Behind the Headlines - August 18, 2023
- (female announcer) Production funding for Behind the Headlines is made possible in part by the WKNO Production fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you, thank you. - The Brooks Museum Executive Director Zoe Kahr. Tonight, on Behind the Headlines. [intense orchestral music] I am Eric Barnes with The Daily Memphian. Thanks for joining us. I am joined tonight by Zoe Kahr, the one year in executive director of Brooks Museum.
Thanks for being here. - Thanks so much for having me. - Along with Bill Dries, reporter with The Daily Memphian. I say you're one year in, you started November, so coming up on one year.
The new museum downtown has broken ground recently, and we'll talk about that. But we also always wanna say, and you all try to emphasize the old museum is very much still open and we'll talk a lot about exhibits that are going on and upcoming exhibits over the next couple years while the museum at Overton Park remains open and all kinds of things happening there. I guess the status update on the new museum. - Sure, so, if you've been by our site recently, you can see actually the construction trailers are loaded in and our construction fence is up. So we are moving. Our contractors are starting to do grading, so it feels like the construction has really officially started.
There was a little bit of a lag between our groundbreaking ceremony and the real start of construction. And we're really excited about that. - And it'll be 2025, 2026? 2025. - Yeah tail end of 2025, we think. - So it open at the old museum until then, and then downtown. - Exactly. - The fundraising status, and fundraising it's a huge project.
I don't even know what the estimated price tag is at this point. Is what? - Yeah, so at the groundbreaking, we announced that the current campaign goal is $180 million and we are at 75%, or we were at the groundbreaking, and actually since then, we've made significant progress. - And I guess maybe for people who aren't as close to this... And this has gotta be a question you're so tired of, because it was a decision made before you got here, but why is the Brooks moving? - So I think there's many answers to that question.
The decision to move ultimately came from looking at the current site and the opportunities that it afforded to grow the museum. The building we're in now is a very challenging space to operate. And looking towards the future, the board understood we would need to undertake major renovations and ideally also an expansion. But our current site is really hemmed in, we have the golf course on two sides, and then the shell on another side.
So there's really no room to grow in Overton Park. And they were looking at this patchwork of buildings. There's the original 1916 pavilion and then later additions. And bringing those up to code would've been very expensive and not really netted a lot of additional space. So there was just a simple fact that staying in Overton Park didn't really make good sense.
And then there was this opportunity that downtown Memphis was receiving a ton of energy and reinvestment. I think the decision to reinvigorate Tom Lee Park was made right around that time, the Studio Gang plan for the riverfront. So there was this energy and optimism around downtown Memphis that caused the board to really look towards downtown in a new way. And I think at that point, the city offered this incredible site. I mean, if you haven't been down to our site... I get emotional every time I go down there because it is the most spectacular site.
And the fact that the city wanted to give it to an art museum is such an incredible statement of faith in the arts and what they can do for the city. So I think it was a very easy decision once that site became available, and imagining what the museum could do for downtown and really vice versa. So the museum will drive foot traffic, drive tourism, help retain and attract talent to our region. But the museum also will benefit from being downtown because in Overton Park we really receive very few tourists. Overton Park is very convenient, and we as Memphians know how close it is to downtown, but if you're visiting from out of town, it feels really far away. Whereas all of the cultural amenities downtown have a really strong tourist attendance.
So our colleagues at the Civil Rights Museum have I think about 300,000 visitors a year. And almost all of those are tourists. Whereas at the Brooks, we're getting about a hundred thousand a year, and none of those are tourists.
So you think about that real opportunity to expand our audience, and that's very exciting too. - And we recently had Carol Colletta, the head of Memphis River Parks Partnership, and which includes very much Tom Lee Park, talking about some of those things, talking about the 70 something... I always get it wrong, Bill, but it's the 70 something tour ships, river boats that come in every year. That there is now between Toley Park and then later the museum, there's all these things. That was the last week or recently, and you can get that at wkno.org, talking about some of those changes.
