It's been 15 years since the Tennessee Foxtrot Carousel was taken down from the Nashville riverfront and put into storage. Yet, its legend lives on.
Curious Nashville listeners often ask us whatever happened to the quirky ride that showcased figures from Tennessee history.
One of the most recent came from Nancy Scott:
Where is the Red Grooms carousel, and when/where are they going to place this Nashville treasure?
WPLN has been keeping track of the carousel, which is the work of the Nashville-born artist Red Grooms, since 2016, when we found it in the care of the Tennessee State Museum.
Now, it appears steps are being taken toward getting it up and running again.
But first, a bit of background: The carousel spun in downtown Nashville for just five years — from 1998 to 2003 — but it left a big impression. And how could it not? Instead of the horses and benches found on a typical carousel, this one featured garish, whimsical seating in which you could ride on a guitar with Chet Atkins, share the saddle with Andrew Jackson, or hop on the back of a catfish.
Even now, a decade and a half later, museum officials say people want to know when it'll be back.
"Being out in the community, I'll have people just stop me and say, 'What's going to happen with the carousel?' " says Ashley Howell, executive director of the Tennessee State Museum. "So, we know the public interest, and we're excited that there's so much public interest. And, so, we just want to deliver on that promise."
The promise Howell refers to was that the Tennessee State Museum would find a place where the one-of-a-kind, kinetic sculpture would be truly appreciated.
Poor location is frequently blamed for the carousel's failure the first time around. It had opened to great fanfare — the New York Times Art section took note — but ridership quickly fell off. Few people were interested in seeking out the carousel when it was tucked away on the riverfront, during a time when Lower Broadway's tourism industry was much less vibrant.
But finding a better location has been easier said than done. Grooms is a big deal — a contemporary of Andy Warhol whose work is shown around the world — so the carousel has to be kept secure. But it's too big to fit into the State Museum's new building, and it needs to be maintained regularly to stay in working condition.
"In a lot of ways, it's not a typical artifact of the museum, because it's an artifact that can be ridden. It's an artifact that can be enjoyed by the public," Howell says.
But now that the museum itself is completed, officials say they want to focus on getting the carousel whirling again. Late last year, the museum commission appointed a committee to figure out what exactly has to be done to get the carousel out of storage. Howell hopes they'll deliver an action plan by this summer.
It probably won't be cheap. Simply restoring the mechanisms that drive the carousel is expected to cost more than $300,000 dollars. Building a structure to house it would mean much more.
Howell expects the business plan will call for a fundraising campaign specifically for the carousel. The museum is also open to sponsorships or an operating partnership. Howell notes that Nashville companies originally sponsored some of the figures on the carousel when it was commissioned in the 1990s.
So there's no timetable yet for putting the carousel back on display, but Howell says the good news is that the figures — Andrew Jackson and Chet Atkins and even the catfish — are still in great condition.
And she says the museum is committed to Tennesseans being able to ride them again in the not-too-distant future.