The FirstBank First Saturday Art Crawl may be referred to by several names, including the “downtown art crawl,” or “the art crawl on 5th Avenue.” But what was once just an idea of Anne Brown (from The Arts Company, now Chauvet Arts) has now become “the city’s art crawl.” Since 2006, it has superceded the showcases of the “big three” art galleries (The Arts Company, The Rymer Gallery, and Tinney Contemporary Art Gallery). In addition, it has incorporated The Arcade, the Downtown Presbyterian Church, the world-famous Hatch Show Print, “Boutique Row” on Fourth Avenue North, Printer’s Alley, and even a few remote locations.
This art crawl is put together by sponsor FirstBank and secondary sponsor/ managing entity the Nashville Downtown Partnership. According to the Nashville Downtown Partnership’s website, the organization is “a private sector nonprofit corporation whose core purpose is ‘to make Downtown Nashville the compelling urban center in the Southeast in which to LIVE, WORK, PLAY, and INVEST.’ The Partnership was organized in 1994. Since that time, the Partnership has transitioned into a downtown leadership organization that focuses on business recruitment and retention, residential and retail development, public space management, access and transportation, communications and marketing.”
But the “H-shaped” art crawl—whose crowds of people seeing the most current artwork displayed and enjoying complimentary wine inspired other art crawls across the region—has ceased its operations due to the pandemic. Just like every other large event that’s been stopped to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the FirstBank First Saturday Art Crawl has ceased operations. This unexpected hiatus has created an interim period in which planners have had to re-assess what they’re going to do.
Since it has been speculated that COVID may change a number of industries permanently, including those of live events and architecture, what should art admirers expect from the art crawl once it returns?
Project Manager for the Nashville Downtown Partnership Kacy Stern came to the organization in May 2019. In her role, she handles production and promotion for the art crawl, which includes both handling security measures and using the ambassador program to keep the streets clean and safe throughout the entire footprint of the crawl. Kacy also oversees the distribution of the art crawl map, the use of signage related to the crawl, and the coordination of the free trolleys for attendees.
“Well, at this point, obviously, we have canceled our programming for the year,” she tells Launch Engine. “Unfortunately, it was probably the worst year that we could have done it because we had some great new partnerships and ideas that we were really excited to present to people. And most people may not know this, but while the FirstBank First Saturday Art Crawl occurs every month—rain or shine—we at the Nashville Downtown Partnership program 5th Avenue North between Church [Street] and Union [Street]. Typically, that’s April through December. We apply every year for event permits to close the block, and this year we ended up withdrawing the entire lineup of bookings and permits we had for the entire year from April.”
Without doubt, the timing of COVID-19 threw a monkey wrench into the machinery of the FirstBank First Saturday art crawl. As the first confirmed case in the U.S. came in January, the entire year’s programming for the art crawl was cancelled before it even has a chance to begin. Kacy says that 2020 was supposed to be a great year for the crawl, with hotel partnerships and after-hours artist residencies in Printer’s Alley managed by some of the alley’s merchants. For public safety, the FirstBank First Saturday Art Crawl cannot return until the conditions are met for Phase Four of Nashville’s reopening. Kacy says that the canceled festivities means no art, no live performances from the musicians booked to play in the streets, and no table exhibits from sponsors or partners from now until April 2021. This is, of course, assuming that the city of Nashville will be able to get to Phase Four of the re-opening plan at that time. October has seen a surge in the number of cases of COVID, with TIME reporting that the U.S. has already entered its third wave of COVID-19 cases—its worst yet.
Pandemic or not, Kacy says that the appetite for visual art has not subsided. Even if the art crawl is canceled, people are still looking to the FirstBank First Saturday Art Crawl to get their fix of locally-showcased creativity. She says, “I think something that we’re super excited about and positive about is that our social media following has grown. We don’t do any sort of paid advertising for the FirstBank First Saturday Art Crawl. We’re seeing a lot of organic growth and engagement that we weren’t really expecting. I think that even in these very uncertain times, we’re still seeing interest. And that was one of the things that we talked about very early on. We wanted to make sure that anything we did digitally didn’t overshadow the opportunity to come back and gather all together.”
Oddly enough, the content shared on the social media for the art crawl isn’t related to the artists or art being shown in the galleries. Rather, Kacy says that it is content related to general gallery exhibitions or other facets of the crawl. Kacy explains that the crawl supports and cross-promotes other initiatives, such as the Nashville Gallery Association, which has done “virtual art crawl” events.
However, Kacy is the first to recognize that this social media content pales in comparison with what the walk itself can offer. She says, “We haven’t spotlighted any artists specifically… It’s been a really difficult transition, I think, for a lot of… social media managers. It’s very hard to know where that line is between self-promotion and still being aware of what’s going on in the world. So we have kept it strictly focused on the art crawl and its happenings, some related events, but… we do want to make sure that we’re promoting the physical events as much as we can when we’re ready to re-ignite that.”
While disappointed in how 2020 turned out, Kacy says that the Nashville Downtown Partnership is looking forward to what 2021 has in store for the art crawl. “We are putting a lot of our eggs in the ‘next April,’ basket,” Kacy states. “We’re looking to next April for our first, official, in-person street celebration.” Currently on the docket for early 2021, the team behind the FirstBank First Saturday Art Crawl will be discussing the management of capacity for the art crawl. “Because we have such great attendance, we’re usually super packed into the spaces. At that point—because of the guidelines that are being put in place—that’s going to have to change.” Kacy goes on to explain that because there are such strong partnerships with the galleries on the art crawl, capacity and guest management is going to be decisions that are largely managed by the gallery owners themselves.
There are certain COVID-related components that are currently being planned to remain the same for the art crawl series, including mask mandates, social distancing, and sanitization efforts. As flu season adds more uncertainty to the mix, Kacy says of these future art crawls, “It’s really hard to say with any definitiveness how the end-user experience will change.” She adds that there are “tons and tons of things in the works” for the crawl that they’re trying to figure out how to execute during the pandemic.
While Nashville waits to host another first Saturday event, Kacy says that there are a number of great ways people can experience art both downtown and all over Middle Tennessee. She points art lovers to the individual art galleries of the art crawl that are open by appointment.
Kacy welcomes feedback from those who’ve participated in previous art crawls, and says that she can be reached via her email address on the Nashville Downtown Partnership’s website. The FirstBank First Saturday Art Crawl will return in April 2021, if conditions related to COVID-19 permit the city to move to Phase Four of its reopening plan. For further information about the FirstBank First Saturday Art Crawl, be sure to visit its website and social media.