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VOL. 127 | NO. 122 | Friday, June 22, 2012

Metal Museum Kicks Into Busy Season

By Aisling Maki

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The start of summer is a busy time of year for the Metal Museum, 374 Metal Museum Drive, which has bragging rights to some of the Bluff City’s most magnificent views of the Mississippi River.

Visitors attend a recent garden party and reception for artists Virgil England and Harlan Butt at the Metal Museum. Its spot overlooking the Mississippi River is a popular one for weddings and outdoor events. 

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Nestled on a 3.2 acre site that’s the western half of a former U.S. Marine Hospital dating back to the 1880s, the museum, located in Downtown Memphis’ historic French Fort neighborhood, overlooks a river bend.

Its prime riverfront location and lush, historic grounds make it a popular venue for everything from weddings to church picnics and family reunions, as well as annual events such as WEVL Radio’s Blues on the Bluff concert and the Metal Museum’s Repair Days, held each October.

“We have an incredible view of the river that’s different form any other vantage point in Memphis,” said Metal Museum executive director Carissa Hussong. “We’re located right at the bend, so you can look eight miles across the Mississippi, which I think is it’s widest point…it’s also a great place to watch the barges take that turn; it’s a very dramatic, sweeping motion when they come down river.”

But it’s much more than the riverfront views that make the Metal Museum unique. It’s the only institution in the Americas devoted exclusively to the advancement of the art and craft of fine metalwork, and Hussong said the only similar museum of which she’s aware is located in France.

Established in 1978 as the National Ornamental Metal Museum by the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association – a supplier and fabricator association – the museum is simply known now as the Metal Museum.

“They would do large architectural iron work, so they wanted a museum that represented the trade,” Hussong said. “Over time it expanded to include all metals and not just architectural metals, which is why we’ve shifted to just the Metal Museum. Our focus is much larger than just ornamental.”

The museum achieves its goal through exhibitions, collections, conservation, restoration services, classes, workshops and community outreach.

But what makes the institution really unique are its artist residencies and apprenticeships. Two blacksmithing apprentices selected from a competitive applicant pool live and work on the grounds in two-year increments.

Apprentices are also paid a stipend and their basic materials such as coal and steel are covered, allowing them to use the smithy in their own time to produce work for sale.

The apprenticeships allow smiths to work on a grander scale, producing larger objects, including some commissioned by private clients.

“We’re an unusual, very unique institution because we’re not a traditional museum,” Hussong said. “We do have a permanent collection of artwork and objects, and we have changing exhibitions. But we also have artists who live on the grounds and work here, which makes it a richer experience because you’re able to not only see the objects but watch how they’re made.”

The museum is currently hosting its first foundry artist in residence, Ira Hill of Tallahassee, Fla., whose background is in cast iron and bronze fabrication and production.

“I get to meet people from all over the globe,” said Hill, who’s finishing up a large-scale project that will be installed on the museum’s grounds. “We had some Englishmen here this morning and a couple of guys from Mexico came through. I get to talk to people and explain the process and the difference between the forge and the foundry – that they heat and bend and we melt and cast.”

The museum has been involved in producing a variety of public art projects, including the 120-foot-long steel and cooper steel and copper piece representing the river flowing in the mezzanine of the Cannon Center, and the seven-foot stainless steel and raised copper chrysalis swing inside My Big Backyard at Memphis Botanic Gardens.

Hussong said one of her favorite pieces is the Grahamwood Dragon at Grahamwood Elementary School. Students used the technique of repousse to create designs on 1,500 copper foil squares, which were used to create the scales of the 45-foot dragon – the school mascot.

The museum also offers repair work, which has included mending the famous entrance gates of Graceland.

Repairs and commissioned work bring in revenue, which is also generated through grounds rentals for weddings and other events, memberships, gift shop sales, and donations from individuals, corporations and foundations.

The museum is in the midst of developing a master plan for its campus, which will likely include upgrades to the grounds and buildings, expanding the blacksmithing shop and foundry, and creating a larger space for repairs and conservation and possibly satellite spaces for expanded community outreach.

There’s a growing interest in the museum from academic institutions ranging from Memphis College of Art to the University of Illinois at Carbondale, which offers degrees in blacksmithing.

An Arts Memphis grant for outreach and education has enabled the museum to work with Kingsbury Career Technology Center, 1328 N. Grahamwood St., supervising collaboration between the public school’s art and welding students that resulted in two projects and two paid student internships.

“It’s exciting for us to do that because we’ve wanted to look at ways to really reach out to underserved youth in the community and introduce them to metal-smithing and other career opportunities that maybe have not been presented to them before,” Hussong said. “We’re hoping to continue and expand that program in the future.”

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