But let me bring in Bill. - And from what I understand, the existing Brooks, the Brooks in Overton Park now, it is hard to get traveling exhibits, national exhibits to come in there, because art museums are more than just putting paintings on a wall or putting sculptures out there. There are all kinds of climate control considerations, the more major the exhibition is, right? - Yeah, and it's both climate, seismic control. Our current building is not seismically controlled in any way.
So if there were an earthquake, there's a real risk to both the collection and anything on view. And then there are really serious size constraints. So the exhibition we have on view right now, Black American Portraits, at the other two venues, included this spectacular painting by Amy Sherald, which does not fit in the Brooks. So Memphians will not get to see it.
Which is really tragic. It's a really beautiful painting. She's a major artist. There was no way to figure out how to fit that thing in the building.
So to me, that's the perfect case statement for why we need this new museum. - And the other question about this is the Brooks does have more works of art than it can put in the museum. Now, what does a new building mean in terms of assessing the Brooks' collection and what rotates and what's a permanent part of the museum? - Yeah, I think that's in some ways more of a programming decision. So most museums have more art than they could ever show, the extreme being the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which I think has around 2 million works of art, and they might show 0.01% of their collection. So the idea of a larger building allowing you to show more of your collection, I think is a little bit of a fallacy because the collection is gonna keep growing. We, as the city museum for Memphis, are gonna keep buying art for Memphians recording both the art produced here, but also the great art produced nationally, to the extent that we can in our collection.
But what I think the new building really does is reshape how we see the collection. It's a completely different frame. And our current building is very challenging to walk through.
I don't know what your experiences as visitors have been like, but it's not inspiring. Whereas great architecture inspires you and helps you look at the art in a different way. So I think it's less that you will see more.
You will see more, there's 50% more gallery space, so you will see materially, more art. But I also think it's how you will see it, and the way you'll be able to appreciate the individual works of art will be completely different. - So how do the galleries themselves work with the surroundings, notably with the river and the harbor right at your doorstep on that side of the building, so to speak? - I mean, my favorite thing about this new building is that it really is a series of public spaces that just happens to have a museum sort of nestled around it. So the largest part of the museum is free open public space. There's a huge courtyard at the center of the museum, and the galleries actually run around the courtyard.
And then the entire roof of the museum is a roof garden. So most of the museum... If you wanna use air quotes, because it's not museum space, although we will program it.
Is free essentially public space, park space that will have art in it and that the museum will program. And then there are galleries that run in a ring around that courtyard space. So there's no front door and no back door to the galleries, which is really exciting from a curatorial point of view.
It means that we aren't prioritizing any one period of time or culture over another. In most museums, there's one front door and the museum kind of subtly tells you how important something is, based on how close it is to that front door. So in most museums... Think about any museum you've been to, and I won't name any here, just in case this gets shared. Typically I name some. There's a lobby and then there's a set of galleries right off the lobby.
And generally speaking, in most American museums, what you'll find in that set of galleries is European painting and sculpture, which says very loudly, this is the most important thing in the museum. And if you wanna go find pre-Columbian art or Islamic art or Chinese art, try the basement or try the attic, and that's probably where you'll find it. Our museum is all on one level. So we are literally putting all of the collections on a level playing field, and there's no front door and there's no back door. So there isn't this sense of what is most important. And it also allows us to connect each work of art to multiple narratives.
So for anyone painting, you could approach it from a story about the history of the artist or a story about abstraction or about what was going on in Memphis in the 1960s. So you can imagine these multiple points of entry into any one work of art, which is really exciting. - And also there has been some discussion about how to continue what is a Bluff Walk that stretches across that area. And currently the river side of that property, I believe has railroad tracks there.
So will the Bluff Walk continue along this block where the new museum is? - I would argue, yes. So the Bluff Walk currently ends actually midway through the block, through Monroe Avenue on the Cossitt Avenue side. So if you've tried to walk the Bluff, you need to go behind this forbidding wall that runs along Cossitt Library and find this pathway. And then it runs about four blocks from Cossitt to U of M across a bridge over to the park.
