What is an art museum without open doors to welcome visitors and members? This is a question that staff at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art has grappled with since the museum’s closure on March 16. The first few weeks were jarring as we all collectively adjusted to working from home. I sat in on webinars, talked through weekly staff meetings with my colleagues, and worked to move all programming online. When we think of an art museum, we don’t think of visiting our favorite painting through a computer screen, like many have been encouraged to do through virtual exhibition tours. And yet, the global pandemic COVID-19 has upended our idea of normalcy, even for a 104-year-old art museum in Overton Park.
With Memphis entering Phase 2 of the City’s Back to Business plan the Brooks has set the stage to welcome back visitors and members. Museum staff have imagined and planned for a reopening ever since the Brooks closed. The process began when staff formed a Safety Committee to sort out the logistics and implement procedures.
This is uncharted territory for any cultural institution, so the Brooks has been in constant conversation with city officials and other museums. In a recent New York Times article on the cautious re-opening of museums, reporter Thomas Rodgers wrote, “Museum directors have become pioneers in figuring out how to kick-start cultural institutions in the midst of a pandemic, and in reinventing the museum experience for the Covid-19 era.”
Although City Council recently mandated that masks be worn in public, it has been up to the museum administration to decide how to proceed with safety practices. “This pandemic has caused us to think beyond the normal way of conducting business,” said Johnny Hill, Director of Operations. “Safety of staff, guests, volunteers and vendors has always been a priority. We have taken safety precautions to another level in our service to staff and community. As an organization we have researched, discussed and formulated a safety plan that is second to none.”
Following the lead of many other cultural institutions, the Brooks has shifted to an online ticketing system for admissions. Visitors are encouraged upon arrival to wear face coverings and to use the hand sanitizer stations installed throughout the museum. Staff temperatures will be checked once they enter the museum. Plexiglas barriers are also installed at the Visitor Services Admissions desk and at the gift shop register. The museum has even upgraded the air filtration system to the building by installing upgraded (MERV 13) filters. “We are taking these precautions to limit or stop the spread of COVID 19 in our community,” Hill said. “This is something that we haven’t experienced in our lifetime. We are all on the frontlines of this pandemic.”
A SECOND CHANCE TO SEE CONTEMPORARY INDIGENOUS ART
Perhaps one of the most disappointing parts of closing because of COVID-19 was that Memphians had a limited window to visit the powerful exhibition Native Voices, 1950s to Now: Art for a New Understanding. After a fantastic member opening celebration on February 21, the art was only in the galleries for less than a month before the museum closed its doors. Programming for the exhibition was paused too, such as a Café Conversation on decolonizing art with University of Memphis history professor and founder of Native RITES Amanda Lee Savage (now rescheduled for July 15). This was bitterly disappointing not just to staff but to Indigenous visitors who could finally see themselves and their culture reflected in the museum galleries.
But thanks to the hard work of our exhibitions and curatorial staff, visitors will now have until September 27 to visit the show and celebrate the complexity and breadth of Indigenous contemporary art. “We were thrilled that Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art agreed to extend the exhibition Native Voices, 1950s to Now: Art for a New Understanding until September 27 so that Memphians and visitors to Memphis can immerse themselves in this extraordinary show of contemporary Indigenous art from the USA and Canada,” Brooks Executive Director Emily Ballew Neff said in a recent interview. “This was important to the Brooks when we first committed to the show; we were moving into our bicentennial year as a City, and wanted to focus on the Indigenous heritage, history and culture of our region. We now stand on Chickasaw land, and were honored to work with the Chickasaw Nation to compose our land acknowledgement.”
The acknowledgement Neff is referring to reads: “The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art acknowledges we are located within the historic Chickasaw Homeland. We invite you to join us in paying respect and enjoying the art of all Indigenous peoples both past and present.” When I asked Dr. Neff why she believes this show is important for Memphis, especially in these unprecedented times, she responded, “It seemed to us in hosting the show in Memphis that in a city surrounded by important ancestral mounds, neighborhoods and street names referencing Indigenous names, and on the site where the Trail of Tears was a disembarkation point, we could reckon with this painful past by celebrating the richness, profundity, humor and complexity of Native American art.”
Dr. Neff acknowledges that this is a show that reflects much of the pain happening in the country. “In the wake of conversations happening across the nation, and indeed, the world, about how we can come to terms with our past and build a better world, the exhibition is even more relevant and timely, profound and uplifting,” she said. “Whatever you think you might know about Native American or First Nations art, this show is sure to challenge your assumptions, delight your eye, tickle your funny bone and spark interest in the technical mastery and innovations of the artists represented in the show.”
WHAT HAVE WE MISSED DURING QUARANTINE?
To echo Dr. Neff’s sentiment as the museum reopens, I hope Memphians will give themselves a moment to revisit our permanent collection, experience Native Voices and unwind. It is a fabulous gift to be able to experience art in person, and it is especially vital in these fraught times. We will be open Tuesday-Sunday for members and first responders from July 1-14 and will reopen to the public on July 15. I think I speak for all staff when I say I can’t wait to see all of you in the galleries again.
I’ve been reminded of several moments during the closure that make the Brooks special. Recently I watched a documentary on the performance artist Marina Abramovic and laughed during a scene at a lecture when a MoMA member asked her with a wink, “I just want to know,” she paused for dramatic effect and giggled. “Are you happy?” I miss the spontaneity of moments like this provided by our clever members at lectures. I also am reminded any time I enter the Rotunda of how empty it feels without visitors bustling through. I miss seeing docents lead curious school children on tours. I couldn’t agree with Johnny Hill more when he told me, “Zoom just doesn’t cut it.”
Museums bring joy, but they also give visitors a space to pause and reflect. Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees Carl Person wrote in his Juneteenth Reflections blog post that the Brooks is a “perfect place to breathe.” I second that. Americans need art museums now more than ever as a place to seek refuge and escape into the fantastic world artists create. At the Brooks, when we stare at our favorite piece of artwork, then stare back at each other to experience that shared sensation of wonder, we do what we’ve missed most during an endless quarantine: We build connections.
Donor Relations Manager