Art on the Move: The Brooks Vies for Downtown Location

Oct 23, 2017

Aerial view of the proposed location for the new Brooks Museum on the corner of Union Avenue and Front Street.

Last month, Memphis visual art lovers were asked to imagine a new home for a local insitution.

The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's board of directors unanimously voted to consider moving out of its 100-year-old home in Overton Park. 

That possibility got even closer to reality last week as plans emerged to build a new museum on Front Street and Union Avenue on a piece of city-owned property newly designated for a cultural amenity. 

Brooks executive director Emily Ballew Neff speaks with WKNO's Christopher Blank on why the board sees the move as necessary.

BLANK: Emily, in my own non-scientific study of reactions to this news, some people were shocked by the idea of a relocation. What are the main reasons for moving?

NEFF: Brooks Arts Museum ran out of storage in the 1990s. We’ve had no new space for the display of art since 1973, with the exception of a 500-square-foot space, which is relatively small. And we do have some constraints to our footprint within Overton Park.

BLANK: I think that some see the Brooks as kind of cultural anchor of Overton Park and Midtown, and that moving the museum is maybe an affront to history.  How does an organization address the kind of sentimental attachment that people have to that space?

NEFF: Well, we are incredibly sympathetic to it, and very respectful and we understand the concerns that people have. But we’ve had a fantastic life there for 101 years and our ultimate responsibility is to the 5000 years of art that we represent. And so, an art museum is more than a building. People forget we impact 60 different counties. We are the oldest art museum in Tennessee, the largest in Tennessee, and the only one in a 3-state region that includes a 5000-year human history of making art.

BLANK: We know it’s not quite a done deal yet, but how far along is the Brooks in moving?

NEFF: We think that we are very far along, and this was a unanimous board decision. We have tremendous excitement about this, the opportunity to be a part of a renaissance along the Memphis riverfront. This is a game-changer and I think what attracts the board is that it’s not only transformative for the art museum, it’s transformative for the city.

BLANK: What do we imagine this new museum will look like?

NEFF: Too soon to say in terms of architecture, but I do know there are certain goals the board has. One that it would be visible. Another that it would be a lot more accessible.

BLANK: And a lot more room for art.

NEFF: And a lot more room for art! Showing art in a way that I think is deeply respectful, taking advantage of some natural light, as well as the latest technology in terms of the best way in which to display art.

BLANK: Back in 1913, it was Bessie Vance Brooks who gave $100,000 to the city of Memphis for the museum that was then named after her. Are we thinking that a change of space could include a change of name? 

NEFF: That is not a question that has come up on the board at all. We are the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

BLANK: How much money are you thinking of raising and when might we see a new museum Downtown?

NEFF: So we’re looking at a $110 million campaign at this point and (an opening date of) 2022 – so five years, a five-year process, give or take.