By the time COVID-19 forced the Frist Art Museum to close temporarily on March 16,2020, staff there had already been observing safety protocols for about six weeks. While visiting New York earlier in the year, Executive Director and CEO Susan H. Edwards had seen the pandemic’s effects on a city’s cultural life. And in an interview, she shared how the Frist has successfully protected its relationships with the public, the community and other institutions. – Gene Downs


Gene Downs: What is your background? How long have you been with the Frist?

Susan H. Edwards: I’ve served as Executive Director and CEO of the Frist since 2004. I earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of South Carolina and a PhD from the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center. My areas of expertise are American art and photography, subjects I’ve taught at New York University, Vanderbilt University and other institutions.


GD: How prepared was the Frist for a crisis such as COVID-19?

SHE: The Frist, like other museums, has a disaster-preparedness plan as part of our accreditation requirements. We update our plan annually, and it includes preparations for biochemical contamination or a similar crisis. Apropos of nothing, 25 of us on the staff had taken Red Cross training in January that included information about airborne pathogens. So, we had 25 people who were a little more savvy about these topics. That was serendipitous.

Frist Art Museum

GD: When and how did the Frist begin responding to COVID?

SHE: In February, we began using hospital-grade cleaning supplies and posted instructions on the proper way to wash hands. As soon as we closed in March, we started researching how to make our museum a safe environment for staff and visitors. It was an entirely collaborative project involving everyone in the institution; good minds think differently, and it was important to get a 360 on this.

We began right away with following the recommendations of the CDC and the National Institutes of Health and keeping in touch with the Metro Public Health Department about best practices.

As I mentioned, in February, we started using hospital-quality cleaning procedures ― that was six weeks before we closed ― just to be sure we were doing a deep clean. When we closed in March, we began researching best practices and procedures to prepare us for reopening. We upgraded the air filtering system and determined the necessity for physical distancing when we reopened to the public July 1. For reopening, we introduced advance-only ticket sales to ensure we did not exceed the recommended number of people in the building at any one time. We require masks in the building for all staff and guests. We deployed employees from areas that were closed, such as food services, to do things like open doors for visitors to make sure people don’t have to touch anything unnecessarily.

Our building is owned by the Metropolitan Government of Nashville, and it’s mandated that everyone who visits a metro government building wear a mask. So, fortunately, we did not need to have discussions about masks.

GD: Did program participation increase due to the shift to online programs?

SHE: Yes, unbelievably! We have with lesson plans for making art with kids at home, and it’s also very useful for high school students. That has seen astronomical usage. We have other programs that might have attracted 80-100 people in person and now, as online programs, have hundreds of participants from all over the world. I find myself taking advantage of what’s offered at other art institutions, too.

Interestingly, we were in the middle of redesigning the website in the spring and early summer, so we migrated exhibitions, public programs and classes to online not once but twice for the two incarnations of the website. It was quite a challenge, and all kudos to the team for moving quickly to keep the Frist Art Museum relevant for our supporters.

Frist Art Museum lobby

GD: How did you prepare to reopen?

SHE: A task force did research to find personal protective equipment. We had to research how many people to schedule to work per shift, the number of people we could have in the building and innovations such as self-cleaning elevator buttons.

The health department reviewed our plan and sent independent inspectors to confirm that it matched our reality. They were pretty complementary because we had exceeded all of the legal requirements. With something like that, you want to go over and above. We were able to reopen to members on June 22 and to the public on July 1.


GD: How has this experience affected relationships with other arts organizations?

SHE: The spirit of cooperation has been phenomenal across the board. I saw profound generosity and cooperation ― maybe because creative culture is made up mostly of people who are mission-driven and sensitive and caring anyway. I’ve never regretted what I decided to do with my life, but I’ve never been prouder of the kinds of human beings I encounter day in and day out in our sector.

Frist Art Museum gallery

Spring exhibition highlights at the Frist Art Museum

“Picasso. Figures,” Feb. 5-May 2 ― The Frist will kick off its 20th anniversary season with this exhibition of works from the Musée national Picasso-Paris. Featuring approximately 75 paintings, works on paper and sculptures, the show will offer an in-depth look at the artist’s “career-long fascination with the human figure as a means of expressing a range of subjects and emotions.”This will be the exhibition’s only U.S. appearance. Website:


Creating the American West in Art,” March 5-June 27 ― This exhibition examines the complex and evolving perceptions of the American West through works by artists such as Frederic Remington, Thomas Moran and Maynard Dixon. Website:


“Kara Walker: Cut to the Quick,” July 23-Oct. 10 ― With more than 80 of Walker’s works, this exhibition provides an overview of the artist’s career. It includes the complete Emancipation Approximation series and images from her Porgy & Bess series.Website:


Frist Art Museum

919 Broadway

Nashville, Tn. 37203


Th – Sa 10:a – 5:30p

Sunday 1:p – 5:30p

Gene Downs is a freelance writer and editor based in Durham, N.C., focusing on consumer healthcare communications. He is a former arts and entertainment writer for the Savannah Morning News. Visit his portfolio at