What our new building will do actually is remove that wall that makes the Bluff Walk so inaccessible or really invisible, because we are converting Monroe Avenue from a functioning street that goes from Front down to Riverside into one that is only accessible to cars in the bottom half. So the lower half near Riverside is how you will pull into a parking garage. You would turn off of Riverside onto Monroe into a parking garage, and the top half is actually a plaza space, connecting the museum to Cossitt Library and to the Bluff Walk. So by removing that wall and adding this plaza, all of a sudden from Front Street, you can see all the way to the Bluff Walk, and then the Bluff Walk continues around Cossitt across this plaza, and then you can decide do you want... There's a version of this Bluff Walk that can continues in the museum.
So you could take the elevator up to the roof and you could do a beautiful circuit around this newly rebuilt bluff that is a rooftop. Or one of the things that our architects were very intentional about with our building is thinking about the pedestrian experience. So on both the Front Street side and the Union Avenue side, the building is set very far back from the street. The sidewalks are extra wide and landscaped. So we believe we're creating a new urban Bluff Walk really that goes around the building. So you can walk from the Bluff Walk across this plaza on Monroe, along Front Street.
So you'd have this beautiful landscaped experience on this wide sidewalk, where you're separated from traffic and you have views all the way along into the museum, down Union Avenue. And at the bottom of Union and Riverside, you can connect to the Riverwalk. - Museums do so much more than just paintings, sculptures, photography. The Brooks has taken its lobby in the last few years and done what I think are some really innovative things in terms of installations. Is this new space built more for that than what some folks have called a marble box that opened a very long time ago? - Yeah, I think one of the other really exciting things about this building is all of the opportunities for living artists to intervene.
So our lobby space, like our current rotunda space, I think is waiting for artists to come and animate it. And we're having some wonderful conversations with the curatorial team about how to think about programming that space. I imagine that it will change over time, much like our rotunda. And then there are really interesting moments both in the courtyard and on the roof for contemporary art, as well as sort of hidden moments. There's a hidden stairwell, which I'm dying to put a mural in, so you'll happen upon this mural as you walk up the stairs. So lots of really exciting moments to bring in living artists.
- You mentioned the walk and I should say we recorded this a week ago, so if there's any update, it's been a week since we talked to Zoe that you've been in mediation with Friends of Our Riverfront about, a group that is making... And I might have Bill do a history lesson here in a second so brace yourself. Mediation about whether there is a promenade, one of the original uses that the heirs of Overton, the founders of modern or the city of Memphis are not happy with the design.
What's the status of mediation or can you talk about that? - It's unfortunately confidential. - Okay, Bill, to give some context what I said, Friends of Our Riverfront is who and what? There's some long history to this. - Friends of Our Riverfront includes the Overton heirs. These are the heirs of John Overton. When the city was founded, established in 1819 into the 1820s, the founders had a very specific provision that the promenade, what they called the area that faces the river for the city existing at that time would always be public space. And rather than being boilerplate in it, shortly after the city was founded, the folks who lived here, because the founders of the city did not live here, they lived in Nashville for the most part.
But they came back and discovered that the folks who lived here had cut an access road into the promenade to the riverfront. So they reinforced this promenade exception in terms of reserving it for public use. This has come up before, it has come up before with the current Bluff Walk that goes in front of some houses that are on the Bluff itself overlooking Tom Lee Park. And it has come up again in this case. - And we have been following this in Daily Memphian, and will continue to do so.
The old museum in Overton Park, do you know what happens next with that in 20 beyond when you all move out? - So I don't know all the answers. I do know it's a city-owned facility, so the City of Memphis, will, I think be searching for a new tenant. We're obviously very interested in who ends up there and really interested in continuing to collaborate with this wonderful network of partners in the park. I think Overton Park, from what I understand, maybe more so than ever in the past, feels like this really wonderful growing community of cultural partners, who are really working together to make the park a dynamic place. So we wanna make sure that that stays successful. - I think I've heard that...
