Nancy DeFriece studied piano and tried ballet as a young girl, but her real introduction to the arts came through her role as a businesswoman. In 1977, as the first woman to open a real estate firm in Bristol, Landmark Realty, she quickly learned how important the arts are to a community.
"When I opened our real estate firm, I really didn't know anything about the arts, but I found out that when you're selling houses to executives, you have to sell the region. I told my sales staff that women wouldn't move their families without the arts. It was mandatory for me and my agents to know what was available for their families and that included non-profits, the arts, schools, colleges – everything that families would need."
While on a three-year hiatus from the real estate business due to a health issue, her phone began to ring. Arts organizations were asking her to help.
The first arts organization board she served on was Bristol Ballet's. She still remembers her first board meeting, and it formed her resolve to help arts organization and business to realize that they need each other.
At her first meeting, a fellow board member resigned because he didn't feel the group had followed sound business practices in developing the budget and managing their funds. "I thought "What have I gotten into?'" she laughs. But that helped her to realize that artists don't have time to run a business. She didn't know the arts, but she did know how to run a business. And she understood the vital relationship between the two.
In 1999, Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist asked her to serve on the Tennessee Arts Commission.
"When I took that position, I really was not aware that our arts organizations, from Morristown to the state line, had not been educated in what was available for grants. One of the first things Rich Boyd, executive director, told me was "You aren't getting your share of the grants.' I asked if he would be willing to come up and help. The first meeting was at the library in Johnson City, and we packed the place. The second time Boyd came up, we had it at the Peerless." We started out in the small dining room that would seat 30. We kept changing rooms, as more reservations came in. We eventually had 75 or 80 attend." Ann Holler and Angela Wampler helped coordinate a meeting in Bristol. "When I asked for their help I'd say, "I want to call a meeting. I want every art organization possible to be represented.
"I learned. It was self-education. I listened. We gave each organization a chance to talk about how they could help each other. Then when I would go back to Nashville in the spring, I'd get to hear about the grant requests. We were getting good grants.
"While I was on the Arts Commission, A! Magazine won the Governor's Award, which was just amazing for a magazine to get a Governor's Award." A! Magazine received the Governor's Arts Leadership Award, which is presented to arts organizations, businesses, educators, patrons, arts administrators, corporations and volunteers that have demonstrated significant support or participation in activities on a statewide basis that advance the value of the arts in Tennessee communities.
DeFriece's involvement in the arts grew from being involved with the Tennessee Arts Commission.
One of her duties as vice chair on the Tennessee Arts Commission was to serve on the Tennessee State Museum's foundation. She also served as chairman of the state museum committee. When the state museum gained its own charter and became separate from the Tennessee Arts Commission, she was asked by Governor Bredesen to serve on the museum commission.
She was involved in the infancy of many successful organizations in the Tri-Cities. She helped the Hands-On Museum as a charter member, with start-up capital and serving on its business council. She was co-chair of Bristol's Autumn Chase, which she helped transform into the extremely successful Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion. She used her ties with the Tennessee state government to help the struggling Birthplace of Country Music Museum organization begin its development of the new BCMA museum.
As a Circle of Friends member, she helped solicit more than $1 million to pay off the indebtedness of Jonesborough, Tennessee's International Storytelling Center.
Her favorite parts of working with the arts community are the people and the talent. "The talent is unbelievable around here. There's so much going on. In the summer, there's something almost every night of the week. We're very fortunate. Bristol is a real draw. It wasn't that way 15 to 20 years ago. The past 10 years have seen unbelievable growth in the arts."
As the first woman president of the Barter Theatre board of trustees in its 80-year history, she helped manage a $7 million budget. "Frank [her late husband] probably wouldn't believe that Rick (Rose, Barter's artistic director) would have a woman as chairman of the board."
DeFriece has served on Barter's board since 2008. She held the positions of vice president and president. She now serves on the executive committee as past president.
While she no longer serves on the Tennessee Arts Commission, she has kept up with what the current thinking is.
"The executive director of the Arts Commission, Anne Pope, really knows economic development. She knows that you can't have the arts without business, the business without arts. They go hand in hand. On any economic development board, if you don't have at least one person representing the arts, something's wrong. Anne and I have talked about it and she's getting ready to campaign on that across the state."
DeFriece says that winning the AAME Arts Achievement Award is "quite an honor. It's really an honor. I don't know that I'm that deserving, but I will say that A! Magazine has done so much for this region and the arts. That's what makes it very important to me."