Ceiling of Frist Art Museum, Nashville, TN

Frist Art Museum in Nashville, TN

An Art Deco Masterpiece

We visited the Frist Art Museum in Nashville in February of 2019. Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, and Their Times: The Mellon Collection of French Art from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts was a featured exhibition at that time. Therefore, we knew we’d be seeing some amazing paintings and sculptures. However, we did not anticipate the architectural significance of the building itself.

Full disclosure: we are architecture junkies, so beautiful buildings get us very excited.

History of the Frist Art Museum Building

During the Great Depression, FDR created the Works Progress Administration (the WPA) to get people back to work by having them carry out public projects. Communities across the United States benefitted from the new agency that created parks, bridges, and schools. Nashville was blessed with a stunning new post office.

Constructed in 1933 to 1934 with monies appropriated by Congress during the Hoover administration, this post office (which later became the Frist Museum) displays both of the most distinctive architectural styles of the period: classicism (exterior) and Art Deco (interior).

From the Frist Museum website:

The spare, streamlined exterior—faced in white Georgia marble with gray-pink Minnesota granite—is an example of “starved” or “stripped” classicism. During the Depression, architects were expected to express in their buildings the values of permanence, stability, and order—values that a classical style had traditionally embodied—but in forms streamlined to suggest progress and to lower production costs. Inside, however, cast aluminum doors and grillwork, as well as colored marble and stones on the floors and walls, follow the more decorative trend commonly known as Art Deco, which had developed in commercial interiors in the 1920s.

Building ownership transferred to the City of Nashville for the purpose of creating the Frist Art Museum in 1998.

Enough about the building. What about the art?

The galleries were large, well lit, and filled with important and gorgeous works. Even though we went on a rainy afternoon, and many others had the same idea to spend the afternoon indoors marveling at the beautiful artwork, it was still possible to move around without bumping into too many people.

The primary focus of the exhibition was Impressionism, French art created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Featured were works by seminal figures, such as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. This was the personal collection of the American collecting couple Paul Mellon and his wife Rachel “Bunny” Lambert Mellon.

We learned a lot by taking the audio tour. It was interesting and informative, if just a little hard to navigate. Using smart phones provided by the museum, the interface was a little tricky, but well worth the effort. There was even a History of the Building audio tour, which answered many of our questions.

Another Surprise

The final surprise of our Frist Art Museum trip: awesome homemade potato chips. After touring the exhibits, we took a break in the museum café. It was an unremarkable room with a fairly standard café menu. What a surprise to find that they offered homemade potato chips. We tried them and they were awesome–some of the best we’ve ever had. (Only the homemade potato chips at The Looney Moose Café were better.)

Next time we’re in Nashville, we’ll be visiting this museum again. We just loved it. And if the timing is right, we may even take the docent-led History of the Building tour. And this time, I’ll bring my good camera.

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