in 2010?
The first thing I did was build a framework to grow the public art collection. We’ve done this through two tracks. First, large scale, iconic projects that bring internationally known artists into our “public museum” —pieces like Light Meander at Riverfront Park or the piece we are installing now, STIX. The second path is for more entry-level projects, where we support and coach local, first-time, public artists as they make the transition from studio to street. Since 2011, nearly 70 percent of the projects we’ve commissioned have gone to Tennessee artists and we’ve increased the collection by 4,200 percent!
What plans do you see for the next five years of public art in Nashville?
We need to continue on these two tracks and bring more art to every neighborhood in Nashville. This winter, we are starting our first countywide public art master plan where we will create a long-range plan for more art in neighborhoods, explore the feasibility of a mural arts program and really look at how arts can enhance other infrastructure like public transit, greenways, even stormwater systems. It is important to remember that our public art program is new—Chicago and Philadelphia have been at it for more than 50 years. With a good plan, ours can grow into a world class “museum without walls” for the people.
We need to be working directly in our communities and listening to community voices. Everybody has art in their lives—whether it be a song that stirs an emotion or memory, or a physical piece of art—we are all tied to art and have had artistic experiences in our lives. Art needs to be a part of all lives in Nashville.
How has the Nashville art scene expanded in the last five years?
Nashville is an urban magnet with a heavy concentration of creative people. And creative people attract other creative people. Music may anchor our city, but the art form ripples out into other expressions … we’ve seen a major expansion in contemporary art from new dance companies like New Dialect, chamber ensembles like chatterbird and Intersection, and multimodal facilities like OZ Arts Nashville. In 2010, there were 25 galleries in Nashville and now there are over 80. There are more artist co-ops and just flat out more people making, crafting, creating and contributing creatively to the Nashville we all love. Just look to neighborhoods like Buchanan Street or Wedgewood Houston to see how arts are transforming our city.
And it’s Artober Nashville! How can we all participate?
There are over 1,000 art events going on in Nashville in October. It’s enormous. Most days, I’m overwhelmed by how many amazing things there are to do. Do something you’ve never done—maybe with your kids or on date night. Find a class, a performance, a gallery. Visit artobernashville.com to find something for you!
Tell us about one event in Artober that you are really excited about.
Only one? There are so many … okay, one that stands out is the third annual Nashville Print Crawl, presented by seven local print shops. You’ll get a poster template at your first stop and you can fill it up as you “crawl.” This year, we’ve added a major interactive letterpress stamping activity with artist Bryce McCloud at the Downtown Library. It will amaze, so clear your calendar for October 17.
When will STIX be complete?
We are hoping for mid-November. Did you know it takes 10 hours to create each hole for each pole? And, there are 27 of them. Each foundation is 15 feet deep and each pole will extend 70 feet in the air (that is twice the size of a telephone pole). So, not exactly a pixie stick. We will likely finish up the landscaping in the spring when the weather is more cooperative.
We’ve noticed some negative tweets at times aimed at the public art in Nashville. How do you deal with social media criticism?
It’s very hurtful, but it is part of the job. The most hurtful part is when people insinuate that we (my team) are lazy and we don’t work hard. Most people only see the tip of the iceberg for all the work that goes into each project. The inclination is to enter into a value debate, about whether people like or don’t like art. We generally only respond to negative social media if something is factually incorrect. But it’s art, so everyone has an opinion. We always say thank you and that we appreciate their thoughts, we set the record straight if the remarks are incorrect, then we have a good laugh and move on. I always say art is about a conversation, not right or wrong.
So moving on from art, what is some of the best advice you’ve ever had that you use now?
Oh, I’m known to say a few of these! “Always have your big girl pants ready,” “Can’t stop crazy” and “There is always time to iron.”
Where do you and Erik go for a date night?
Last time we found ourselves without kids, we headed to Sinema. When we have the chance to plan for a date night, we usually try to go someplace we haven’t been before. I don’t eat meat, so I’ll tell you there are a lot more choices than when I first moved to Nash-vegas!
If you could change one thing about Nashville, what would it be?
I wish we could focus on the positive and exciting things about our public schools. That we could spend more time building up teachers and kids. Both of my kids go to public schools, and I work on the Music Makes Us Advisory Council. Every day, I’m amazed by what is happening. Did you know we have one of the fastest growing mariachi programs in the country? Or that all the kids at Maplewood High School are learning to code? Their art classes are even painting with drones. It’s incredible. As Nashville becomes more dynamic, our schools are becoming more dynamic, as well, but many people don’t realize this. I wish we could turn the public narrative around, because I’m really in awe of what is happening.
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without?
- A book to read, likely a Scandinavian mystery novel
- The ability to cook. I’ve been known to drive instead of fly, just to bring my good knives with us on vacation!
Thank you, Jen!
SB Note: You may have heard Jen on NPR recently talking about the Racial Equity in Arts Leadership pilot program. REAL “is a direct result of Metro Arts’ five-year strategic plan that identifies the need to drive equity and inclusion in the arts sector. The recently adopted NashvilleNext General Plan includes goals to support broad cultural participation amidst Nashville’s rapidly changing demographics.” —nashville.gov
It’s an honest discussion on race and the arts, and to read more about it, see nashvillepublicradio.org.