The Brooks Museum of Art, located on the grounds of historic Overton Park, is one of the largest art museums in the southern United States. Next year, the museum will celebrate 100 years of “transforming lives through the power of art.” In April, the old museum welcomed a new leader to its helm, Dr. Emily Ballew Neff, who is the museum’s 15th executive director and our FACES of Memphis feature today.
You moved here from Houston with your family. What has the transition been like?
Well, it is about to get a lot better: We found a house! We are moving to Midtown, and my husband, Richard, and two boys, Richard (age 15) and Will (age 13), will join me very soon. My husband and kids are live music fans, and so moving to Memphis is a no-brainer for them.
How is the art scene here different from some of the other cities you’ve lived and worked in?
This is a great time for the art scene in Memphis. There are some terrific artists, new venues and good energy and momentum for making sure that Memphis nurtures its creative class, which is critical for any vibrant city. There are some serious collectors here, and I’d like to help cultivate many more of them. There is also a grassroots, entrepreneurial quality to the art scene here and this “can-do” attitude is what will help the Memphis art scene continue to grow and become more distinguished.
Please share some basic words of wisdom you can offer based on your professional experience.
Practice patience, tolerance, be a good listener and, now that I’m in Memphis, add some grit and grind. And no, it didn’t take long for me to become a huge Grizzlies fan.
You’ve studied at Yale University, Rice University and the University of Texas at Austin. How has your education prepared you for your new role?
My education opened up whole new worlds for me. Looking back on it, it seems everything I did and experienced made it nearly inevitable that I would be an art museum director one day. I feel so privileged to do this work in Memphis, especially for a museum that is nearly 100 years old and that has the only and oldest collection of world art in the state of Tennessee and the region. That fact alone is huge in the art museum world. It is a big responsibility to take on, but also a hugely enjoyable one. And I work with great people here.
What has been your favorite exhibit to organize so far and why?
Every show I’ve organized is a favorite, but in 2006, I organized a major exhibition called “The Modern West: American Painting and Photography, 1890-1950” that has a special place in my heart. It was about the role the American West played—as a real space and a mythic place—in the development of American modernism. To be true to the painters and photographers represented in the show, everyone from Thomas Moran to Georgia O’Keeffe, to Dorothea Lange and Ansel Adams, I wanted to experience and understand the places these artists traveled that, in turn, inspired some of their greatest artworks—art historical fieldwork you could call it. But first I had to figure out where they were and then retrace their steps, which was a huge adventure and nearly caused more than one hiking accident. There is a long tradition in American art of the artist-explorer, and this project, among many things, reminded me of how intrepid so many of them were and still are. Artists are hard to keep up with!
What role do you see the Brooks Museum playing in the Memphis community?
The Memphis Brooks has been around since 1916, and I’ve been struck and humbled by how near and dear an institution it is to Memphians I have met. The art museum is a major entry point for fourth graders in the public schools here; for many, their first experience of the art museum. I want all Memphians to know that the museum belongs to them, and that it is one of the region’s greatest treasures—here for them to enjoy and learn from. We have over 9,000 artworks in the collection, and we like to say here that coming to the Brooks provides 9,000 different perspectives on the world. What I would like for us to continue to work on is a more developed presence in the state, the region and the nation. Memphis will always be our core constituent, but we also have a broader role to play and a real opportunity to do so.
Can you share anything about what will happen for the museum’s centennial?
It is not a state secret but, on the other hand, we are still in the planning stages and don’t want to make any announcements that are still a work-in-progress. The goal is to celebrate the first 100 years and kick off the next 100, a chapter that has the potential to be a great and transformative one for the Brooks and its visitors. Some centennial projects are already in process. For example, thanks to ArtsMemphis, come see our new admissions desk, which is more inviting, efficient and a work of art in its own right. And the Plough “Inside Art” Gallery is in its final design stage. This is a family gallery designed to nurture confident art explorers. As I like to describe it, we teach our children how to read, but we don’t teach them how to see. This playful space will be attractive to both adults and children, and will help them, in a nonprescriptive way, learn about ways of seeing and understanding.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
What spare time?! Kidding aside, I’m one of those fortunate people whose avocation is also her vocation. If I’m not working, I’m probably thinking about work, which is to say, I’m looking at and thinking about art a great deal. And then, of course, I love spending time with my wonderful family. Hikes with my family in New Hampshire’s White Mountains rank at the top of my list. I can’t wait to explore and hike around Tennessee.
Have you selected a favorite Memphis restaurant yet?
Ha! That assumes I’ve been restaurant hopping in Memphis, which I haven’t yet. But I now love Memphis barbecue (and I say that as a fifth-generation Texan) and could happily eat Rendezvous ribs as a starter, main course and dessert.
Name three lighthearted things you cannot live without.
My family, my Nespresso machine and my corgi Charlie.
Thank you, Emily, and we are thrilled that you are now a Memphian!
Today’s photos at the Brooks Museum were taken by Micki Martin.