Carl Van Vechten

North Nashville “Parlour” Recalls When the Harlem Renaissance Came South

At October nips at our heels, Nashville art lovers may be hard pressed to choose between a plethora of events featuring artists, performers, and creative leaders this month. Saturday evening will be all about North Nashville as galleries, restaurants, and shops open their doors for the Jefferson Street Art Crawl, followed by Art History Class Lifestyle Lounge and Gallery’s first in a series of interactive talks dubbed “The Parlour.”  

Modeled after those of the Harlem Renaissance, the salon will include readings, discussion, entertainment, and cuisine. It’s no secret that the Harlem Renaissance brought the voices, stories, and artistic expressions of Black Americans to the forefront of cultural exchange in the 1920s, but few know the history of its migration to the South. According to the gallery’s invite:

Unfortunately, the Great Depression (1929-1939) dried up the financial wellspring of support it so need to thrive. Many of those MONUMENTAL figures of that period moved back to the South for the accommodating cost of living. North Nashville became the home of such notables such as James Weldon Johnson, Aaron Douglas, and Arna Bontemps.

The discussion will center around photographer Carl Van Vechten, the namesake of Fisk University’s art gallery, and the invitation suggests visiting the gallery to see an exhibition of Van Vechten’s work prior to the event as a “pre-study.” (Let’s pause to appreciate thoughtful study and dialogue right now.) Van Vechten was a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, and it’s likely that the iconic images you conjure of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston or Jacob Lawrence were shot by his camera. While you’re there, check out another event, Creatives’ Day.

Founding director and curator of Art History Class, Thaxton Waters, has become somewhat of an institution in North Nashville, especially since his gallery lost its brick and mortar location at the start of summer. Waters opened the salon in 2014 to provide what he calls a “Re-presentation of North Nashville” that’s dedicated to preserving the cultural and artistic history of Jefferson Street and the surrounding HBCUs while helping it thrive. After two years, the building couldn’t contain the gallery’s growth, and the landlord was unwilling to make necessary repairs. But fans soon realized that Art History Class is not one gallery or building but a spirit that has long existed in North Nashville; Waters just gave it a place to thrive.

It has been recognized with a Community Award by Spread Luv 615 and Jefferson Street Urban Merchant Partnerships with a New Business Award in 2014. Thaxton and the gallery have been written about in Native, BURNAWAY and Nashville Scene. In fact, I named it Best Culture Club in this year’s Best of Nashville, just released October 5.

Local activist groups have also taken notice. The group Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) got out the word for an Art History Class pop-up event last month and sold tickets, raising a total of $750 to go toward the fund for a new gallery. The group says it works “to mobilize white communities to support black-led liberation work.” To that end, it encourages its members to support Waters’ project “as a way to fight gentrification and contribute to the funding of black futures.”

SURJ steering committee member Marie Campbell says, “We recognize that current policies and practices in Nashville’s development projects and tourism industry are promoting gentrification in predominately black neighborhoods, displacing long time residents, while also minimizing black contributions to Nashville’s art, music, and culture both historically and currently.”

When I met Thaxton last year for a Nashville Public Radio story about North Nashville artists, he made his optimism clear: “It’s interesting at the time we’re living in now that the social awareness has risen so our voices are becoming more important. I think it’s a beautiful time right now…It’s a very fertile time for artists…we have a lot to say, a lot to speak about, and to do it through the arts is much more impactful in my opinion.”

As Nashville tunes in to the intersection of art and activism, Metro Arts Commission has been encouraging dialogue about the role of the arts in community building. They just opened up applications for the second Racial Equity in Arts Leadership cadre. The mission of REAL is to “cultivate a shared learning space for Nashville arts leaders to learn and practice new language about race, and to think through larger issues of systematic and institutional racism.”

Since Waters moved out of the Jefferson Street space, it’s been easy to make Art History Class an example of the real-world erasure of communities by gentrification — too easy, in fact. Instead, the salon could be viewed as an example of self-preservation and resistance to gentrification.

Saturday’s Parlour will be a pop-up in McJimsey Center at 2506 Jefferson Street. Get your ticket the “The Parlour” here, and check out how you can support plans for Art History Class’ expansion.

 

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