Art renaissance blossoms down South

Looking to regain a sheen of sophistication, Southern cities are pouring cash into museums and building up their collections.

For now, the building at 919 Broadway is little more than a marble and metal amplifier for bone-rattling din.

Chain saws buzz and hard-hatted workers bark instructions as they reshape what was, until a few years ago, Nashville's famous 1930s Art Deco post office.

But the cacophony of construction is a prelude to what could be one of the South's greatest artistic triumphs. Come April, the great, square structure will open as the Frist Center for the Visual Arts - host to Renoirs and Cezannes.

Neither Nashville nor the South has ever been seen as much of an art mecca, but the Frist Center is a symbol of how those perceptions are slowly changing. True, New Orleans may never become New York, and Paris has nothing to fear from Mobile, Ala., yet several Southern cities are spending big bucks - as much as a half billion dollars regionwide - to renovate or rebuild art galleries.

Part of it is tourism - as cities, boosted by good economic times, try to bolster their standing as travel destinations.

There is something deeper, though, as Southerners clamor to regain a sheen of sophistication largely lost during the poverty of Reconstruction. By raising its profile in the art world, even incrementally, Dixie is hoping to promote its homegrown cultural heritage, while showing Yankees that they're not the only ones with taste.

"The South has always been cultured," says Butch Spyridon, executive vice president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Now, cities have the money to show it to the rest of the world. Part of it is to compete with the North, part of it is to get tourists, who otherwise might not think that city has anything to offer them, to the region or a city."

Nashville's arts leaders have realized that the city's residents - and other Southerners - are hungry for art and innovative museums. In recent years, the city has promoted the numerous art galleries and museums already here.

To become a player in the art war that is blossoming in the South, though, the city needed an anchor - a drawing card like the $45 million Frist.

Indeed, even as Southern cities have landed professional sports franchises, they are also spending money to improve museums and arts centers.

In Tampa, Fla., for instance, the Tampa Museum of Art was recently built at a cost of $45 million. In Little Rock, Ark., the Arkansas Arts Center has undergone a $22 million renovation and expansion. It includes a $40 million collection of art.

When he visited earlier this year, President Clinton pronounced himself "overwhelmed" as he was led through the center's new two-story modern atrium of blond wood and slate.

Other major art projects in the South include:

* A $60 million expansion of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

* A $16 million expansion of Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah, Ga.

* A new, $15 million facility for the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.

* A $15 million expansion of the Mobile Museum of Art in Alabama.

"What's unique about this is that it's not San Francisco and New York, it's Mobile and St. Pete and Nashville," says Emily Kass, director of the Tampa Museum of Art.

Before the Civil War, art was an important aspect of life in the South. Southern belles often traveled to Europe to study the works of master artists and often had their portraits painted by them. Plantation owners may have raised cotton, but they bought art to fill their palatial homes.

As the region suffered depression following the Civil War, many paintings found their way to the North, either sold to institutes when Southern art patrons needed money in order to live during Reconstruction, or taken to the region by Union soldiers during the war.

But art remained in the South. In fact, the Frist Center is working with Nashville residents to create a show that will reveal the wealth of masterpieces hidden in the city.

"Who knew there was so much art in private collections in the city?" says Chase Rynd, the Frist Center's executive director. "What we do here at the Frist Center is not for the community, but with the community we serve."

The Frist Center isn't alone in its cultural mission in Nashville. The Cheekwood Museum of Art and Botanical Garden recently completed an $18.5 million renovation and expansion, including a 16-piece modern sculpture garden more European than Southern.

Throughout the South, there are smaller projects cropping up, as well.

Last week, for example, Montgomery, Ala., opened a museum and research center to honor Rosa Parks, the African-American woman whose refusal to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus ignited the Civil Rights movement.

While new buildings are shining additions to cities, some art leaders have stressed the importance of creating endowments to operate the museums once the economy slows.

"Endowments are crucial," says Townsend Wolfe, director of the Arkansas Arts Center. "Where there is a will, there are ways, as you see across the South with these new projects. These museums will certainly prosper, or they wouldn't have gotten built in the first place."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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