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Is the First Saturday event crawling forward or falling back?

State of the Art Crawl

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Nashville's First Saturday Art Crawl celebrated its fifth anniversary last year, but just 17 months later, the event is experiencing growing pains: Its home on Fifth Avenue North is undergoing a major facelift that may make First Saturdays even bigger, while Twist, a pioneering Art Crawl gallery, has announced it will close next summer.

Sixteen years ago, Anne Brown's The Arts Company opened its doors, making it the first gallery on Fifth Avenue North. Brown remains an enthusiastic promoter of the Art Crawl she helped to found.

"We don't do it just to do it," Brown says, laughing. "We meet new people every month. We make new sales every month during the Art Crawl. But it's also a way to engage people in a visual art activity that's free."

What's not free is the $1.5 million Metro Public Works project that has rechristened the block the Fifth Avenue North Arts District, and will bring with it a newly paved street, wider sidewalks, public art, bike racks, pedestrian seating, new landscaping and shimmering curtains of LED lights.

"I think it's a major shot in the arm for the Art Crawl," says Brown, who feels the makeover will shine a new light — literally and figuratively — on visual art in Nashville. "It's going to make it the Art Crawl-plus."

Along with The Arts Company, Tinney Contemporary and Rymer Gallery round out the trifecta of Fifth Avenue commercial galleries that are ground zero at the crawl. For Rymer Gallery director Natalie Dunham, the Fifth Avenue reboot is a game-changer.

"The visibility is going to be great," Dunham says. "You'd be surprised how many people come in here and say, 'I had no idea there were art galleries on this street.' " While she's looking forward to even bigger First Saturday crowds, Dunham also hopes the new setting will foster a more serious scene.

"For me, a serious patron is someone who does more than look at something for two minutes," Dunham explains. "They want to meet the artist. They want to know what it's about."

While the redesign will affect the Fifth Avenue galleries the most, it will also impact the art spaces across the street in The Arcade. And there's another change coming to that side of the avenue.

Twist Gallery's Beth Gilmore helped organize the inaugural Art Crawl, and some of Twist's first exhibits were unsalable installations that immediately set it apart from its more commercial neighbors. This paved the way for The Arcade's other contemporary fine art galleries, such as Coop, 40AU, Open and Blend Studio. These spaces consistently program the smartest, most challenging — and often most beautiful — work at the crawl, but its hard to imagine the scene existing if Twist hadn't provided an anchor. But despite her pioneering success, Gilmore is calling it quits after July.

"It feels like I need to do something new," explains Gilmore, who is also a single mother finishing an MFA. "Seven years is a long time for a gallery, and I've learned a lot, but it feels like time for a change." Gilmore has also grown ambivalent about the Art Crawl.

"We get huge crowds, but I don't think they're there to look at the work at all," she says. "It seems like they're just there for the wine, and it's frustrating because we all work really hard — all of the galleries. I think we're contributing to the culture of this city, but it doesn't seem to be appreciated enough. People like to tell you they've gone to the Art Crawl but they couldn't tell you what they saw."

Coop Gallery subleases its space from Twist, and it's Coop that's best positioned to cultivate The Arcade's contemporary fine art scene after Twist's exit. Coop shows boundary-pushing out-of-town artists who often engage in performance, installation, digital and video work. Its gallery duties and rent are split between a nearly 20-member curatorial collective.

"We aren't a commercial gallery, so we aren't concerned with sales," explains Coop's Ruth Zelanski. "In fact, we try to show art that isn't very commercial." While Coop places a priority on showing challenging work, they appreciate the large, diverse Art Crawl audience.

"When our artists are able to attend the openings, they're always impressed by the number of people exposed to their work," says Zelanski. "Exhibitions are a lot of work, and it gives our artists a good impression of Nashville when they see so many people attending."

For Zelanski, the crawl's best asset is its novelty. While her peers might dread crawl visitors who treat the event like a cheap date, Zelanski is more bothered by art scene regulars who won't attend the crawl.

"The beauty is that it changes every month," says Zelanski. "The worst excuse I've heard by people interested in art who don't go to the downtown galleries is that several years ago they went, and they didn't like anything." For Coop, new changes include expanding into at least part of the Twist space after July — but no one knows who will fill the rest of the empty space that Twist leaves behind.

"I'm always disappointed when a space closes," says Zelanski. "Hopefully our new neighbor will be as hardworking and dedicated to the scene as Beth and the other women involved with Twist have been through the years."

The crawl has plenty of commercial spaces, and opportunities for enthusiastic amateurs abound, but it's the future of the contemporary fine art scene at The Arcade that's at stake. Will the crawl be only an affordable night on the town, or will it grow a new kind of Nashville art audience that invests its attention, its intelligence and its money in challenging, provocative, unique work? It's not enough for the crawl to get even bigger. It's got to get even better.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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