Art belongs to the community.
That’s Emily Ballew Neff’s strong belief. Not only that, the executive director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art said art is an important way to feed the soul of the community.
“The history of the public art museum is a democratic institution and it’s one of the great cultural assets of our nation,” she said. “It’s really important in making sure you have a vibrant, thoughtful and engaged citizenry.
“I’m very sensitive to and understand people think art museums are boring or not for me. ‘Will I have to take a test when I come?’ You don’t have to know a dad gum thing when you come here.”
Kevin Sharp, director of the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, agrees that accessibility to the city’s arts organizations is important.
“Making sure people have enough to eat, a place to eat and access to fundamental resources is baseline stuff,” he said. “What we bring is an elevation of horizons of expectations and a wonder. We’re an agent of hope. Every arts organization in this city is committed to this city and bringing culture that rightfully belongs to them, to them. The arts belong to everybody. All we’re doing is taking care of it for them.”
For Ned Canty, general director of Opera Memphis, accessibility has become a buzz word that should be at the heart of every arts organization.
“It’s being constantly aware of the fact that we’re a nonprofit arts organization and we don’t pay taxes because we belong to everyone,” he said. “Our constituency isn’t the 10,000 or 15,000 people who will see a fully staged opera, or the 100,000 including children who will be reached, but the 1.2 million in the whole MSA. For me, that’s what accessibility means is remembering and reminding that you exist to serve the whole community. The community doesn’t exist to buy tickets to your show. If you approach it with that philosophy in mind everything you do will eventually fit that definition of accessibility.”
When Canty came to Memphis in late 2010 to become general director of Opera Memphis, he sat out to make opera more accessible to Memphis. Canty said part of his mission also is to educate about opera as an art form. And the organization’s primary tool in that work is 30 Days of Opera, which coincided with National Opera Week.
But why focus on one day or one week when 30 days just sounds better?
“A lot of people have an idea in their head and that idea is very foreign or unappealing to them,” he said. “We can sell them a ticket but if people think they won’t understand it and it’s not for them then we need to make sure we’re combatting that idea, that misunderstanding.”
The 30 Days of Opera effort is straightforward. Every day during September Opera Memphis brings a form of opera into the community. It might be a two-person performance at a community center one day and a small group performing on a street corner the next.
The performances are intimate, giving people a real connection to the art as well as the artist. This year Opera Memphis took a full opera performance to two locations, Loflin Yard Downtown and the Broad Avenue Art Pavilion in Binghampton.
“You’re five feet from a singer and after they sing you can talk to them and find out what they watched on TV and if they’ve been to Gus’s,” Canty said. “It makes it more approachable and gives people more ownership. That’s part of the accessibility.”
As Neff said, art belongs to a community. Yes, it’s the 10,000 works of art at the Brooks, but it’s also the Dixon Gallery and Gardens that helps bring the community’s art to more eyes.
In some ways, it’s by simple collaboration with other arts organizations, such as having Opera Memphis perform in the gardens.
Sharp said he believes one of the Dixon’s missions is to serve people of all areas in the Memphis area. One way is by offering a family day. Others include free Saturday mornings as well as welcoming school groups for free.
The Dixon also takes programming outside the museum’s grounds with its Art to Grow program that sends out an accredited art teacher to Memphis schools. That teacher sees some 20,000 students every year, working in sessions that are tied to core curriculum.
The Dixon started the program in the 1990s as a response to the shrinking number of art teachers in public schools. It hired an art teacher, bought a van and filled it with art supplies.
“It’s one of the more valuable programs we produce,” Sharp said. “It’s all tied to core curriculum. It’s not a play day. The arts aren’t just subjectivity and creation. You can frame a learning experience about virtually anything through visual arts.”
The Dixon does offer a diversity of programming to entice a wider range of people to come in contact with the museum and gardens, ranging from Food Truck Fridays to a full lineup of lunch and learn programming.
Neff said one challenge the Brooks has is that in some ways the building seems imposing, maybe even uninviting to some. So the museum has worked to bring art outside with its Brooks Outside program.
“We’re a big white building that is a little forbidden looking,” Neff said. “A lot of people come by and aren’t sure who we are so we’re trying to bring Brooks outside our walls.”
The RedBall project earlier this year lasted 12 days and saw the massive red ball make its way to 10 sites across the city. The large social media following gave Memphians one more way to fall in love with the city by interacting with places the ball visited.
The Brooks Outside project continues in early 2017 with a project that will feature five giant inflated bunnies in Overton Park. A duct tape mural will go up in May on the exterior of the museum.
The Brooks’ collection – the largest in Tennessee – gives it a unique ability to reach a variety of tastes in the community.
“Art museums register the pulse of a city,” Neff said. “They help to define a city. When people travel to a different city they go to art museums. It’s in essence a collection that is one way to define the history of a city. … We’re not going to appeal to everybody all the time, nor do we intend to. We try to design programs that will appeal to a variety of different people and that’s what we mean by an experience for everyone.”
Arts accessibility occurs in a variety of ways, but recognizing not everyone in Memphis has the means to easily make their way to a museum or performance hall is important. All three organizations have outreach efforts to bring art to people where they are.
“We talk about food deserts. There are areas that don’t have native art institutions that are easily accessible from a transportation perspective,” Canty said. “Any discussion of arts accessibility in Memphis should devote a lot of time to transportation challenges we have. I encourage everybody next time you want to go to an arts event to make sure to look at what it might take by public transit. What might be a 15-minute drive might be a two-hour bus ride.”
At Opera Memphis, making performances accessible to more Memphians includes giving free tickets to people who receive health care through the Church Health Center. A $10 student rush ticket is available for all shows that don’t sell out. There also is a path that allows volunteers to earn free tickets.
The Brooks provides free Wednesday entry as well as tickets to student groups. The museum also offers a variety of programming that by appealing to more people makes it more accessible. For example, a new artist in residence program has featured a poet working in the galleries as well as a hip-hop producer making music in the galleries.
During its centennial celebration this year the Brooks unveiled Inside Art, which allows visitors to go inside art works in the collection. It’s a hands-on gallery devoted to visual literacy.
“We teach our kids how to read but do we teach them how to see,” Neff said. “More than ever it’s important to help children learn how to see and make meaning from what they see.”
Opening doors to art is the overriding mission.
“I think that you need to know what success looks like to be able to pursue it and to me it’s everybody knows we exist and are proud of the work we do and everybody knows they’re invited,” Canty said. “Anybody who wants to experience opera is able to. I’m pretty evangelical about my love of opera. There hasn’t been anyone I’ve met who wanted to come that we haven’t found a path for.”