Carissa Hussong’s positive contributions to the arts in Memphis have had a tremendous impact on our city. Since January of 2008, she has served as executive director of the Metal Museum, and before that, she was executive director of the UrbanArt Commission, where she oversaw key public art projects, such as the Cooper Young Trestle and the artwork at the Cannon Center. She also worked at the Dixon as associate curator, and as a curatorial fellow for the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. Meet the lady recently named by the Memphis Flyer as one of 25 Who Shaped Memphis: 1989-2014. Welcome, Carissa!
Have you always called Memphis home?
No. I grew up in Hawaii and lived in Germany, Boston, Seattle and New York before finally making my way to Memphis. Returning to the islands as an adult revealed just how much the culture and environment are imbedded in who I am and how I view the world. Although I have no desire to move back to Hawaii, it will always be home.
I also think of Seattle as home. Most of my family now lives there, and it is the place where I began my career in the arts. But there is no denying that Memphis is my true home. Since I arrived here in the summer of 1996, Memphis has embraced me, giving me opportunities that would not have been available in other cities.
When did you know that art would be your professional interest?
I grew up around art. My mother is a harpist, and my sisters and I were always involved in some sort of artistic venture, whether it was music (piano and guitar), dance (yes, including hula) or visual arts. But I would credit my grandmother with having the biggest influence on my career choice. She has an incredible eye for art. Franz Kline, David Smith, Francis Bacon and Marc Rothko are just a few of the artists in her collection. She introduced me to Patterson Sims, at the time a curator at the Seattle Art Museum, who oversaw my first museum internship.
In Seattle, I researched and wrote text panels for an exhibition of work by Willem de Kooning from private collections in the area. Not only did I get to spend my time looking at art, I got to do it in the homes of some of Seattle’s most notable collectors. Around the same time, my grandmother took me to New York for a tour of private collections, galleries and artist studios organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art. I was hooked.
A typical daily checklist for you?
There is never a typical day at the museum. Working for a small nonprofit, you must be prepared to wear many different hats. I’ve done everything from scrubbing the floors and weeding the gardens to hosting international visitors and speaking at national conventions. I always have a change of clothes handy because you never know what your day will bring.
What are a couple of fun facts about the museum that visitors both new and experienced may not know?
What many of our visitors don’t realize is that our exhibitions are constantly changing. We have eight to 10 exhibitions each year, including selections of historic objects, as well as solo and group shows featuring contemporary metalsmiths. Something else many people in and around Memphis don’t realize is that we offer repair services year round and do large and small commissions for private and public clients. Some of our larger projects include the restoration of the Elvis statue that now stands in the downtown welcome center, the dragon at Grahamwood Elementary School and the gar park benches that can be found throughout downtown Memphis.
Describe yourself in three adjectives.
Quiet, loyal and passionate.
Do you have a favorite work of art at the museum?
I have many favorites: Mary Lee Hu’s necklace, Brent Kington’s sculpture, Rick Smith’s vessel, James Wallace’s sled and John Marshall’s sterling silver punch bowl, to name just a few. One of the things I love about working with living artists — many of the artists in the collection are — is discovering how the person is reflected in the object. It deepens my appreciation of the work and creates a much richer experience. Picking a favorite is like identifying a best friend. Art, like friends, fills different needs at different times.
Do you have a favorite activity or set of activities away from work?
Most people know I am married to David Lusk, who needs no introduction within the Memphis arts community. He now has two galleries, one in Memphis and one in Nashville. We also have two teenage daughters, both of whom play sports and participate in a variety of other activities. Full-time jobs, traveling to and from Nashville and raising children leave little time for other interests. What free time we have is spent with friends who share a passion for fine art and food.
Do you have a specific mentor? How has that person influenced you?
When I started the UrbanArt Commission (Memphis’s public art program), Kristi Jernigan, Tom Jones and Babs Feibelman provided guidance and advice that still shape how I work. Kristi gave me the confidence and authority to take on any challenge. Tom guided me through the intricacies of local politics, policymaking and diplomacy. And Babs taught me how to analyze the strengths and weaknesses in my planning process.
What are some basic words of wisdom you can offer based on your professional experience?
If it isn’t a little scary, it is probably not worth doing.
Do you have a few favorite restaurants to recommend in Memphis?
It seems like there are fabulous new restaurants opening up in Memphis every day, but it is Tsunami where we find ourselves returning again and again. It is like Cheers, where everybody knows your name but in my case, food allergies. What more could one ask for other than great food, attentive staff and original art?
What three lighthearted things could you not live without?
George’s Shoes and Repairs in Minneapolis, cashmere and dark chocolate.
Any events coming up that you are especially looking forward to?
The holidays and all the traditions that come with them, including goose and a Yule log complete with meringue mushrooms and cherry mice. Also a trip to Perdido Bay for New Year’s Eve, a mean game of kickball with Maysey Craddock, spring at the Metal Museum and the start of the lacrosse season.
Thank you, Carissa! The Metal Museum is located at 374 Metal Museum Dr. in Memphis. Call (901) 774-6380 or visit metalmuseum.org to learn more.
Today’s photographs at the Metal Museum were taken by Micki Martin.