Jennifer Gilligan Cole, former CEO of nonprofit Hands on Nashville Inc., has been named the Metro Nashville Arts Commission’s new executive director, ending a search that lasted more than a year.
The 15-member arts commission Thursday unanimously approved hiring Cole, recommended by a search committee over two other finalists from a pool of 400 applicants. Cole, wife of District 7 Metro Councilman Erik Cole, is set to assume the post Jan. 19 and will earn a salary of $100,000.
“It’s incredibly exciting,” Cole said. “The city is in a pivotal place for arts and what arts means to us as a city, what it means for the culture of the city and the economic development of the city. I’m really excited to work on public and community arts during this time.”
Sandra Duncan had filled the position on an interim basis since September 2008 when the commission fired then-Executive Director Noree Boyd after receiving poor marks on a department review. Duncan is expected to assume her former position as the commission’s public art program manager.
Though Cole dabbled in theater growing up, she doesn’t hold a traditional arts pedigree, instead spending most of her professional life working on strategic planning and organizational development for various not-for-profit entities.
“I actually think in this instance that’s a benefit,” Cole said. “I think the focus of the commission is around building a culture of the arts within the city. I think that you have people who are experts in what they do. What you really need in a leader is someone who can kind of pull those pieces together.”
Cole’s spouse, Erik Cole, represents parts of East Nashville and heads the Council’s Convention, Tourism and Public Entertainment Committee. Arts commission chair Jane Alvis said the board was aware of the connection, but added Cole earned the position on her own merits.
“She just really had the maturity, the organizational skills and the political savvy that we really felt like we needed,” Alvis said. “It was that combination that really stood out for all of us.”
Before she took the position, Cole said she made sure her acceptance wouldn’t violate any Metro Codes or ethics rules, adding her husband wouldn’t be able to vote on the commission’s budget, for example.
“We as a family maintain high ethical standards,” Cole said. “I really do see that I can be a highly competent professional, and so can he, and I think we can separate that very easily.”