Frist Presents “Flag Exchange” by Renowned Social and Community Engagement Artist Mel Ziegler

The Frist Art Museum presents Mel Ziegler: Flag Exchange, an installation of fifty American flags—one from each state—suspended row after row from the ceiling. The exhibition invites consideration of the American flag as a symbol of national identity and ideals, and it will be on view in the Frist’s Upper-Level Galleries from March 13 through June 28, 2020

Exhibition view of A Living Thing: Flag Exchange, curated by Hesse McGraw, at Federal Hall, New York, 2017. Photo: Guillaume Ziccarelli

Mel Ziegler (b. 1956), the Paul E. Shwab Chair of Fine Arts Professor at Vanderbilt University, is renowned as a social and community engagement artist whose work seeks to foster discourse and the sharing of ideas relating to history, politics, and society. He divides his time between Nashville and rural Nebraska, where he is the founder and executive director of the Sandhills Institute, a grassroots organization dedicated to civically engaged art, in part by connecting local ranchers and farmers with artists around the world.

During his travels across the United States, Ziegler frequently saw the American flag on display in front of schools, homes, small businesses, construction sites, or simply alongside the road. Many were in poor condition—often ragged, faded, or torn. “Mel was intrigued that these expressions of national pride were kept on view by people who either couldn’t afford to replace them or in many cases hadn’t noticed or cared whether theirs had gotten shabby,” says Frist Art Museum Chief Curator Mark Scala. “And he wondered if their owners might be willing to trade theirs for a fresh new flag.”

So, from 2011 to 2016, in what Ziegler calls “inquisitive travels,” he visited all fifty states, with a supply of American flags, and offered to replace old flags with new ones, renewing people’s outdoor displays while acquiring the materials for the exhibition.

Frist Art Museum (PRNewsfoto/Frist Center for the Visual Arts)

“Flag Exchange is simultaneously a physical installation, an expression of an idea, and a site for performance,” says Scala. “The flags themselves symbolize a nation that has survived tumult and stress.” Displayed in the gallery, the rows of flags create a dense spatial layering. “The effect is optically powerful, as the inherent beauty of the flags’ patterns is intensified through repetition and the irregularity of the damaged cloth,” says Scala.

Flag Exchange has been installed in large spaces, often surrounding or hanging behind a stage or podium. At the Frist, a stage will be part of the installation and may be used for speeches, readings, musical performances, and discussions about the relationship between people and their ideas of democracy. The overall experience is one in which the civic realm is re-imagined in an atmosphere committed to the respectful exchange of viewpoints.

The symbolism of frayed and worn flags in Flag Exchange raises questions about the capacity of the American experiment to be sustained through national triumphs and shortcomings, including our own time of extreme political divisiveness. Ziegler writes that when he started acquiring the flags, “I could have never known what the political climate in the United States might be like today. It seems rather significant and pertinent that this project should help develop open, unpartisan dialogue at a moment when it seems to be needed most.”

Throughout the process of gathering and showing the flags, Ziegler was careful to follow the dictates of the U.S. Flag Code regarding their proper handling and display. In thus demonstrating that respect for the flag should rise above partisanship, he hopes to inspire viewers to find common ground in the vision of indivisibility for which the flag stands.

In the end, it is the act of collecting the flags—the openness and vulnerability of an artist who is keenly interested in interacting with people in all corners of the country—that will inspire the trust and enthusiasm of all participants as they work to find common ground in the meaning of the flag and the promise of the nation,” says Scala.

Mel Ziegler earned his BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts. Ziegler has had solo exhibitions at such venues as Artpace, San Antonio; the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Omaha; the Canadian Center for Architecture, Montreal; Secession, Vienna; and the Tang Museum at Skidmore College. He has been a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard School of Design and a Visual Arts Fellow with Creative Capital and has received grants from the Joan Mitchell Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Ziegler’s work is held in many collections, including those of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery; the Des Moines Art Center; the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; the San Diego Museum of Art; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Public Programs

Artist’s Perspective: Mel Ziegler

  • Friday, April 3
  • 6:30 p.m., Frist Art Museum Auditorium
  • Free; first come, first seated

From 2011 to 2016, Nashville artist Mel Ziegler periodically drove across the United States with a supply of new American flags. When he saw a flag that was faded, weathered, or frayed, he would offer to replace the old flag with a new one, renewing people’s outdoor displays while acquiring the materials for Flag Exchange. Ziegler says, “It is good that we renew and regenerate weathered flags. . . . Capturing them in this moment is what . . . gives them new meaning, new life.” During this lecture by the artist, learn more about Flag Exchange and his artistic practice, which is centered on social and community engagement.

Thursday, April 16

  • In-Gallery Workshop
  • The Star-Spangled Untangled: A Poetic Unfolding of the U.S. Flag presented by Ciona Rouse
  • 7:00 p.m., Upper-Level Galleries
  • Free to members; admission required for not-yet-members. Space is limited. Visit to register.

Poets have long used the symbolism of the flag in their poetry to wrestle with the many triumphs and complexities of U.S. history. In this workshop, we’ll confront and discern our relationship with the flag by discussing a select group of poems. The evening will end with guests creating their own written pieces in response to a prompt inspired by Mel Ziegler: Flag Exchange. No poetry background necessary.

Ciona Rouse is the author of the chapbook Vantablack. Her poetry has appeared in The Account, Talking River, Gabby Journal, Matter, and other publications. She is poetry editor of Wordpeace. Along with poet Kendra DeColo, Rouse hosts the literary podcast Re/VERB.

Thursday, May 21

  • In-Gallery Performance: Free Speech—The Remix presented by the Free Speech Center, Middle Tennessee State University
  • 7:00 p.m.
  • Upper-Level Galleries
  • Free to members; admission required for not-yet-members

Created and narrated by Ken Paulson (host of The Songwriters on PBS), Free Speech—The Remix tells the story of America’s social struggles and progress through pop, rock, gospel, soul, country, and hip-hop music. Join us for this celebration of songs that shaped America during this in-gallery musical performance in conjunction with the exhibition Mel Ziegler: Flag Exchange. In addition to serving as the founder and director of the Free Speech Center, Paulson is a current columnist and former editor-in-chief of USA Today.

Visit for additional information about public programs. Organized by the Frist Art Museum, in cooperation with Perrotin. The Frist Art Museum is supported in part by the Metro Nashville Arts Commission, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the National Endowment for the Arts.