Last week, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art announced that it's hired a new executive director to fill the spot that has been empty since Cameron Kitchin left for the Cincinnati Art Museum. Emily Ballew Neff, who hails from Texas and has spent most of her career as a curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, will join the Brooks in mid-April. Dr. Neff is an Americanist with a resume that also includes research in African and European arts, as well as degrees from Yale, Rice University, and the University of Texas Austin.
Neff took time to speak with the Flyer from Oklahoma last week, where she recently left a job as director and chief curator of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma.
Flyer: It seems as if Western American art has had a big influence in your career. While in Houston, you curated exhibits such as "The Modern West: American Landscapes, 1890-1950." How do you think your past curatorial focus will relate to your work at the Brooks?
Neff: As an Americanist, I have done projects on painting and photography of the American West. I've also done projects on 18th-century Transatlantic British and American art. As an undergraduate, my senior thesis was on African art, and then my master's thesis was on 19th-century French art. I have a broad background, but in terms of what I want to do — I don't want to impose too much on Brooks and on the community until I get there, get to know the community, and try to figure out what would be a good fit. I'm a very firm believer that the wrong thing to do would be to come to a cultural climate that is as sophisticated and developed and historically important as Memphis' is and impose my will. It needs to be a reciprocal — a conversation.
If I do come in with any agenda, it is to make sure that the art collection itself, which is terrific, is absolutely central in everything that the museum does. The museum has a great reputation for its education, its community outreach, and engagement. I would like to be able to enrich that already-great tradition. But the collection is really very fine, and I am all about the art. The Brooks has a major collection of encyclopedic art. That is an amazing legacy. I like to see the art of various cultures kind of bump up against one another in interesting ways ... that kind of depth and breadth.
What is first on your agenda when you arrive? I know the Brooks has its 100-year anniversary coming up in 2016, and there are renovations planned to make the museum more accessible to visitors.
I need to hit the ground running. I know that the staff and the board have already been working hard on the 100-year anniversary. I think that it is an extraordinary opportunity for a new director. One of the questions I got yesterday from someone was, "Doesn't this seem a little daunting, to come in right before this is all happening?" and I said, "It is the challenge that any museum director would want." It gives you that opportunity to really focus on the institution and its history. It is a process that is going to involve the Memphis community in a very deep way, and I hope that what comes out of it is something that is a kind of strategy for the next chapter of the Brooks history ... I like that sense of urgency. People care so much about this institution, and so we better do it right.
There has been an ongoing effort within the Brooks to incorporate more contemporary work and to have exhibitions that are not only about contemporary work at a national level but at a local level. Can you speak to your goals in terms of that effort?
I am really interested in contemporary art. I don't know yet if this would be right for Memphis or not, but I am very interested in site-specific contemporary work. I think that is a fantastic way for the community to become kind of invested in [art]. I think that Overton Park is such a beautiful, exceptional treasure in Memphis, and I can see artists coming in and doing something that is temporary and site-specific — a kind of intervention. You don't need to go inside the museum walls to experience art — you can also experience it while you are having a picnic at the park. I can't wait to learn about the Memphis art scene; I know it is a very creative city, and it is going to take me awhile to get around and get to know people and to see it. This is a challenge, a challenge that I welcome, to balance the local with the global.