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VOL. 36 | NO. 32 | Friday, August 10, 2012

Cheekwood works to broaden features, reach

By Judy Sarles

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Although Cheekwood Botanical Garden and Museum of Art is about 10 miles from downtown Nashville, where much of Nashville’s arts activities take place, it has developed a strategy to draw visitors to its slightly out-of-the way location, and so far, that strategy is working successfully.

Enhanced public programming and marketing are the primary strategies for increasing Cheekwood’s gate revenue. During the past couple of years, but particularly this year, Cheekwood has moved to a seasonal promotional schedule, establishing garden festivals in the spring and fall.

Debuting this year was Cheekwood in Bloom,” a tulip festival that included multiple weeks of programming while tulips were blooming in Cheekwood’s garden. This fall, Cheekwood will be launching Cheekwood Harvest, a chrysanthemum festival that will kick off on the first day of fall and last for about six weeks, with programming every weekend. Each floral festival is heavily programmed and marketed to bring attention to the garden at Cheekwood and help create a renaissance for the garden.

In addition to the seasonal bookend, Cheekwood is continuing to develop its Summertime at Cheekwood and Holiday at Cheekwood programming. This year, Summertime focuses on a literary theme, because of the new Sigourney Cheek Literary Garden, as well as Treehouses: Great Works of Literature, which features treehouses designed to represent literature’s great works.

Overall attendance at Cheekwood last year was 214,000, and this year attendance is expected to be more than 230,000. Because of the Chihuly exhibit, 2010 was a record-breaking year for Cheekwood, with attendance reaching about 340,000. Attendance this year is going to generate about a $100,000 more in gate revenue than last year.

“Our attendance has been phenomenal,” says Jane Offenbach, Cheekwood’s president and CEO. “In fact, this past June was an all-time record for June in the history of Cheekwood. It even surpassed our attendance records for Chihuly (an exhibit of handblown glass sculptures) for that month.”

The expanded public programming at Cheekwood doesn’t mean there will be a de-emphasis on art programming, which operates in conjunction with public programming. During Summertime, for example, when the focus has been on literature and trees, Cheekwood is exhibiting Every Tree Tells a Story, a photography exhibition from the Cultural Landscape Foundation.

Earlier this year, Cheekwood introduced the Martin Shallenberger Artist in Residence program, which will be continued each spring and coincide with the April public programming.

“It’s all kind of really packaging it altogether in a way that’s easy to market,” Offenbach says.

Not all of Cheekwood’s art exhibits are thematically tied to programming. Permanent Residents: Artists from Cheekwood’s Collection has been up for several months and will continue to be displayed until September 2013.

Cheekwood’s overall budget this year is $5.6 million, compared to $6.8 million last year. This year’s budget is smaller because Cheekwood doesn’t have as much expense in the exhibition area as it did last year when it hosted Modern Masters, Visions of the American West, and Trains!

Along with the opening of the Sigourney Cheek Literary Garden this year, Cheekwood celebrated the reopening of the Howe Garden.

It also is moving posthaste on Fast Forward: Cheekwood in Pursuit of National Pre-Eminence, its new five-year strategic plan, which it finalized last year. The strategic plan has three primary pillars:

Establish the garden as Cheekwood’s key asset in order to differentiate Cheekwood from other cultural sites in Nashville, and position its reputation as one of the country’s most beautiful gardens.

Educate visitors about Cheekwood’s distinction as one of the country’s finest examples of an American Country Place Era Estate, mainly due to its long views in the distance that are still intact because of the Warner Parks system.

“In that sense, we’re really trying to bring the history of Cheekwood to the forefront of the visitor experience,” says Offenbach, “so we have a lot of initiatives in place to elevate the historic importance of Cheekwood.”

Restoring furniture in some of the empty rooms on the second floor of the mansion and seeking a National Historic Landmark designation are a couple of the initiatives.

Focus on art in the garden at Cheekwood, especially on sculpture in the garden. Renovating and enhancing the current one-mile sculpture trail is a priority. In addition, the museum’s 8,000-piece permanent art collection will be examined by scholars to pinpoint specific areas of strength and build on those in order to have a level of excellence within those areas.

“We’re hoping in the next year to two years that we’ll be able to light the Cheekwood campus,” Offenbach says, “so that we can have nighttime programming and extend our hours to the evening, so that Cheekwood can be an evening destination. In 2010, when we hosted Chihuly, we had 340,000 people come here, and 100,000 of those people came just for the Chihuly Nights program.”

Cheekwood is looking at establishing a pop-up gallery downtown this fall as part of Artober Nashville. The gallery would be on 5th Avenue and would open in time for the First Saturday Art Crawl in October.

The gallery might become a permanent attraction among the other galleries on 5th Avenue to give Cheekwood the opportunity to become a prominent part of the downtown art experience.

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