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Creative Process

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art leader talks about the decision to consider leaving Overton Park.



Memphis Brooks Museum of Art officials announced last week that they would consider relocating the museum from its 101-year home in Overton Park as one option to preserve its collection and plot its future.

Emily Ballew Neff, the museum's executive director, said renovations to meet current standards have been projected at $84 million. The Brooks board, she said, has a duty "to make some very hard decisions" and are correct to "explore all options before we move forward." — Toby Sells

Memphis Flyer: You have a list of options for the Brooks, and you just recently added relocation to that list, right?

Emily Ballew Neff: Right. That's all we're doing. Basically in the 1990s, the Brooks board decided that the 1973 [portion of] the building was not operationally sound. And that building is still standing.

It's had structural problems pretty much ever since it was built. It was a pre-cast concrete building, and it is not [up to seismic code] and we are on the New Madrid fault.

It's something that we have to address and want to address. We have to secure the collection in the way that it needs to be secured and preserved.

MF: You said the board has worked on the issue before.

EBN: The board was teeing up for a capital campaign to address the challenges of that building. Then, in 2008, the Great Recession happened. So, those plans were mothballed.

My predecessor commissioned ... a report from Cooper Robertson, a firm in New York, that was presented to the board in 2014. Then, my predecessor accepted a job at the Cincinnati Art Museum and left. So, the plans, again, were put on hold.

MF: What did the report say?

EBN: It outlined several options for the board. The first option was to retrofit the 1973 building and bring it up to museum best-practice standards. The second option was tearing down the 1973 building and adding 23 percent [more space].

The third option was to add about 70 percent to 75 percent additional space, by tearing down the 1973 building and expanding. That would have taken some precious space in our parking lot. That option had a conceptual budget of $84 million, and that is in 2013-2014 dollars.

MF: When did the board decide to add relocation to its list of options?

EBN: The full board determined this summer that we wanted to put all options on the table.

One of the reasons we decided to announce was simply that there were a lot of people making speculations and the word was kind of getting out. So, we thought it was better to be transparent about it and let our members know that this option was added to the list of pre-existing options.

MF: Is there a timeline for a decision?

EBN:There is no timeline. We are exploring some interesting possibilities. Our board is doing that work. We'll know something when we know something.

We're the city museum, and we want to be responsive. We have lots of people who are very positive and understand what our challenges are. We have others who are very concerned, and we respect that.

We knew that. That's, in part, why we wanted to go ahead and let people know that we're just putting all options on the table.


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