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VOL. 126 | NO. 45 | Monday, March 7, 2011

Coming into Focus

Proposed $15 million Eggleston museum hinges on public trust

STACEY WIEDOWER | Special to The Memphis News

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In the realm of urban attractions, museums present somewhat of a paradox.

©Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

Often, they’re privately funded. But in a broader sense – a civic sense – they’re public spaces. They’re open to the public, shaped to address a public issue or meet a public need.

And often, their public impact reaches beyond the collections housed within.

“The best museums and the ones most successful in terms of economic impact are often ones that have public feelings of ownership,” said Amy Whitaker, an international museums expert, former Memphian and author of the book “Museum Legs.” “People have to want to go there, not just feel like they should because they feel that art is important.”

That’s precisely the goal of a proposed Memphis museum dedicated to the work of internationally renowned photographer William Eggleston.

Mark Crosby, a New York intellectual property attorney and Memphis native who is spearheading the effort to launch the $15 million museum project, said he sees his “client” not as Eggleston or the family trust that houses his extensive body of work, but as the city itself.

“If we do it right, if we raise enough money and take the best advice and best examples to help guide our path, what we may wind up with is something that generates public trust,” Crosby said. “That is a key for us … public trust. We will only succeed if Memphis embraces this.”

The proposed museum would not only house Eggleston’s work – roughly 60,000 images culled from a broad range of largely commonplace subjects – but also serve as exhibition space for work by other contemporary artists.

Jenny Dixon, director of the Noguchi Museum in Queens, N.Y., a single-artist museum dedicated to the work of famed mid-century sculptor Isamu Noguchi, said the very nature of Eggleston’s work will make an impact on the city.

“His images, a lot of them came out of the community he’s going back into,” Dixon said. “There is a resonance to his work that is going to have an immediate attraction.”

Eggleston’s photographs celebrate the mundane: a rusty tricycle, a gas station on a lonely road, a mud-covered truck. One of the first non-commercial photographers to work in color, Eggleston – who still lives in Memphis – has exhibited his work in cities ranging from Tokyo to Madrid to Berlin and received a wealth of international acclaim.

“From a cultural standpoint, Eggleston is one of the most important contemporary visual artists of our time,” said Susan Schadt, president and CEO of ArtsMemphis. “He’s an iconic testament to the cultural heritage that we celebrate here. I think it is very, very important to see that this project gets completed.”

Winston Eggleston, Eggleston’s son and managing trustee of the Eggleston Artistic Trust, said the family is thrilled at the prospect of a museum devoted to his father’s work.

“I couldn’t be more excited, really,” he said. “I know my dad’s excited too. He’s a little skeptical – it’s a ‘believe it when I see it’ kind of thing.”

“The best museums and the ones most successful in terms of economic impact are often ones that have public feelings of ownership. People have to want to go there, not just feel like they should because they feel that art is important.”

– Amy Whitaker
International museums expert, former Memphian and author

Schadt said the proposed museum – projected to open in 2013 – would impact the city in ways that reach beyond its cultural significance.

“The (Santa Fe, N.M.-based) Georgia O’Keefe Museum gets easily between 160,000 and 180,000 guests a year,” Schadt said. “And 85 percent of those are from out of state, which means, of course, that when they come to town, they have the need for accommodations and restaurants and those sorts of economic drivers.”

Whitaker said the economic impact for a museum project can be significant. She pointed to statistics gleaned from the launches of several museums she has worked for or studied in her career. At the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, for example, economic impact rings in at $14 million a year, with about 100,000 visitors per year drawn to a town of roughly 20,000 people.

When the Cleveland Museum of Art opened, it received around 600,000 annual visitors, 10 percent of whom were out-of-towners making overnight trips.

“They averaged a two-night stay, meaning 120,000 hotel nights,” Whitaker said.

The museum adds more than $22 million to Cleveland/Akron’s Gross Regional Product each year and contributes $5 million to the state and local tax base.

The Eggleston museum would function on a smaller scale than those projects. However, Crosby said, it could still make a significant impact on the city. He cites as an example Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol Museum.

“Warhol is a great example because what you have in that is a city that took advantage of someone’s world renown and captured that goodwill as a civic asset,” Crosby said. “It’s on a smaller scale, to be sure, but that’s what we’re doing with Eggleston. He has a worldwide following. He’s a darling of the press. Reviews remain unanimously starstruck, establishing him as one of the most important, influential and enduring American artists of the last century. Our role is to traffic in that.”

Todd Richardson, co-director of Crosstown Arts, said he believes people would travel from around the world to visit a museum centered on Eggleston’s work.

“There’s no question in my mind that it would be a pilgrimage spot, putting Memphis on the map in that sense,” he said. “Memphis has its history in music, but it also has a long tradition in the visual arts. I think this museum would go a long way in helping to establish Memphis in terms of the visual arts – multidisciplinary, not just music.”

Richardson has a vested interest in one aspect of the proposed museum: Crosstown is one of three sites that have been discussed thus far as potential locations for the museum. The others are Overton Park and Overton Square.

“Thinking about the possibilities of there being this magnificent new architectural structure for the Eggleston Museum – and the Sears building with an arts residency program and art-making facilities next to the Eggleston Museum – all of those things together could be a real draw regionally, if not beyond,” he said, referring to Crosstown Arts’ long-term plans for revitalization of the former Sears Crosstown building that towers above the district.

Crosby, who also helped launch the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, has been continually meeting with stakeholders to finalize a location for the facility, but as yet, it’s a wait-and-see proposition. Once a location has been established, however, plans will immediately commence on the building’s design.

©Eggleston Artistic Trust, courtesy Cheim & Read, New York

Crosby said although the structure’s site will no doubt influence its design, he would like to see a building that is “discreet, flexible, open, welcoming.” Once the site has been secured, the museum’s organizers will invite a “select set of architects to contribute designs and pay them for their contributions,” he said. A jury of experts including artists and single-artist museum directors will select the winning design.

Eugene Johnson, Amos Lawrence Professor of Art at Williams College, former Memphian and author of “Memphis: An Architectural Guide,” has consulted with Crosby on the museum’s design.

“It won’t be very big,” Johnson said of the proposed structure, “but there are some very potent buildings that are very small. You don’t have to have a big building to have something that’s architecturally significant. I think we have to think about an architect who can work comfortably on a relatively small scale.”

And all in all, that’s how Crosby views the proposed museum: small-scale, but significant.

“As I see it, if we raise enough money, we can create a sustainable, interesting, worthwhile place,” he said. “Interesting is the key word. It has to be interesting and relevant.”

Schadt, whose organization is currently facilitating two studies that examine arts offerings and their economic impact on the city, said the city is “poised for some amazing attributes in the cultural sector, this one being right at the top of where we need to be driving.”

“It’s so exciting for Memphis,” she said. “I do think this will happen and we’ll all see results, something we can point to and be very proud of.”

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