It's a warm Friday night in early June, and the Cheekwood parking lots are filled to capacity. Attendants guide drivers into a wooded field where cars sidle up as in a shopping-mall parking lot. A man in a golf cart gives rides to the admissions office, and strangers squish together, six or seven at a time, nervously tittering about the close quarters. The slow ride ends at the visitor services desk, where well-dressed guests in their Southern summer best are interspersed with kids dressed down in indie-rock regalia.
At twilight an audience with blankets and camp chairs assembles before an outdoor stage, sipping wine and chatting with each other while cicadas chirp in the background. As the sun dims, out comes the evening's headliner, Lambchop, a critically acclaimed Nashville indie-rock band with a global cult following. The audience quiets as Cheekwood President Jane Offenbach joins the band onstage. Tall and lithe, Offenbach is wearing a well-tailored dress that is equal parts classy and conservative, socialite and banker. Every inch the gracious host — Cheekwood's symbol, after all, is the pineapple, which represents hospitality — she welcomes the audience to the first Cheekwood Nights concert.
"Thank you for coming to Cheekwood!" she says. "We are so pleased to introduce to you ... THE LAMBCHOPS!"
Offenbach's introduction elicits giggles from Lambchop band members and some of their fans, who know that the name is not plural, and there's no "the." Given that the group's always had a larger following overseas than in their hometown, the slip-up is understandable. And it slips past much of the crowd — some of whom likely have never heard of Lambchop, and instead came to enjoy the elegance of Cheekwood's botanical gardens at night.
The presence of an avant-garde band that once played chaotic gigs in the punky confines of Lucy's Record Shop signals the institution's attempts to reach out to the city's burgeoning young art crowd — some of whom are already fixtures at the First Saturday Art Crawl downtown, which has become a social happening as much as an art event. But as Cheekwood seeks its place in Nashville's much-changed art scene, the venerable institution is having something of an identity crisis, including top-level personnel changes, questions about its continued commitment to contemporary art, and an increased focus on the bottom line.
For most of the half-century since it opened in 1960, on the former estate of the Cheek family (who started Maxwell House coffee), Cheekwood has been Nashville's dominant art institution. To be sure, it's also a historic mansion and a gorgeous 55-acre botanical garden — but for decades it was an oasis in a visual-arts desert, and it gamely shouldered that responsibility. In recent years, among Nashville traditions such as the Trees of Christmas, Cheekwood has brought cutting-edge exhibits by local and national artists to its Temporary Contemporary Gallery, earning critical praise and cultural cachet in the process.
But with the 2001 opening of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts and the proliferation of downtown galleries over the past five years, Nashville's art landscape has radically changed. As the audience for contemporary art has gravitated to the city's center, Cheekwood's position in the local art world has shifted. The many new venues would seem to have relieved the pressure to be all things to all patrons, but that has left the institution's staff and visitors wondering which way it will tilt — toward the expensive traveling shows and blockbuster exhibits that boosted it to a landmark year in 2010, or toward its own holdings and the multi-generational lure of its home and grounds.
Will Cheekwood gradually cede forward-looking contemporary art exhibits to the Frist, the downtown galleries and exciting venues such as Ovvio Arte? That's the fear of local artists and patrons who watch eagerly to see what Temporary Contemporary will program next. And yet under the guidance of a new president who means to impose fiscal discipline and market-driven findings — concepts that are often distasteful to artists — Cheekwood may have its best shot at thriving for another half-century.
The sea change at Cheekwood over the past couple of years may have crested in March 2010. It was Cheekwood's historic 50th anniversary, and yet former president Jack Becker resigned, just a couple of months before an exhibit of Dale Chihuly's monolithic glass sculptures was installed.
"That was my baby," Becker tells the Scene. "It was great because it was a whole citywide celebration of Cheekwood's 50th anniversary." The blockbuster exhibit pervaded Nashville from May through October last year. During the exhibit, Offenbach says, attendance grew 100 percent, membership grew 70 percent, and roughly 339,000 people passed through the gates.
"Cheekwood engaged the entire community of Nashville," Becker says, "and my vision was to promote the uniqueness of Cheekwood as a sort of indoor-outdoor place. It's a very experiential phenomenon."
The anniversary celebration was a milestone, but it also may have been the swan song for another phenomenon: Cheekwood's status as the something-for-everyone omniplex of the local arts scene. To Belle Meade residents and families seeking seasonal outings, it's a wonderland of wildflowers, rolling hills and ponds bubbling with tadpoles and glistening footlong koi goldfish. To Nashville's art scene, however, it's the most prestigious venue in the city for local contemporary artists to show their work — since the Frist, as curator Mark Scala readily admits, typically does not present shows by Middle Tennessee artists.
"Cheekwood is one of the only places in Nashville where emerging and local artists can display their work and have an exhibit in a place that lends it the prestige of a museum," says Lain York, an acclaimed artist who also serves as director of Zeitgeist Gallery in Hillsboro Village.
The direction of Cheekwood's programming, therefore, is followed with great interest by the local arts community. All eyes now are on Offenbach, who took over as president from Becker (now in the executive director's post at Omaha's Joslyn Art Museum) in the middle of the Chihuly spectacle. Within months, all three of Cheekwood's vice presidents were either let go or resigned.
The Scene spoke with more than 15 former and current employees for this story, but only a handful agreed to speak on the record. What became apparent was a polemical divide among Cheekwood's staff, with alliances forming among staff members while outcasts pass judgment from the sidelines.
Though Cheekwood once had no rivals as Nashville's definitive art institution, times have changed. The deep-pocketed, relatively new Frist Center and the Arcade-area galleries that have coalesced into a downtown arts district have advantages the 50-year-old institution lacks. The Frist Center has a generous endowment from the Frist Foundation, a luxury Cheekwood doesn't enjoy. (Cheekwood's early benefactor was The Nashville Museum of Art, which donated its permanent collections and proceeds from the sale of its building to help fund the enterprise.) The downtown galleries work in tandem, feature frequently rotating exhibitions, and are near the tourist district. Cheekwood, meanwhile, has a permanent collection, a historic home and pristine botanic gardens that require constant maintenance — and it's in Belle Meade, far from the city's core.
And therein lies the Cheekwood conundrum. Manicured grounds amid one of Nashville's most beautiful neighborhoods help make it a sanctuary from ordinary life, and its refined setting confers a prestige far beyond the un-air-conditioned, sometimes shabby facilities in some of the downtown galleries. But those very same attributes can also be drawbacks. Cheekwood is a mansion inside the most exclusive neighborhood in Nashville. To get there, you have to drive down some of the city's wealthiest streets, and that can be off-putting to patrons who like their art edgy and outside the establishment.
Exclusivity is the enemy of arts institutions. In the past, management has gone to great lengths to prove that Cheekwood isn't like a country club, emphasizing that it is a place for the public, a library of information about art and beauty that is meant to engage its audience. But recent Cheekwood events have had a hard time striking the right balance to reach upscale and populist tastes. July 15's Summer Night's Party charged $35 for an outdoor screening of the critically panned 1974 movie version of The Great Gatsby; it was cancelled at the last minute due to lack of ticket sales, even though it was heavily marketed. (The art exhibit Drawn to Nature was also opening that weekend, but it was left out of the marketing campaign completely.)
But even if some people perceive an air of exclusivity, Cheekwood is still beloved by a broad spectrum of Nashvillians. Furthermore, the institution is facing the same economic challenges as every arts organization — and it seems like everyone has their own ideas how to make Cheekwood a success.