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Q&A: Cameron Kitchin

Executive director, The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art



Cameron Kitchin has only been on the job as executive director at The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art for two weeks and in his new Memphis home since Halloween, but already he's grappling with big ideas. He thinks the city's cultural institutions should be as celebrated as its music and wonders how the Brooks can further challenge, interface with, and inspire the community. He suspects that the answers are linked to the experience people have when they connect with an exceptional piece of art.

"You have to get all that stuff about how much a thing costs or how much it's worth out of the way," he clarifies. "That's when you can connect with something somebody did that was truly great."

His point is reinforced by the large bronze sculptures that were installed in front of the building as part of the Brooks' current Fernando Botero exhibit. A comical hand and a pair of massive nudes are all gentle colossi.

"It's too bad they can't be around forever," Kitchen says of the bronzes, which arrived in town shortly before he did.

"Museums in Memphis are growing," he adds, acknowledging the contributions of his predecessor Kaywin Feldman. "In the end it's a very happy story because the Brooks is exactly where it should be in terms of its collection and its exhibitions." — by Chris Davis

Flyer: How a person becomes an artist is no big mystery, but the path to arts administration seems a bit more esoteric.

Cameron Kitchin: Well, it's different for everybody. For me, it all started with a passion for studying art. And my great love was studying the relationship of art to a culture and how cultures use art to define themselves. I've always been attracted to and fascinated by periods of transition, especially transitions that happen so organically and so naturally that art historians have to look back and say, "Wait, what just happened?"

And the words "arts administrator" ... you can use that description but ...

You prefer historian?

Well, museum director's not bad, really.

Fair enough: Museum Director it is. You've mentioned that you think museums can engage a community and create change. What are some practical examples of that?

When I was in Virginia, there was a design question at the heart of all discussions about affordable housing. And it seemed like artists and architects might be a helpful part of the conversation.

So the Southeast Center for Contemporary Art issued a worldwide competition and asked artists to submit responses — examples of what artists might do if they had the opportunity to confront the issues of affordable housing. We collected submissions and mounted an exhibition. Of course, any museum can collect beautiful objects and hang them on the wall, so here's where it gets interesting: We used these beautiful objects to host [a discussion about affordable housing between] people who had never been able to talk — or to have a civil conversation — because they had no common ground at all.

Did that conversation reach the community?

The newspaper The Virginia Pilot thought it was so important that they used the commentary from that forum as the cover story for that weekend's opinion section.

How do you decide where The Brooks needs to go?

It starts with the museum's collection. And right now, we're delving into that collection and asking what pieces will lend themselves to exhibitions that will be valuable to the community.

The Brooks has 100 years of history. Is it difficult stepping into something with that much tradition behind it?

Two weeks into the job, I'm so indebted to Kaywin [Feldman] and the staff she put together. One of the reasons I'm here is because of the launching pad that success has created. The bar has been set high, but that's why we're here. We have to keep moving it upward.

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