There have been a myriad of issues, policies and appointments for Megan Barry to consider since she became the seventh mayor of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County on Sept. 25. And while performing and visual arts aren’t typically mentioned in most public discourse alongside such bread-and-butter matters as housing, transportation, public safety and education, Barry understands and embraces the vital role those arts play here beyond our community’s internationally-known Music City calling card.
“When I was budget chair as well as during my eight years as an at-large member (on Metro Council), what I was able to see was the incredible impact the arts have on our economy as well as our quality of life,” she says in a recent conversation with Nashville Arts Critic. “So when we were making budgetary decisions about where to place our public resources I looked at it through those two lenses. There’s a huge economic benefit but there’s also a huge quality of life benefit, and I think you see that in where we put our resources.”
While Barry readily acknowledges the big-picture social/economic needs for a vibrant arts community that’s fully integrated with other aspects of Nashville the arts have also been a very personal commitment for her – among her board memberships before she became mayor (she’s rolled off all such boards to avoid conflicts of interest) were stints on the boards of Tennessee Repertory Theatre/Nashville Repertory Theatre and the Belcourt Theatre.
“For me when you talk about performance art…(and) visual art I just see it as rich components that make my world a better place,” says the 52-year-old who came to Nashville from Kansas in 1991 to attend Vanderbilt University in pursuit of an MBA degree and decided to make Tennessee’s capital her hometown. “For me it’s a love of creativity, a love of talented people who are able to do truly amazing things that I’m not capable of. So I just have great admiration for people who are creative and put their energy in creating beautiful things, however that manifests itself.”
The public resources the mayor notes include the work of a Metro Nashville Arts Commission, which has a current operating budget of slightly more than $2.67 million that among other items involved more than 1.4 million citizens and over 54,000 Metro Nashville Public Schools students in arts programs, activities, and events through commission grantees ($1.89 million to 64 local organizations that supported 1,199 full time staff and 1,212 contract artistic positions in the local creative economy) and direct public arts projects, according to the Metro Operating Budget for FY2016.
One of the mayor’s duties is appointing members to the 15-member arts commission that receive final approval by Metro Council. Barry’s first appointment to the commission, Mohamed Shukri Hassan, was ratified for a four-year term at the council’s Dec. 1 meeting.
“I am really excited about Mohamed Shukri Hassan,” Barry says. “He’s a New American voice, a voice that I think has been missing on that commission.
“We have a large community of New Americans that are part of the Nashville fabric. The need to be able to be part of the conversation when we’re talking about arts and creativity in our city. Mohamed brings a great perspective – he’s a small businessman and entrepreneur with deep ties to the New American segment of our community and I wanted to have his voice on the arts commission.”
What about her criteria when she makes subsequent appointments to the commission? “I can tell you that each appointment will be based on the skill level we need at the time, and I predict that they will be people who are creative and embrace our creative culture, who want Nashville to continue to have the creative vibrancy we’ve been talking about (in this conversation),” she says. “I will be looking for those skills.”
The mayor recognizes the importance of linking businesses and people to government efforts as well. “You also see the importance of private partnerships that really make many public partnerships possible because there’s never enough (public) money to do what we want to do, so going out and finding those key partners in the community, for-profit corporations as well as those individuals who highly value the arts is really critical, and in fact we’re in the process right now of finalizing a really neat arts installation that’s going to be funded by private dollars that we’ll be able to announce (soon) and you’ll see that it’s a great example of private dollars working with public entities to make such things possible.”
Her new administration already announced continuation of the Music City Music Council started in 2009 by then-Mayor Karl Dean’s office, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp; Justine Alexa Avila was named last week as that council’s new executive director.
The transition report released in October for her new administration includes a recommendation that her office support “policies and practices that promote Nashville’s cultural and creative economy. Nashville is attracting ‘a wide variety of creative workers who anchor their lives and businesses in innovation.’ According to the Nashville Arts Coalition, ‘there are more than 40,000 creative workers in the county and in turn their labels, museums, clubs, galleries, and design studios support thousands of other jobs.’ Just as we are making Nashville known as a city that is good for starting and growing a business, we should take the same approach to ensure that Nashville artists and creative entrepreneurs have the opportunities to grow their professional practices and businesses. We would recommend that the Mayor include a position in the Mayor’s Office of Economic & Community Development focused on the creative economy.”
Barry calls that position “critical” and adds, “We are so hot right now, and we’re attracting a wide variety of creative workers who want to anchor their lives and businesses here.
“We know as a city that Nashville is great for starting and growing businesses, and I think that the general approach we’ve taken for that is what we need to help Nashville artists and creative entrepreneurs. I want them to grow their professional businesses and practices here.”
The National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University in January released a whitepaper containing its “Arts Vibrancy Index” which placed the Nashville metropolitan region (including Franklin and Murfreesboro) second in the nation behind only the greater Washington, DC area among regional communities with a population of one million or more. As noted by the NCAR, vibrancy in the index is measured as the level of supply, demand, and government support for arts and culture on a per capita basis.
That high ranking doesn’t surprise Her Honor: “I’m not shocked because I look at what they’re tracking, not just the presence of (such initiatives as) great songwriting programs of course but so many other pieces here. I know you’re familiar with Periscope (the artist entrepreneur training program facilitated by the Arts and Business Council of Greater Nashville) …I think such things are what differentiate us and put us second on that list.”
Barry knows, to borrow from terminology coined by President Theodore Roosevelt, that she has a “bully pulpit” to advocate for the arts inside and outside the Metro Courthouse and she plans to use that platform. “Where I see my role is to continue to promote Nashville as a cultural destination, and that includes all of our cultural components. The word I hear people at the Frist (Center for the Visual Arts), Nashville Symphony, Cheekwood (Art and Gardens), the Hermitage and elsewhere use – our ‘furniture,’ meaning the things that are here, that are solid – but also the art in our neighborhoods. I know that (Metro Nashville Arts Commission Executive Director) Jen Cole and the council have worked hard (through such initiatives as the THRIVE program) to show that it’s not just about arts downtown, it’s about arts everywhere (in Nashville/Davidson County), and I see that as a continuing initiative of my administration.
“When we look at the legislation the last council passed on work-maker space, it’s also about using the bully pulpit to make it easier for creatives to live here, which means affordable housing, transportation and great educational opportunities for children – all of the pieces that I will focus on through my bully pulpit.”
*Photo of (left to right) Emmylou Harris, Connie Britton and Megan Barry at a campaign rally courtesy of and copyright Megan Barry for Mayor; photo of Mayor Megan Barry being entertained by performers from Mariachi Internacional at a reception after the inaugural ceremony courtesy of and copyright the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County.