Metro Arts in Nashville – a leading organization and a learning organization

This story is part of a series of features on the members of the Leading Organizations pilot program, featuring organizations across the country working with artists in new and innovative ways. Learn more about all the organizations here.

Nashville, Tennessee is inseparable from its identity as a music mecca. The center of country and gospel music, it’s a town full of live music venues, record label headquarters, recording studios, and music publishers. The music industry makes it a destination for both tourists and new residents, and draws in a mix of other mediums that build on one another: visual art, fashion, theater, printmaking, web design and development. It’s a city where arts and culture thrive, from national stars to neighborhood festivals, and the people of Nashville like it that way.

In “Music City,” arts funding is driven by a public agency: the Metropolitan Nashville Arts Commission, or Metro Arts. Created by city charter amendment in 1978, the agency is now the largest funder for the arts in Nashville. They host Artober, a month-long, city-wide series of more than 1,000 community events; they commission public art and help train artists; and they support the arts through direct programming as well as grants.

As the city department in charge of arts activity, Metro Arts has a unique responsibility in a town famous for cultural production and tourism. The agency’s role includes supporting the full creative ecosystem of Nashville, including for-profit businesses like galleries, studios, and performance venues. They also partner with other city agencies, and strive to be part of discussions that affect the city and region as a whole.

“Over the last five or six years, we’ve really shifted to be a community organization that leverages the arts,” says Jennifer Cole, Metro Arts’ executive director.

Part of that shift, she explains, is a greater focus on public policy — bringing the arts into conversations about public issues, as well as considering policy in Metro Arts’ programs and grantmaking.

“You can make grants just to make grants, or you can make them with an end goal of what you want to see happen in the community,” Cole says.

This shift in Metro Arts’ perspective has come during a time of change and growth for the city of Nashville itself. Post-recession, the city is seeing an influx of new residents: An average of 80 people a day move to Nashville — and that’s mostly individuals, not mass corporate relocations.

“There’s been a fever pitch of creative people moving to this town,” Cole says. “Compared to L.A. or New York, it’s still an affordable creative center to be in.”

In June 2015, the city adopted NashvilleNext, a 25-year strategic plan based on three years of research and conversations with more than 17,000 people. Much of the plan focuses on how to sustain and invest in the qualities that are currently helping Nashville thrive.

Among those qualities: “arts, culture, and creativity,” one of the seven key elements of NashvilleNext. The plan points to the fact that cultural activities — both for-profit and nonprofit — account for 12 percent of Nashville’s economy and 28 percent of the local workforce. NashvilleNext’s major goals for the creative sector include increasing access to the arts for all; promoting arts education; and supporting professional artists by investing in workforce development and affordable housing.

Metro Arts has a new strategic plan, too, a 5-year plan created in conjunction with the city’s 25-year NashvilleNext. The surveys and community meetings that informed the city’s plan were also incorporated in Metro Arts’, and the agency conducted additional focus groups to hear feedback from grantees, artists, creative entrepreneurs, and community and business partners.

The resulting plan brings an arts-focused lens to some of the most pressing issues facing Nashville. One of the biggest, Cole says, is affordable housing.

“If we want a strong creative workforce, and we want really great neighborhoods, and we want more people participating culturally, we can’t price all the artists out of Nashville,” she says.

The city’s changing demographics are also central to Metro Arts’ vision of the future. The strategic plan notes that both the oldest and youngest demographics are growing, and anticipates that most residents will be at opposite ends of the age spectrum in the next few decades. The city’s immigrant and Latino populations are growing, and within 20 years, there will be no single racial majority. And more than 20 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

Nashville’s artists and cultural institutions must reflect that changing community, says Metro Arts. One of their plan’s key strategies as “to cultivate equity in the creative ecosystem.”

That movement toward equity led to the launch of a new initiative, THRIVE, in 2014. This microfunding program contracts artists as vendors through the city of Nashville, directly purchasing their services for community-focused projects.

“We found that artists from communities of color were not applying for our grant dollars, and we heard that the grant process was cumbersome and required nonprofit status,” Cole says. “We felt really strongly that in order to elevate what was happening in communities and support the work of individual artists, we needed a different mechanism for funding.”

So Metro Arts created that mechanism — one that doesn’t require artists or collectives to have 501(c)(3) nonprofit status.

“People want funding, they just don’t know to go about the funding because the tool we have isn’t the right tool,” Cole says. “So we invented a new tool, and have had great success with it.”

