What the world knows today as Watkins College of Art has its roots in the generosity and vision of one man—Samuel Watkins (1794-1880). Orphaned at the age of four, Watkins was a self-made entrepreneur and philanthropist with no formal education. In his will, he left $100,000 and property in the center of Nashville for the establishment of a school that would teach the “business of life” to people in need.

Watkins Institute launched operations in 1885 and immediately became the center for arts in Nashville. A month after opening its doors, the school held the city’s first comprehensive art exhibition under the auspices of the Nashville Art Association. Instruction in the visual arts began shortly thereafter, and Watkins has been a leader in arts education ever since.


As Nashville’s needs changed, so did the mission of the school. Art remained a major focus, but Watkins Institute expanded its offerings to meet more of the community’s needs. The school helped immigrants assimilate in the early 20th century, prepared women for the workplace in the 1930s and 1940s, and offered members of the armed services the opportunity to complete their high school degrees when they returned from World War II. During its first 100 years of operation, Watkins assisted, trained, and schooled nearly 350,000 men, women, and children.

The transition of Watkins Institute to a full college began in 1977 when the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) approved associate degrees in fine art and interior design. The Watkins Film School was established in the mid-1990s, and THEC approved bachelor of fine arts degrees in film and interior design in 1997 and 1998. Bachelor of fine arts degrees in photography, graphic design, and fine art followed, and a bachelor of arts in art was added in 2007.

Today and beyond

With more than 130 years of continuous educational service to its credit, Watkins College of Art will merge in the fall of 2020 with Belmont University, forming Watkins College of Art at Belmont University, where it will continue to grow as a leader in visual arts education, fulfill the legacy of its founder, and shape and positively influence the cultural horizon and creative economy as it defines the role of art, design, film, and artists in the 21st century.