Way back in 2013, there used to be a snarky Tumblr called "Commercially Unappealing" whose author (or authors) critiqued the Memphis art scene from behind the veil of anonymity. Though it is now defunct, the blog used to occasionally make some sharp judgments, among them, the thought that "there should be a moratorium on including the words 'Memphis' or 'Southern' in exhibition titles here."
The post was a response to a reader-submitted question that queried, "What is the longest span of time that has elapsed in Memphis without there being an art show ABOUT HOW IT IS IN MEMPHIS? When you go to a city like, say, Denver, do you want to see a bunch of self-referential shit?"
"Memphis," the harried reader concluded, must "find comfort in its regionalism."
Regionalism. Ah, yes. The condition under which contemporary art made anywhere but New York, Los Angeles, London, and Paris must be qualified with some explanatory epithet. These qualifiers (he's a Southern artist; that's an Appalachian sculpture) serve a double purpose of both promoting a kind of exceptionalism (how folksy and real!) that protects the art from any actual contemporary critique and places it squarely beneath a kind of Mason-Dixon-y glass ceiling. Regionalism is the art world equivalent of introducing yourself as a "female writer" rather than just a "writer." It's a classic dilemma of people who have been treated as an underclass, who have had to craft their own narratives, failing an institutional embrace. And it's not necessarily a bad thing. Southern arts are historically so identified not because they are lesser or greater, but because we offer something unique that is worth identifying at the outset.
It is good to acknowledge where you fit in history. But when — we female writers and Southern artists ask — does the label fail to serve?
In the case of Southern art, the answer is that we are overdue. Seventy years ago, there was ample reason for Memphis painters to identify first and foremost as "Memphis artists," considering that they might rarely leave the tri-state area in their lifetimes, and most of what informed their art could be found in a 50-mile radius. Not so these days. We have Wi-Fi. Reddit exists. It's not exactly breaking news that we live in a globalized world, a world from which so-called "regional" artists are inextricable.
So when you tell me that your art show is about "Southern arts," I expect work with a narrowed gaze. It's not that it is artistically wrong to paint cotton fields under a mottled blue sky. It's just that there can no longer be any pretense that landscape painters in Memphis aren't just as inspired by Instagram as they are by the Arkansas lowlands. It would be as telling to call your show "The Art of the South(ern Users of Google Image Search)."
Emily Ballew Neff, the new Brooks director, is all for opening up the conversation. Says Neff, "I'm a firm believer in cross-pollination, and Memphis has an ecosystem that I believe would benefit by greater exposure to international and national artists." She maintains that a more international perspective, correctly executed, would "never be at the expense supporting our Memphis artists" but instead "will only elevate the art conversation in our city and lead to a more vibrant community artistically overall."
Likewise, Urban Art Commission's director Lauren Kennedy says, "I think there is a lot of room for Memphis to participate more broadly in the national arts scene. There are people making work, and big conversations are happening, but I don't feel like we are as plugged into those conversations as we can be ... I see that kind of interaction as an incredible growth opportunity for everybody."
We can love our Memphis roots without limiting the reach of our arts. The best way to choose 901, as far as contemporary art is concerned, is to know that the sphere of creativity is not delimited by I-240.