Art » Art Feature

The Iron Age

The National Ornamental Metal Museum turns 25.



It was less of a concept than a notion," says director Jim Wallace of the original plan for the National Ornamental Metal Museum, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this month. He rolls his eyes, shrugs. "Our permanent collection," Wallace says, laughing through the tobacco-stained underbrush of his thick, wiry moustache, "God, it was bad. There were maybe three pieces. They were memorable pieces: memorable because they were such a joke."

In its earliest incarnation the museum, overlooking the Mississippi River, displayed historical ironwork: cast, forged, and fabricated. However, Wallace, the youngest person to receive the Artist Blacksmith Association of North America's Alex Bealer Award for Lifetime Achievement, had somewhat grander ideas. But before he could sell his board of directors on his plan to include other precious and nonprecious metals in the collection, he had a museum to build.

"We were flat-assed broke," Wallace says of the museum's earliest days. It wasn't a good situation to be in considering the work required to convert a dilapidated, 1930s military hospital building into a functioning museum.

"The cabinets had been ripped out, and all the light fixtures had been stolen," Wallace says. "We had to stop all of the leaks, and there was more paint on the floor than on the walls." When Wallace began the renovation in August 1973, cold running water was the building's only amenity.

The museum’s ornate gates.

"When it got cold, I installed light fixtures and screwed in 200-watt bulbs," he says. "That was how we heated the building."

Wallace, with the help of a few volunteers, worked 20-hour days, seven days a week for seven months. At 3 p.m., two hours before the museum's grand opening, he told the volunteers to put their paintbrushes down and to start cleaning up.

The museum's next major undertaking was to convert a shed, which Wallace describes as "a typical Midtown garage," into a functioning metalworking studio.

"The shop was a godsend," Wallace says. "It allowed us to start taking commissions and bring in some money." The metal museum's first commission was a sign bracket for John Malmo's downtown office building. It was not the last.

"Metalworkers are like the truck drivers of the art world," Wallace says. "We can make things. We can fix anything. We made the hook for Captain Hook in Peter Pan [at Playhouse on the Square]. We've fixed pieces for the symphony. I don't think there's a museum in town we haven't done something for, except for the Police Museum, and I'm sure we'll get to them before too long."

Though still a bit of a stranger in their own hometown, the National Ornamental Metal Museum had developed a national and international reputation for excellence by the mid-1990s.

"More people in the U.K. know about the Metal Museum than know about the Brooks or the Dixon," Wallace says. "We're better known in Germany, Australia, France, and Estonia."

And at a time when many art organizations were scrambling to find more and more funding, the Metal Museum built up a $150,000 endowment from budget surpluses and added a conservation lab onto the back of the smithy.

"Most of our money is earned," Wallace says proudly, while offering thanks to groups like the Greater Memphis Arts Council, Schering-Plough, First Tennessee Bank, and the National Endowment for the Arts for their generous support over the years. "We've gotten some good grants, but we actually earn most of our money and that is a highly unusual situation for museums."

Metal bowl by John Medwedeff

Now the National Ornamental Metal Museum, which, according to Wallace "should have gone belly-up," is celebrating 25 years of something very much like success. But complacency doesn't seem to be a part of the big blacksmith's vocabulary.

"We want to build a library," Wallace says, noting that, in spite of the prevalence of metalwork, "nowhere in the world is there a library dedicated exclusively to metalworking." When Wallace discovered what the project would cost, he hired a consultant who did not believe that the museum could raise more than $800,000. In spite of the pessimistic report, the museum began a capital campaign and raised $1,750,000 without even tapping into the local market. With $200,000 more to raise, Wallace is very optimistic.

"This work just suits my soul," Wallace says. "There are just some good people involved [in metalworking], and I can't imagine doing anything else."

In honor of its 25th anniversary, the National Ornamental Metal Museum will present "A Work in Progress," featuring metalwork by 26 of the artists who have been employed by the museum over the last quarter-century.

"A Work in Progress: 25 Years" runsFebruary 10th-May 9th.

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