W hen Emily Neff joined the staff in April, she became the 14th director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in its 99-year history. She recently directed the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma, and spent a large part of her career as curator of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Now, as steward of the oldest and largest museum in Tennessee, the 52-year-old Neff calls the Brooks extraordinary and its legacy incredible. Here, the wife and mother of two teenage sons talks about her goals for the museum, her thoughts on art education, barbecue, books about Memphis, and falling off a donkey.
You said in one interview you’d have to hit the ground running in terms of the 100th anniversary next year. How’s that going? Whew, I could probably use a few more years to plan. I would say that the staff may feel more pressure than I do because they’ve had more time to think about it. I’m encouraging everyone to relax; we have great things going on.
And those things are? Can’t talk a lot about it yet. But one thing the Brooks could do: We’re in the middle of this beautiful park. We’d like to make the link between the park and the museum stronger, and one way to do that is through temporary outdoor installations.
You’re spending time getting to know Memphis. More on that? I’m reading everything I can about it and asking a lot of questions. Memphis has such raw energy and an entrepreneurial spirit, but also a quality of refinement and elegance. Memphis Brooks was born of the City Beautiful movement in 1916, a treasure box in the park, so that’s a big part of its DNA.
Educational outreach has always been important to the Brooks. That will continue? Yes. One way is collaborations through city nonprofits. We bring in 4th-graders from the city schools. We try to be sure the cost of buses is covered, so that’s not why kids don’t come. We’re trying to figure out how to help more with that.
It’s not just children you want to bring in, but adults who have never been here? That’s true. I can’t tell you how many incredibly well-educated people tell me, “I don’t do art.” I want to say, “Do you read, do you look? If you can do that you can do art.” We can look a little bit forbidding, but art museums are for everybody, and you don’t have to know a thing about art when you walk through the door. You can’t “fail” museums.
Can exposure to art change people? I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t believe that. One thing that attracted me was the Brooks’ vision: transforming life through the power of art. In a way, art connects you to what it means to be a human being. My mother took me to museums as a child. I feel more at home in an art museum than anywhere else.
What Brooks outreach program do you especially like? Medical students in their first year can come in and “diagnose” a work of art. They translate what they see into words. It’s a way to see and observe, teaching people to do that.
Goals? One is to be sure every high school student and/or college graduate has a knowledge of four or five of the top-10 artworks that belong to the Brooks. Memphians are proud and rightfully so of their barbecue and their music. They should be proud of their art museum.
Speaking of barbecue, any favorite picks so far? Not yet, haven’t tried them all. But even being a Texan, I’m on board that Memphis barbecue is better. It’s different but I really like it.
Favorite areas of Memphis? When I cross the bridge over the river, my heart gets that swelling feeling. I love downtown. And I’d been camping out in East Memphis, but we recently bought a house in Midtown.
What do you do just for Emily? I love to go to museums! One Sunday I went to the Metal Museum and to Chucalissa Indian Village. I’m very interested in indigenous art and very much aware that the Brooks stands on what were Chickasaw lands, so I wanted to see the mounds in Chucalissa. And the National Civil Rights Museum is brilliantly conceived. Oh, and I love to go to the opera! But my family does not.
What do y’all enjoy together? We do a lot of hiking in the White Mountains, also in Colorado and New Mexico, and Texas when it’s cool enough. Being outdoors is way up there for all of us.
Last book you read?Hellhound on His Trail by [native Memphian] Hampton Sides. Though he wouldn’t remember me, we were both at Yale as undergraduates. I remember him because he wanted to be a writer even then.
Something about you others don’t know? When I was in kindergarten, I broke my arm falling off a donkey [on family vacation in Colorado]. They ran a picture of me in the newspaper, “Houston girl breaks arm and goes to Salida Hospital.” I was the most popular girl there!