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VOL. 130 | NO. 241 | Friday, December 11, 2015

Dixon Museum Renovations, Upgrades Enhance Possibilities

By LANCE WIEDOWER

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Upgrades to HVAC systems aren’t always sexy, but those types of improvements can make the difference in a museum getting an exhibit or being passed over for institutions with more up-to-date facilities.

Chester A. Beach’s 1909 bronze statue “The Nymph” on display at Dixon Gallery and Gardens, which recently reopened after a being closed for six months for infrastructure renovations. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The Dixon Gallery & Gardens recognized that need, and through much of 2015 the main building that exhibits the museum’s collection was closed for renovation.

“We should be able to manage the climates much better than we’ve ever been able to and being a museum of fine art that’s a really big deal,” said Kevin Sharp, director at the Dixon. “None of it was sexy stuff but it’s all things that needed to happen to be a 21st century institution.”

The Dixon was having trouble securing loans from certain institutions because its facility didn’t meet standards, Sharp said.

“Now the facility won’t be the reason we don’t acquire certain shows,” he said.

Sharp pointed to “Wild Spaces, Open Seasons: Hunting and Fishing in American Art” that will open in Memphis next October. It will be put on by a group of museums, all of which are newer than the Dixon.

“I’m not convinced we could’ve shoehorned ourselves into this project without having done these improvements to the facility,” Sharp said. “We’re talking about major works of art coming.”

The Dixon’s recent work was mostly infrastructure. It included replacing the 75-year-old roof of the original residence with a slate roof. There was a retrofit of the fire suppression system. A backup generator was installed, something the museum never had before.

Two freight elevators were installed and the flooring throughout the Plough and Wilmott galleries was replaced. Flooring in the remainder of the facility was refinished. The porches on the original Dixon residence at the facility were rebuilt, and a new service entrance and exit onto Cherry Road was added so visitors would no longer have to compete with service vehicles as they entered the Dixon property.

While the walls and ceilings were opened, it was a good opportunity to upgrade the HVAC system and hardwire the entire facility for Wi-Fi. The interiors of the facility were painted, as was much of the exterior.

Again, not exactly flashy work, but the type that makes a difference in the long-term viability of the Dixon as a museum that houses fine art.

The Pink Palace Family of Museums and Children’s Museum of Memphis also have experienced upgrades that will shape their respective futures.

The Children’s Museum opened the Little Fixins kitchen in late November. Consisting of products from several Memphis home and design stores, the exhibit highlights proper nutrition, hand-washing and kitchen safety.

“We wanted it to be as realistic as possible and to be able to use it not just for play, but for teaching purposes as well,” said CMOM CEO Richard Hackett.

Improvements at the Pink Palace include a reimagined Sharpe Planetarium. When it reopens Jan. 30 after $1.5 million in improvements, the new full dome digital video will enhance what has been offered in the past.

The planetarium also is the precursor to a much broader master plan to overhaul the Pink Palace Mansion itself, including the addition of new exhibits.

Back at the Dixon, Wi-Fi work is the first step in creating a new information system within the museum. It might be years into the future, Sharp said, but upgraded Wi-Fi will enable visitors to one day access information about whatever painting or work of art they are viewing on their phones or a tablet.

“The little cardboard labels work fine but people want more than what’s on a label,” Sharp said. “Expectations have changed. When I started working in museums it was a little cassette tape. Then mp3 player. Now it is very much a digital age. … At the Dixon we’re still years away but we need to think about it.”

The infrastructure improvements were just the second phase of a larger six-phase master plan for the Dixon’s facilities, at 4339 Park Ave. The first phase was a major renovation of the gardens and nursery area, which carried the institution through the six months that the museum was closed

The Dixon’s collection of French paintings was sent to a museum in New York where it was packaged as a show “Monet to Matisse.”

The master plan’s next steps include a third phase that will look at the infrastructure of the gardens, including improving irrigation, lighting and pathways. That could begin toward the end of 2016.

The fourth phase will look at expanding the Hughes Pavilion building for special events while also considering the construction of an education building that could come in 2018 or 2019.

Phase five is a major garden building project and phase six would be an expansion of the museum building itself.

The Dixon isn’t in campaign mode, yet.

“This is a plan that could be 10 years in its completion,” Sharp said. “We’re taking it on as we need to. We can always take a step back. It’s contingent on what the economy is doing and what the Dixon needs.”

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