On a brisk autumn morning, Emily Ballew Neff stands on the top deck of the city-owned parking garage at the corner of Monroe and Front in Downtown Memphis. It was a perilous journey to get there.
The elevator in the aging structure is down for repairs, necessitating a stair climb in heels, and as she peers through a hole in the masonry to get a gander at the riverfront, the cement block moves as if it might jostle loose and crash to the ground below. The view from the garage is a bit dilapidated as well —the dingy train/trolley tracks, Riverside Drive, the cobblestones, and the largely-unused Mud Island park and the shore of Arkansas in the distance.
None of this phases Neff. A native Texan who arrived in Memphis in 2015 to become executive director the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, she is no stranger to neglected structures. From the moment she arrived at the Brooks she has had to contend with its crumbling, ad hoc facilities.
Emily Ballew Neff, executive director of the Brooks Museum, stands in front of the museum's proposed home at the Memphis riverfront. (Mark Jordan)
And when she looks out over the landscape from her view of the parking garage, she sees something different. She sees a shiny new art museum on the block that the garage shares with the Memphis Fire Department headquarters and Front Street station house. And she sees a reimagined riverfront, one that embraces the city’s location on the mighty Mississippi instead of turning its back to it, one that invites people to bask in its majestic views instead of pushing them back inland.
Much of the city is still reeling from the September announcement that the Brooks was looking to leave its iconic 101-year-old home in Midtown’s Overton Park followed a month later by the proposal that the Brooks become the anchor cultural asset in a proposed $225 million redevelopment of the riverfront that would also include at land bridge connecting Mud Island to Riverside Drive and a freshwater aquarium.
“This is something that’s not just great for the art museum, it’s great for the city,” she says of the plan. “The possibility of being able to play a role in reimagining the city’s relationship with the Mississippi River.”
In a city where change often comes very slowly, if at all, such a dramatic change to the status quo still has people, perhaps unjustifiably, mourning what can at first blush appear to be another loss for a city that can ill afford them.
Indeed, shortly after the Brooks announced its intentions to move downtown, its Overton Park neighbor, the Memphis College of Art, whose faculty is well represented in the Brooks’ permanent collection, announced it would be closing its doors in 2020 after 84 years.
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When Neff ducks out of the cold into the office of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau across Union Avenue from the fire station, she meets another echo of many Memphian’s concerns.
Michael, the man working the reception desk, pleads with Neff not to leave Overton Park.
“It’s a bold move,” Neff admits later. “We hope, in time, as we move through this process, we’ll be able to win over Michael and others. We get it. It’s always been there and it’s bound up in people’s memories and their childhoods. People have married there. There’s a lot of history attached to it, and we’re trying to be as respectful to that as we can be.
At the same time, we have an art collection to care for and to make relevant and meaningful to the community in which we live. And if we can’t do that where we are, then we have to move.”
'Shock, sadness & Nostalgia'
The foundation for the Brooks Museum of Art’s move, spurred by evolving standards of art preservation and the inherently slapdash manner of building expansion over its 100-plus years, was laid decades ago.
The museum first opened in 1916 with a generous donation from Bessie Vance Brooks, who donated some of the museum’s first works, which are portraits by celebrated painter Cecilia Beaux. The original building remains a stunning example of beaux-arts architecture if the style does strike many today, Neff admits, as rather mausoleum-like.
The exterior of the Brooks Museum at 1934 Poplar Avenue in Overton Park. (Kevin Barre)A 1973 expansion of the Brooks relieved some of the space constraints on the museum, but the pre-fabricated, concrete structure is now largely seen as a disaster. “Operationally unsound,” as Neff describes it, the addition has no modern seismic protection. Its ceilings are oppressively low, its lighting antiquated, and there is little flow to the space. A celebrated 1993 expansion added more space and a much-needed splash of style, but many of the worst problems lingered.
“We are three different buildings hitched together,” says Neff, who points out that maintaining the proper temperature and moisture controls required to maintain delicate works of arts has been particularly challenging.
“It’s a terrific design solution, but there’s a lot of wasted space, there. There’s no flow. So, if you wanted to see a kind of chronology of the history of art, you can’t.”
The problems with the building have not prevented the Brooks from becoming not just the oldest art museum in Tennessee but also the largest.
It boasts a wide-ranging and respected collection of some 10,000 objects covering more than 5,000 years of human art making. It includes works by several notable American and regional artists, Renaissance and baroque masters, the noted Memphis photographers Ernest C, Withers and William Eggleston, and growing assemblages of pre-Colombian, African and African diaspora, and ancient Mediterranean art.
But it got to the point where the Brooks facilities were beginning to hamper future growth. Acquisitions were put off because of lack of space. Problems with the building were mentioned in the museum’s periodical accreditation reviews. And donors and other art institutions, aware of the building's problems, began to express concerns that the Brooks could adequately care for works.
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“There were some articles where you could draw the conclusion that we weren’t doing what we were supposed to do to maintain the collection,” says Neff. “We are doing what we’re supposed to do, but it heroic. It’s about as MacGyver-ed as it can be, and we’re running out of MacGyver tricks.”
Almost as soon as the 1993 expansion was complete, the Brooks board was looking toward the next step for the Overton Park location. Over the next two decades, studies were done and assessments and calculations made with an eye toward another remodel of the original building. What no one could have foreseen is that almost 25-years later rapidly changing events would lead the Brooks to make a decision once unthinkable.
