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VOL. 131 | NO. 223 | Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Change Is Mantra At Brooks, Ballet Memphis

By Bill Dries

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The rotunda at the Brooks Museum of Art is in transition this week as the surreal figures of Yinka Shonibare’s “Rage of the Ballet Gods” give way to the burlap sculptures of Nnenna Okore that will be suspended from the rotunda dome for the next six months.

Ballet Memphis moves into a new facility in Overton Square in 2017 and the 100-year-old Memphis Brooks Museum of Art considers further changes in the spring. The leaders of both organizations say the city’s arts community is among the most diverse and innovative in the nation.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

Okore’s work is the second of the Rotunda Projects series launched in this centennial year for the Overton Park institution. And Brooks executive director Emily Neff said the series is an important introduction to a museum that is changing.

“So that when you come to the Brooks, before you do anything, you have an art experience that changes,” Neff said on the WKNO/Channel 10 program “Behind The Headlines.”

Meanwhile, less than a mile away, at the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Cooper Street, the performance center for Ballet Memphis continues to take shape toward a 2017 opening.

Dorothy Gunther Pugh, the company’s artistic director and CEO, says the kinds of changes Neff is exploring at Brooks have been getting Ballet Memphis noticed nationally. That includes the recent “River Project” and earlier “Memphis Project” productions and an upcoming ballet built around the music of Roy Orbison.

“A lot of people say we are the most diverse classical ballet company of note in America now,” she said, noting that 60 percent of the dancers in the company are “not white.”

Ballet Memphis moves into a new facility in Overton Square in 2017 and the 100-year-old Memphis Brooks Museum of Art considers further changes in the spring. The leaders of both organizations say the city’s arts community is among the most diverse and innovative in the nation.

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

“It took a long, hard time from a committed director and staff. We weren’t ever doing things the way we were programmed to do growing up in a classic dance environment,” Pugh added. “There are certain people who have been very quietly determined to succeed out of the way. If we don’t do that we are not speaking for Americans, we are not speaking for Memphians, we are not speaking for the people who still need to have their voice at the table and their song come out.”

“Behind The Headlines,” hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Neff came to the director’s position at the Brooks a year and a half ago from Texas and immediately began a set of what she termed “Botox renovations.”

“We needed facial surgery but we didn’t have the time or money,” she said. “We MacGyvered our way to the centennial.”

The resulting changes, unveiled earlier this year after a two-month closing, are more profound than the descriptions might indicate with more plans to come in May.

Neff’s goal at the outset was to make the presence of local artists more visible in a museum where they had always had a place.

“There was always Bill Eggleston on view within the museum somewhere. But my experience of coming to the Brooks was it was a little bit subtle,” she said of Eggleston’s color-saturated photos.

The museum has 279 of Eggleston’s works in its collection and now has an Eggleston exhibition that is next to an exhibition of works by Memphis artist Carroll Cloar.

“I don’t want anyone to come to the Memphis Brooks and leave without knowing several artists who are from Memphis, associated with Memphis but transcend Memphis, and in many cases have an international reputation,” Neff said. “If you come to the museum you cannot help to learn about Bill Eggleston, likewise Carroll Cloar.”

Neff and Pugh say the result of the different directions for the Brooks and Ballet Memphis influence broader changes in the arts beyond Memphis, even if it’s incremental change.

“We’re trying to do a better job of telling our story,” Neff said. “At the end of the day it really is about identity and what kind of city you aspire to be and arts organizations have always played a large role in how a city is defined. It’s about also bringing that personality of place into how you do your programming.”

Ballet Memphis will keep its facility in the suburbs after the Overton Square center opens, Pugh said. She says the proximity to Playhouse on the Square, Circuit Playhouse, Theaterworks and Hattiloo Theater in Midtown as well as the Brooks reflect a need to be close to a move in larger society toward what Pugh sees as an “urban renaissance.”

“We started sort of almost being like compatriots,” she said of the planning process that led to the project in which she talked with Playhouse founder Jackie Nichols as well as Hattiloo founder Ekundayo Bandele.

“The possibilities for advancing the things that we believe in and that are important to Memphis can happen with proximity and accident and bumping into one another,” Pugh said. “I just felt like the visual message for people now is just very important.”

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