Fifth Avenue makeover to expand lively arts scene

Friday, November 2, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 44
By Linda Bryant

Eight light curtains supported by 30-foot poles will stretch across Fifth Avenue from Church to Union streets. There also will be art commemorating Nashville’s role in the civil rights movement.

-- Submitted

When Jeffrey Rymer moved his art gallery to Fifth Avenue five years ago he wanted to be a part of building the visual arts scene on the downtown Nashville street from the ground up.

Rymer poured his heart and soul into helping the district gain recognition and helped establish the First Saturday Art Crawl, a monthly tour of downtown art galleries.

The art crawl was a hit and now attracts over 1,000 visitors a month -- a strong mix of Nashville residents, tourists and hotel guests. The street was rebranded Fifth Avenue of the Arts, and gallery tenants in the district grew from a handful to a peak of 19 galleries.

Now Fifth Avenue of the Arts is in the midst of a dramatic $1.4 million makeover, one that Rymer and his colleagues in the visual arts scene believe will catapult Nashville locally and nationally.

“We made the street come alive. We made it a magnet for the local arts scene,” Rymer says. “Now the city has stepped up to upgrade the infrastructure for what we’ve created. It’s the next level for visual arts in all of Nashville.”

When completed, Fifth Avenue of the Arts will have the only installation of overhanging LED light canopies in the United States. The “light curtains,” primarily used in Europe, will hang 30-foot poles, drape over the width of the road and stretch down Fifth Avenue. They will make the street highly visible from a distance.

Metro Arts Commission is also taking national bids for a $75,000 public art installation on the street that will commemorate Nashville’s Civil Rights history. The historic Arcade, which is on Fifth Avenue of the Arts, is where non-violent sit-ins were held by African American students in restaurants that served only whites. The public art is funded by Percent for the Arts, a program that funnels one percent of general obligation construction bonds to public art installations.

Sidewalks will be improved and expanded to make room for outdoor cafes and platforms for art will be installed.

Jen Cole, executive director of Metro Nashville Arts Commission, says streetscape improvements are the “single biggest changes that can make Fifth Avenue feel like a true destination.”

“The sidewalks haven’t been updated in 40 years, and it’s dark at night,” Cole says. “By improving the pedestrian experience and the lighting and extending the nightlife, we are helping to shape the next decade for the street into an even grander avenue of the arts.”

Crissy Cassety, retail recruiter for Downtown Nashville Partnership, says she is actively recruiting retail tenants for the Fifth Avenue because of its emergence as an arts center.

“We’re looking for local and regional retailers that you won’t find in a suburban mall, ones that complement the arts scene,” Cassety says.

The success of Puckett’s Grocery and Restaurant at Fifth and Church has further convinced Cassety that the time is right for more activity on the street.

Mayor Karl Dean agrees with the vision of a lively district.

“Although Nashville has a worldwide reputation for music, there is an abundance of talented, creative people here contributing to the visual arts,” Dean says. “This block is already one of the most important creative districts in the city. Creating an Avenue of the Arts will make dining outdoors and strolling the art galleries an even more vibrant and enjoyable experience.”

Paul Polycarpou, editor and CEO of Nashville Arts Magazine and Fifth Avenue resident, believes the improved Fifth Avenue of the Arts will put Nashville on par with larger cities known for the visual arts.

“There’s already terrific vibe around the arts in Nashville,” Polycarpou says. “Now the city is elevating the street to meet that vision. This is not just about bricks and mortar; it’s about our great enthusiasm for the arts. It’s about Nashville being known for all the arts, not just music. The visual art we have here is as good as art anywhere.”