Ten years ago, as an art history major at Rhodes College, John Weeden had an opportunity to visit Aix-en-Provence in the south of France, home to the French Postimpressionist painter Paul Cezanne. Observing the great artist's studio, the landscapes that inspired him, then moving on to Arles, where Gaugin and Van Gogh painted their brilliant works -- all this "sealed the deal" for Weeden. "Seeing where modern art was born," he says, "how the artists changed the way we look at art today, made me want to be a part of that."
Today the 31-year-old Memphian, who holds a master's in contemporary art from Sotheby's in London, heads Lantana Projects, a nonprofit visiting artists program he founded in 2004. The first project involved a group of artist-friends from Scotland: "They came here to get a feel for the essence of the city and I assembled a team of people I thought might be interested in meeting them. Here I am with five folks with indecipherable Scottish accents staying here a month," laughs Weeden. "What am I gonna do?"
Local arts patrons responded in force, eager to see and hear more about the visitors' project -- a multimedia exhibit on modern romanticism -- and opened their galleries, homes, and hearts. Says Weeden: "We have a lot of people here with Scotch-Irish ancestry, and you combine that with the love of arts and civic pride, and the hospitality gene just sort of kicked in."
Explaining how the organization got its name, Weeden says he chose lantana, a flowering plant indigenous to the South, for its bright colors and the nourishment and shelter it offers wildlife. "I started thinking in metaphors about what I'd like to see an arts organization do -- provide a creative, nurturing, and sheltering environment. Lantana fit." He adds that a 20-member board from 11 countries decides which artists to invite. "We especially look at people coming out of graduate programs, to lend them a helping hand and generate careers."
Weeden also welcomes all opinions and ideas. "Art is often considered elitist," he explains. "I've encountered that attitude myself, going to London and New York. I've been considered an interloper, an upstart. It's sort of like, 'You're from the South, what can you possibly know?' That's ridiculous."
Since its founding, Lantana Projects has played host to several artists, including media/technical artist James Clar, and photographer and filmmaker Ann-Marie James. Scheduled for fall is a local arts show, followed by a visit from British painter George Shaw.
Clearly happy playing a role "in the future history of art, at least in my little patch of the planet," Weeden reiterates the importance of Memphis hospitality: "I hope the first thing these artists notice is how kind and encouraging we are." He also hopes more Memphians will become involved: "Art is a very democratic and accessible outlet. Every human has a right to participate and feel its joy."