I don't know if we've reported that the city is planning another, as they did with the old College of Art building, where the Metal Museum is now going in with a big tens of millions of dollars expansion and so on. They're gonna go through another public process and start assessing proposals. Is that what you've heard too? Am I saying that right, Bill? - Yeah, in effect take proposals for the use of the building and see if one of them meets with the city's needs or if not, then look at some other options. - With eight, nine minutes left here, let's talk a bit about, you mentioned an exhibit that's about to open the Black American Portraits. Let's walk through what's in the museum now and what's coming up. - Sure, so this coming, or actually well, just opened Black American Por-- - Time warp, sorry. - Sorry.
- 'Cause we pre-taped this. - Black American Portraits, opens on August 17th, and that is a traveling exhibition coming to us from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Just before coming to Memphis, it was at Spelman College. And the exhibition was conceived in 2020 at a moment where all over the media were just these images of black pain and suffering. And the curators, the originating curators, Christine Kim and Liz Andrews were interested in what LACMA could do to present an alternative vision, and different ways to view the black community and to support the black community.
So the exhibition looks at portraiture, mostly by, but entirely of black people. And the earliest portrait was done in around 1820, and the last portrait I think was probably, it was Mickaline Thomas' and it was finished for the show. So really 200 years of history in all media from painting, photography, sculpture, film, there's a fantastic piece of Butler quilt. And in Memphis we were interested in adding a Memphis twist on that story, so we both included artists in our collection.
There's a beautiful Jared Small in the show, and then we added historic materials. So we have a fantastic selection of works from the Hooks Brothers photographic archive, and that's a photo studio that operated in Memphis between 1920... No maybe getting that wrong, 1910 and 1979. And really documented the everyday life of the black community.
So there's this amazing selection of works, just documenting the extraordinary ordinary, is what we've been calling it. There's a ballet show by high school students, there're Boy Scouts, really beautiful photographs. So there's a really nice Memphis component to the exhibition as well.
So that's on view at the museum through January. You were talking about our rotunda, we have a beautiful new rotunda project opening in November, an American artist named Thomas Jackson who works with tulle and fans, and makes these really beautiful abst... It almost looks like...
I think our curator compared it to drawing with chalk and then blowing it, and that sort of effect of color spreading across space. And then our big spring exhibition is Christian Siriano. He's probably most famous for his role on Project Runway, but is really interesting designer in that he is very focused on making anyone and everyone look fabulous regardless of their body size.
So there are many designers who will only dress actresses if they fit in that very small, tall, skinny body type. And he is famous for dressing everyone from Lil' Kim to Billy Porter with Michelle Obama in the middle. So really this huge range of sort of important political folks, but also cultural all the way through.
- And with five minutes left here, apologies Bill, let's make sure we talk about this. The planning has begun, it'll be years in the making, but for an exhibit marking Memphis College of Art. - Absolutely. - Which closed in what, 2020?
During the pandemic, in the most sort of unceremonious of ways- - That was traumatic. - Yeah, very. I mean it was a very... You were not here then, but it was truly a traumatic thing that suddenly it was announced that they were gonna close, they were trying to do a last year and kind of have a last great graduation ceremony.
It ended up like my own son's graduation, being by Zoom. But talk a bit about the effort to bring together work and people and so on, and mark the great history of MCA. - So actually when I had decided to come here, one of the first things that I stumbled upon was the book that the Memphis College of Art produced as it closed in 2020. And I was struck by how many artists I already knew in that book, and how important the Memphis College of Art had been.
I knew nationally, but I imagined also locally. So it felt like as we were leaving the park, the right thing to do was to really tell that story in a comprehensive way. So we're working with Marina Pacini, who was the museum's longtime chief curator and has spent her entire career working in and around Memphis. So was the perfect person. She knew everyone, she knew where to find the stories, where to find the works of art, because it's really a little bit of like a Sherlock Holmes curatorial project, where we've launched a big request for people who know things, and have access to things to let us know.
