I Am Sorry



Work by Ben Butler
  • Work by Ben Butler

I am sorry. I hardly ever apologize for anything even when I know I am wrong, just ask my wife.

Last week I said that the “Present Tense" exhibition at the Dixon, if nothing else, got everyone talking about the visual arts in Memphis, and that this was a good thing. I was wrong. Hardly anyone is talking about the art that was created in Memphis over the last decade. People instead are talking about who or who was not included in the exhibition. They are talking about the selection process, how some artists knew about it, others did not. (My work is included in "Present Tense.")

I have visited this exhibitions three times now and have been a part of, essentially, the same conversation on each visit. To paraphrase some of the comments, they were generally along the lines of, “Where is Tim Crowder? His exhibition [in 2010] was outstanding.” “Why didn’t the Brooks Museum organize this exhibition? Isn’t this the kind of thing they are supposed to do?” “What is so special about Tam Tran’s photographs and why did she get to include so many? They could have made room for at least two more artists by not showing so many of hers.”

Tam Trans Battle Cry
  • Tam Tran's Battle Cry

On a side note, I believe Tam Tran deserves a whole wing at the Dixon of her work in this exhibition. How often do artists in Memphis get invited to participate in the Whitney Biennial, the preeminent contemporary art exhibition in America? I can list them all using only my two middle fingers. Tram was also the youngest participant in 2010, the year she was included in the exhibition. We should want to see more of her portraits in as many places as possible, not less.

So, no one is really talking about the visual arts in Memphis. They are talking about the politics of the visual arts in Memphis. Now, it could be argued that these are one in the same. Making your way through the political and social ranks of the Memphis art scene may be just as important as making work in the studio. I do not think this is the case. I know it is. It doesn’t matter how good your work is, how great of an artist that you are, if no one knows you and no one sees your work, what then, is the point? That is not being an artist that is simply having a hobby.

Meikle Gardner
  • Meikle Gardner

In regards to the politics of this exhibition, it mostly revolves around those who were not selected and those who were selected sympathizing and attempting to justify why they were included and their friend/spouse/partner were not. Some of the artists I spoke with were not upset about not being included until they realized over 80 other artists were. They were then left wondering how they were overlooked and having to deal with their very fragile and now bruised ego.


Sunday, February 3rd, John Weeden, curator of the “Present Tense” exhibition, was chair of an “anti-lecture” panel discussion on the current state of the arts in Memphis. Panelist included were Melissa Dunn, Derrick Dent, Anthony Lee, NJ Woods, George Hunt, Carissa Hussong, David McCarthy, Fredric Koeppel, and Hamlett Dobbins.

During the hour-long question-and-answer session no one talked about the actual art hanging on the walls, the discussions all revolved around the politics of the art scene. How there is not enough funding available for individual artists. That art auctions are nothing more than a tax on the visual artists that are asked to donate their work for free many times throughout the year, every year.

Another side note: the art auction is probably the worse thing that can ever happen for an artist, the art, the value of art, and the patron/artist/gallerist relationship. Let me be clear to all those who have held art auctions in the past, who are thinking of having an art auctions in the future to raise money for your organization, stop it, don’t do it. It is not nor has it ever been a great “opportunity” for the artist. It is not nor has it ever been great “publicity” for the artist. Nothing good ever comes of it for the artist or for the people who successfully bid on a piece. The artist gets nothing for all the time, money, and efforts put into creating the piece, so what is usually donated is sixth-rate work they no longer care about and is no where near representative of their creative potential. The patrons end up with a bad piece of art at an egregiously severe discounted price. A price they then expect to pay at a commercial gallery or arts fair. A price that does nothing but diminish the value and perception of the artist and the art.

Anyways, politics at the panel discussion. A couple of very important and poignant things were said by the participants, however. George Hunt literally rose to the occasion to laud the sheer number of people in attendance for the event. A number, many commented, was in fact, the largest crowd any had seen at one time for a visual arts event. McCarthy stated the most important thing anyone can do is to actually go to a museum, go to an art exhibition, and not just for the opening reception. Hamlett Dobbins wanted people to be aware of the time and energy it takes to put on an exhibition, especially at an alternative space and to be sure to put a little something, anything, in the tip jar.

But, still, it all came back to politics, money, lack of venues and opportunities, and inclusion. I was bored during this discussion. Bored because it is the exact same discussion this city has had numerous times over the years. We actually have to start doing something, not just talk about it. At least, the Dixon, John Weeden, and this exhibition are attempting to do something.

Tam Tran images courtesy of the artist.

Ben Butler and Panel photograph courtesy of Dwayne Butcher.

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