Art Renaissance Blossoms Down South

Article excerpt

For now, the building at 919 Broadway is little more than a marble and metal amplifier for bone-rattling din.

Chain saws buzz and hard-hatted workers bark instructions as they reshape what was, until a few years ago, Nashville's famous 1930s Art Deco post office.

But the cacophony of construction is a prelude to what could be one of the South's greatest artistic triumphs. Come April, the great, square structure will open as the Frist Center for the Visual Arts - host to Renoirs and Cezannes.

Neither Nashville nor the South has ever been seen as much of an art mecca, but the Frist Center is a symbol of how those perceptions are slowly changing. True, New Orleans may never become New York, and Paris has nothing to fear from Mobile, Ala., yet several Southern cities are spending big bucks - as much as a half billion dollars regionwide - to renovate or rebuild art galleries.

Part of it is tourism - as cities, boosted by good economic times, try to bolster their standing as travel destinations.

There is something deeper, though, as Southerners clamor to regain a sheen of sophistication largely lost during the poverty of Reconstruction. By raising its profile in the art world, even incrementally, Dixie is hoping to promote its homegrown cultural heritage, while showing Yankees that they're not the only ones with taste.

"The South has always been cultured," says Butch Spyridon, executive vice president of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Now, cities have the money to show it to the rest of the world. Part of it is to compete with the North, part of it is to get tourists, who otherwise might not think that city has anything to offer them, to the region or a city."

Nashville's arts leaders have realized that the city's residents - and other Southerners - are hungry for art and innovative museums. In recent years, the city has promoted the numerous art galleries and museums already here.

To become a player in the art war that is blossoming in the South, though, the city needed an anchor - a drawing card like the $45 million Frist.

Indeed, even as Southern cities have landed professional sports franchises, they are also spending money to improve museums and arts centers.

In Tampa, Fla., for instance, the Tampa Museum of Art was recently built at a cost of $45 million. In Little Rock, Ark., the Arkansas Arts Center has undergone a $22 million renovation and expansion. It includes a $40 million collection of art.

When he visited earlier this year, President Clinton pronounced himself "overwhelmed" as he was led through the center's new two- story modern atrium of blond wood and slate. …