THRIVE-funded projects aren’t required to address major community issues, but many of them have, says Cole. One such project was “Displacement Blues,” a bluegrass song and video by the Shelby Bottom String Band. The band partnered with two nonprofits working on affordable housing and gentrification issues, and screened the video as a conversation starter at community events.

Besides making the application process shorter and simpler, Metro Arts encourages artists to apply for THRIVE funding via outreach events. The agency hosts meetups at neighborhood bars and coffee shops, teaching attendees how to put an idea on paper and ask for money.

The results: 260 artists have been paid to create 17 projects throughout the city. Almost 60 percent of the program’s artists so far are people of color, Cole says, “which was a really dynamic shift in who we were working with and who was coming to the table.”

Metro Arts has a public art program as well, which has also worked to include diverse and emerging artists. Since 2010, the agency has commissioned local artists to design public bike racks — a project meant to be accessible to less experienced artists, says Director of Public Art Caroline Vincent.

In previous calls for artists, Vincent says, “It was easy for the administrator: Put out an RFP, experienced artists know how to respond to that, end of story.”

But Metro Arts realized that the typical proposal process was excluding new artists, and those who hadn’t traditionally been invited to create public art. With the bike rack program, artists could submit original designs without being required to fabricate the racks themselves.

Many of the designs refer to the bike rack’s location, or to Nashville’s musical identity. Duncan McDaniel’s “Soundboard Sliders” alludes to a recording studio mixing board, while Suzy Hendrix’s “Air Wave” depicts a sound wave vibrating between two air pumps that cyclists can use. “Microphone” by Franne Lee, Keith Harmon, and Mac Hill, in which the bike rack itself is created by the spiral of the microphone sculpture’s cord, sits at the northeast corner of the street known as Music Row.

Thanks to the bike racks’ popularity, Vincent routinely gets calls from other cities hoping to emulate the program. Metro Arts decided to create a toolkit that organizations can use to launch their own calls for bike rack artists. The toolkit will be made available on Creative Exchange through Metro Arts’ involvement in the Leading Organizations pilot program.

The toolkit will include a sample request for proposals and share how the program has succeeded in Nashville, says Vincent. One of the features that can adapt to other cities is the fact that the program promotes biking as well as public art. As Vincent puts it, “How can we make it more attractive for you to cycle to work? Use these beautiful bike racks.”

The kit will also share some of the challenges Metro Arts found. It’s important to remember that the bike racks need to be functional and to withstand the wear of daily use, says Vincent. A frequent hurdle for the artists, too, has been the difficulty of articulating their vision to the person who will actually fabricate the bike rack.

“Communicating their ideas to someone else is really hard for some people,” Vincent says. “We had a lot of conflict in that space, getting the artist to communicate what they want to the fabricator.”

To Jen Cole, helping artists talk through the conflict and explain what they want is one of the most important aspects of the bike rack program.

“Our agency assumes the risk of navigating that conflict, and the time and cost,” she explains. “That risk might be so great for an individual artist that they never even try. They might never dip their toe in the water — or their bike tire in the water — if there wasn’t space to be coached through the conflict.”

As the concept is adapted by other organizations, Vincent and Cole emphasize that it’s important to pay the artists fairly.

“A program like this is not just to produce art, but to support artists in their professional trajectory,” Cole says.

As Metro Arts moves into the first full year of their new strategic plan, they’re preparing for what Vincent calls their “biggest new baby.” Learning Lab is an artists’ training program created in partnership with Lipscomb University’s Andrews Institute for Civic Leadership, and funded by an Our Town grant from National Endowment for the Arts. Set to launch in summer 2016, Learning Lab will be taught by experienced public artists, and will educate participants in creating and managing public, community-engaged art. After completing the program, participants will be able to apply for funding for temporary, neighborhood-specific public art projects.

Metro Arts is also working on an initiative to engage the city’s arts leaders in discussions about race, including creating a learning portal for participants to share stories and resources. They hope to find funding to continue to move the project forward.

“We have drawn a line in the sand saying that we internally are going to do more work on race equity,” Vincent says, “but also create space for arts organizations and partners to be part of the conversation in a big way.”

And Metro Arts will continue to look for a place in national conversations: In addition to Leading Organizations, they are involved with the Public Art Network and the U.S. Urban Art Federation.

“We’re a learning organization,” Cole says. “One of the things that we feel strongly about is that we not insulate ourselves but ask lots of questions, have lots of conversations with other organizations.”

Metro Arts will continue to learn and share knowledge in the Leading Organizations pilot program through summer 2016. Watch this space for more about their experience in the program, and for the artist-designed bike rack toolkit.