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VOL. 132 | NO. 182 | Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Memphis Brooks Museum Eyes Relocation Out of Overton Park

By Andy Meek

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The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art might be leaving Midtown. The museum’s board has voted to allow the museum’s staff and the board’s long-range planning committee to evaluate locations in Memphis outside of Overton Park as possible homes for the Brooks’ permanent collection and future museum facilities.

BROOKS MUSEUM (Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

The museum’s leadership – which stressed that any potential relocation would be limited to within the Memphis city limits – says the long-range planning committee would first make a recommendation on the museum’s future.

It has a menu of options to consider at the moment that include renovations to the existing property at Overton Park, as well as potentially relocating to a new as-yet-undetermined site in the city.

That committee would take a recommendation to the board’s executive committee, which in turn would make a recommendation to the full board, before the board finally votes on a course of action.

All that’s been authorized at this point is for the board to consider a relocation of the museum – which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year – as one option among several.

“We are exploring all options in terms of what’s best for the Brooks collection long-term, which we determined could include a possible relocation,” said board chair Deborah Craddock. “We will be looking at alternatives outside of Overton Park.”

The museum, which takes up 87,000 square feet, has actually been thinking about how to approach its future – not necessarily a potential relocation – since the 1990s, said executive director Emily Neff.

Neff said the museum’s board has known since then that, for example, the portion of the museum added in 1973 is not seismically sound. Beyond that, the museum’s leadership has felt it needed more exhibition space, as well as a better and more efficient usage of the space it has, she said.

“You have these different styles cobbled together, so wayfinding is a real problem,” Neff said about the museum, which has a collection of more than 10,000 objects spanning 5,000 years of history and sees around 80,000 visitors a year.

That the museum has decided one of its options should be to start over somewhere else, rather than spend money to improve its current facility, is not the only option it’s considering. It’s actually had a few other options on the table for years now.

“A capital campaign was teed up in the 2000s to address this longstanding problem,” Neff said. “Then the Great Recession happened in 2008, and in the interim in 2013, one of our donors commissioned Cooper Robertson, an architecture firm in New York, to come and do an assessment of the building.”

After they finished that work, the Brooks’ then-director left, creating the vacancy Neff was hired to fill. Here are the options the Brooks had on the table, before adding a new consideration of possibly relocating:

Option one, Neff said, is to take just the 1973 portion of the building and retrofit it. Make it seismic and operationally sound. That option, she said, had a conceptual budget of $30 million.

The second option was to just remove – instead of retrofitting – that portion of the museum.

“And we would add 23 percent more space, growing to 100,000 square feet,” Neff said. “It had the same conceptual budget as if you just tried to retrofit it.”

Option three, she said, “was something much more comprehensive that really begins to get at what the real needs of the institution are. Square it off (the 1973 portion), remove it, so you get that 23 percent more – but you go a little into the park, in areas that are assigned to us. The conceptual budget there is about $84 million.

“But especially when you look at conceptual budgets that are in the realm of $84 million, you have to also ask – what are you going to get at the end of that? How transformative is it going to be?”

One of the things guiding the museum’s deliberations now is the fact that it’s assuming some of those cost estimates are now outdated, which helps explain why they’ve decided to also pursue a relocation.

The full museum board next meets in October. Craddock said these discussions have begun in earnest.

“I don’t have a sense about timing,” she said. “The board just voted at our mid-August board meeting to move forward with this. We’ve only had a few weeks to start strategizing about the things we need to do.

“We know we need to get this done,” she said. “To ensure our current collection is inhabited in the right kind of space and also to attract future collections.”

Museum officials say they will work closely with constituencies that include the Overton Park Conservancy, the city of Memphis and the Memphis City Council – which provides funding to the museum – as it moves forward toward a decision.

“If and when we elect to relocate, we will do everything in our power to ensure that our current museum facilities enjoy a productive and positive next use that benefits Overton Park and the entire community,” reads a statement from the museum.

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