A Neglected riverfront
The ultimate decision to move came down to serendipity, or as Neff puts it, “Timing, timing, timing. Location, location, location.”
By summer 2017, the board had concluded an 18-month study, made the calculations, and discovered that constructing a brand-new building would not cost much more than refurbishing the old one to make it suitable going forward. Unwilling to tear down the iconic, historic original building, the unanimous decision was made to seek a new location for the century-old institution.
About the same time the respected Chicago-New York architecture group Studio Gang, released its concept for a reimagined Memphis riverfront.
As detailed in its report, for much of its history, a city that owes its existence to its location on the river, has turned its back toward it. With few exceptions, a glance of the riverfront reveals the backs of buildings. The “public promenade” originally envisioned by city founders has largely been a chain of under-developed, under-utilized, hard-to-access green spaces.
Visitors enjoy a traveling exhibit at the Brooks Museum.
Studio Gang’s survey, commissioned by the Riverfront Development Corporation with funding from the Hyde Family and Kresge foundations, is the latest, most high-profile effort yet to redevelop what many, including Neff, see as Memphis’ greatest potential asset.
The concept included the bridge to the southern tip of Mud Island as well as greater pedestrian access to the river’s edge, community spaces and ecological features. Added almost as afterthought to the concept were vague references to a cultural asset going where the garage and fire station stand on Front between Union and Monroe.
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It did not take long for Neff and the Brooks board, who had already come around to the idea of leaving their century-old home, to make the connection in their minds and start seeing the potential of a new riverfront address.
“We know there is this shock and sadness and nostalgia, and we respect that,” Neff says of the prospect of leaving Overton Park. “But once you address that and look at the real needs of the collection — which is our first responsibility, the art collection in our care — then that opens up possibilities.”
Westward the Wagons
First and foremost, Neff wants it understood that those possibilities do not included a new name. Despite some early news reports that apparently confused the Studio Gang report’s generic place holder for an actual name change, there are no plans whatsoever to change the name of the Brooks.
“We had to put out some fires on that one,” Neff says.
Neff says the Brooks is aiming to be in its new home overlooking the Mississippi by 2022. That’s five years, including at least two years for an incredibly sensitive construction that must cope with Downtown’s aged infrastructure as seismic protections and other environmental concerns.
The move, installation, and testing of the new building’s environmental controls will take several more months. An optimistic schedule for selecting an architect is nine months.
The trend in museum architecture in recent decades has been toward splashy, iconographic structures that are as much works of art themselves. Think the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao or the Broad Museum in Los Angeles. But Neff says Memphians shouldn’t expect something so salient to pop up on the local landscape.
“I’m a big fan of the Guggenheim Bilbao, but I think the Guggenheim Bilbao is one of the worst to install art. But in fairness to the folks that built it, it’s what they asked for, an iconic building, a statement building,” she says. “I haven’t heard anyone on the board say we want some flashy building.”
Instead, Neff and the board are focusing on a very loose-yet-narrow set of parameters to guide them as they envision a new museum. They want something that makes sense within the context of the riverfront, with great views of the natural asset. They would also like an outdoor space on the property to give it a bit of the park feel they had in Overton Park.
The exterior of the Brooks Museum, at 1934 Poplar Avenue in Overton Park. (Kevin Barre)
As for the building itself, the Brooks knows from previous studies they need 105,000 to 110,000 square feet of building space. And they want that building to be more inviting than the cold, stone, white Overton Park building; its forbidding nature was the impetus behind the museum’s “Brooks Outside” series of acclaimed public art installations.
Most important, however, is to build a space that best showcases the museum’s vast collection, only 8 to 10 percent of which the public ever sees at any one time.
“It’s really about what is right for the Brooks, what is right for Memphis, what is right for the collection, what is right for the Mississippi River,” Neff says. “We don’t know what that looks like yet, but I think as long as those are our values moving forward then we’ll end up with something pretty great.”
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The overall riverfront redevelopment, including the aquarium and bridge, is expected to cost as much $225 million with the funds provided by an expansion of the state Tourism Development Zone that redirects tax revenue toward local redevelopment projects. That application is expected to be turned in some time in November.
The fire station and headquarters and garage, whose losses were an initial concern for a small group of Downtown residents and workers, are also being addressed. Fire officials have identified a parcel at Adams and Thomas for relocation as a part of an overall Downtown station realignment and the Downtown Memphis Commission is working with several entities to develop a comprehensive parking plan that should result in more spaces.
But the new Brooks Museum, with an early estimated price tag of $110 million, will be privately funded. That will be, Neff says, the largest fundraising operation the Brooks has ever undertaken, with a percentage of every dollar raised going toward the Brooks’ endowment to help ensure the long viability of the museum. With just about $5 million in hand, the Brooks has one of the smallest endowments of any accredited art museum in the country.
It is a daunting but exciting period in the Brooks’ history, Neff says. But as she and the board prepare to move, they are very cognizant of what they are leaving behind. When the Brooks departs, it will be up to the city, which owns the building, and the Overton Park Conservancy, which is developing a master plan for the park, to decide on the best use for the old Brooks.
Any similar art institution will face some of the same facilities challenges as the Brooks, but Neff has said she has heard there are several “suitors” already vying for the space. For their part, Neff and the Brooks board have elected to be supportive but neutral on any prospective new tenant.
“I’ve only lived here three years but I’m a Midtowner and I consider Overton my park,” says Neff. “So, I will be watching with great interest what happens there. But there is a process in place, and I’m optimistic Overton’s best days are ahead of it.”