We really want this to be a groundbreaking exhibition in terms of the artists who are included, the works of art that we feature, and to be the story of the Memphis College of Art, and we think establish its national reputation, which is so well deserved. - And I got to interview Marina and also the museum curator, Patricia Dagel for the "Sidebar" podcast I do on Daily Memphian. And people can go there, there's an article if you search.
I don't wanna hype that, but it was a really interesting conversation. There's so many connections to MCA, and they really are looking for folks, not just former artists, but former teachers, people who know artists and teacher. I mean really as wide in that.
And if you go to that article, there's a link to where you can go, or you can go to the museum's website, there's a link there, where you can just say, "Hey, I think I know this person. I think I have this piece of art." You're not gonna come take their piece of art.
But you you wanna know about it, you wanna catalog, and you wanna put that together. Bill with a couple minutes left. - That kind of raises a question about coming here and seeing what the contemporary art scene is like here. We're both here, we both lived here for... How does Memphis compare to what's going on in other cities in that regard? - I mean, I think, I'm not gonna sort of a...
Before I answer your question, one of the best parts about my career, I've lived in a bunch of different cities, is learning about the local art scene in each city. So I started my career at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and learning all about the artist living and working there, and then moving to Los Angeles. And each time I knew nothing going in and learning about all these amazing artists, is one of the best parts about switching cities.
And it's been really thrilling to learn about all the artists who have worked here who still work here. I got to do a studio visit with Vita Reed who's just... I love her work, it's so beautiful. So there's just so many artists living and working in Memphis.
It's a really dynamic art community. And I think more than other museums I've worked at, there's this opportunity as the city's museum to really be intentional about supporting those artists and supporting their work. So one of the projects we did this summer that's still on view, we worked with Kong Wee Pang, who's a super talented graphic designer and artist, to launch an inaugural program for us called "The Art Garden." So she took over our plaza and she designed umbrellas, sort of sunshade umbrellas, and all kinds of merchandise, but also got so excited about the project that she experimented with augmented reality sculpture on our plaza. So if you come visit us, you can scan a QR code, and these little sculptures dance all around the plaza.
So we've just been thinking very intentionally about all the different ways we can partner with and lift up Memphis' artists because it does feel like more than other cities I've lived in, there are fewer pathways, there are fewer connections between Memphis and the big art markets in New York, LA, Dallas. And it's very much part of our job as museums to support those artists, support their growth, but also support them getting out in the world. - And that isolation also affects what you see in terms of the art too, right? - I feel like it's less that artists aren't getting out of Memphis, and more that buyers aren't finding the artists. - Okay. - Yeah. - We are outta time.
Thank you, and thank Bill. You were nice to sit down with me in the spring, we talked more about how you got into the art museums and so on, that's also on the "Sidebar." You can get it wherever you get your podcasts or if you go to The Daily Memphian.
But thanks so much for being here, we really appreciate it. - Thank you. - As we close, I should note that we will soon be getting back to our profiles of the major candidates for Memphis Mayor. We recently did...
Last week we did interviewed Van Turner. We've also interviewed Karen Camper, Frank Colvett, who's since dropped out, JW Gibson and Michelle McKissack. And we've got coming up in the next month or six weeks, Paul Young, former Mayor Willie Herenton and Sheriff Floyd Bonner. All those are on wkno.org,
or you can search "Behind the Headlines" on YouTube and get those. Also, this last Monday we had a debate. Kontji Anthony and I co-moderated a debate with the major candidates, and you can get that if you missed it, on wkno.org,
you can search "mayoral debate" on YouTube, go to The Daily Memphian site, however you want get that. All the past episodes of Behind the Headlines are also available on wkno.org, or available as a podcast. Thanks very much for joining us and we'll see you next week. [intense orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]