A relative newcomer to Memphis, Dr. Emily Ballew Neff has held the position of Executive Director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art
since April 13 of this year. Before coming to Memphis, Neff worked as the Director and Chief Curator of the Fred Jones, Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla. Prior to that, she served as a curator for the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. She is President Emerita of the Association of Art Museum Curators and recently served as a fellow of the Center for Curatorial Leadership in New York.
Neff’s educational background includes a bachelor of arts degree from Yale University, an M.A. from Rice University and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin. All three degrees were in art history, in varying fields (African Art, 19th Century French Art and American Art, respectively). And while she certainly has the curatorial experience to make a difference in any position she might chose, it is her genuine desire to assimilate with her new chosen city and its people that is likely to be one of her best assets to conquer whatever challenges await her as the new leader at The Brooks.
“I had never been to Memphis before I visited the city as part of my job interview process. It is an easy city to fall in love with and yet it is very complicated. One of the first places I visited was the National Civil Rights Museum
. When I saw the way Memphis had embraced the Lorraine Motel—a local story that is also linked to a national struggle for Civil Rights—that’s when I knew that this was a city where I want to be,” said Neff.
“And then there’s the Brooks Museum itself, located in the middle of Overton Park
like a beautiful treasure box. It houses the only major collection of world art in Tennessee, as well as the region. That is a story that is not well known, but that needs to be told. Our upcoming centennial celebration leads us to that path.”
When asked what excites her about Memphis, Neff said that she has found Memphis to be a very fertile and complicated city, which is what makes it so culturally rich. And those qualities are what draw her to American art.
“I’m interested in the way cultures comes into contact with one another, like an artistic polyglot bringing different strains of art together,” explained Neff.
Neff is characterized as an "Americanist." The concentration includes the arts from 18th century British Colonial American, 18th century British Art, painting and photography of the American West and any pre-1945 American Art. She said she prefers a more expansive definition of American Art, because people who identify themselves as Americans comes from all over the world. So American Art is inherently an international art.
Before actually moving to Memphis, Neff said that she knew about the city’s rich musical history…and of course, its barbecue.
“I’m very interested in Memphis’ history. It is a very authentic city with an incredibly interesting personality. It is a southern city that is diverse, not a conformist community. And Memphis is a very generous city with a ‘can do’ atmosphere that nurtures and supports the entrepreneurial spirit. And I’ve already fallen for the beauty of this place — the trees and the green spaces are extraordinary,” said Neff.
“Artistically, there are some fantastic art collections here, and important art collectors. That tells me a lot about Memphis and the arts appreciation here. Museums inspire art collectors, and art collectors inspire museums. This city recognizes that it has an important creative history. The question now is how do we keep artists producing and give them an affordable city in which to live?”
As for her plans, Neff said she is strategizing about ways she can link the city’s authenticity to the Brooks. She believes the museum should be "Memphis-centric" but should also have a regional and national impact.
Raising national awareness that the Brooks is not only the oldest museum in the state, but also has the only bedrock and permanent collection of world art in the state and the region is a calling card she is currently crafting.
So, what’s in store for the next chapter at The Brooks?
The museum’s 100th anniversary in 2016 is taking shape in the form of a Centennial Celebration. A strategic plan was approved last week that includes hiring consultant Michael Kaiser to help Neff chart new waters.
Nathan Bicks, President of The Brooks Board of Trustees, explained, “Kaiser has the experience and the expertise of helping arts organizations that have faced some of the same issues we have been facing. We felt that we were at a unique place and time for the museum, a period when a lot of opportunities were presenting themselves. Financial stress caused us to look at our revenue structure and our way of doing business. The possibilities for positive change are heightened by having a new Director and being on the precipice of our centennial."
He sees this as the perfect time to engage someone who can help re-imagine the organization's place in the community. "I’m excited by the possibilities presented by the combination of Dr. Neff’s arrival and the museum’s strategic plan and the generous gift ($1 million) by the Hyde Family Foundations, which will provide the foundation to help us do our part to revitalize a great city and reinforce the role that the arts play.”
“Everyone responded to the economic downturn of 2008 differently. The Brooks was on an upward trajectory of planning, but had to put plans on the back burner. We are entering a period of self-assessment. Ultimately, we want to focus on the initiatives that make the most impact," Neff said.
To create that strong impact, Neff and her team are focusing on six key areas. First, they are committed to more advanced calendar planning, moving their plans three to five years out and strengthening our education and outreach programming. They also hope to find ways to animate the inside and the outside of the museum, letting the museum to "go beyond walls" and reach out into Overton Park.
"We need to re-think our works from top to bottom, in terms of institutional marketing and the ways that we present our collections to the public, including a re-installation of some works that have been in storage," Neff added.
Other strategies include building on existing adults programs and improving support to their senior constituency, addressing their sustainability with more assertive fundraising, and strengthening their boards and dividing them into committees so that they can work with the parts of the museum that most interest them.
To Neff, the fact that Memphis accommodates people who are unique and celebrates their authenticity is a large contributing factor to the city’s current advancement and revival.
Barbara Hyde, President of the Board of Directors at Hyde Family Foundations, sees Dr. Neff as the right leader to propel The Brooks in that direction.
“We were excited to have the opportunity to make a big investment in The Brooks at this pivotal moment in its history. Our gift is an investment in Dr. Neff as our new leader and an affirmation of the importance of having a vibrant city museum that engages the entire city, young and old, from all walks of life,” Hyde said.