How Memphis Brooks Museum of Art plans to transform into ‘epicenter of Black art’

A new endowment is poised to transform the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art into a “powerhouse” and “epicenter” of Black art, museum officials said.

Funded by a group of anonymous donors, the $5 million Blackmon-Perry fellowship establishes a permanent rotating position for a young curator of color while also providing money for exhibitions and regular purchases of works by contemporary and historic Black artists from around the world.

“We’re serious when we say we will be an epicenter of Black art,” said Mark Resnick, the museum’s acting executive director. “Memphis is going to be a real powerhouse in this area.”

Providing young curators with “a chance to do something really substantial,” the fellowship will help the Brooks become “a museum for the 21st century” as it plans its move from its 105-year-old home in Overton Park to an ambitious new showplace on the Downtown riverfront, said Rosamund Garrett, the museum’s chief curator.

Painted in oils and gold leaf, "Migration of the Gods" (2021) by Harmonia Rosales is the first acquisition funded by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art's Blackmon-Perry endowment, devoted to Black art.

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“The point is to support emerging curators,” said Garrett, 34. “As time progresses, we will have a lot of serious people in the art world with a deep connection to Memphis. We should, in theory, be generating the next generation of heavy hitters.”

Curatorship provides opportunities ‘unique to the nation’  

One of these “serious people” is Heather Nickels, 27, a Washington, D.C., native who has been at the Brooks since 2019 as the Joyce Blackmon Curatorial Fellow — a successful pilot program that provided the example for what has evolved into the permanently endowed new fellowship, officially known as the Blackmon-Perry Curatorial Fellow of African American Art and Art of the African Diaspora. (The fellowship is named for the late Joyce Blackmon, an entrepreneur who was the first female and first Black vice president at Memphis Light, Gas & Water, and Elliot Perry, the Memphis basketball hero who has become a renowned collector of works by Black artists.)

During her three-year residency at the Brooks, Nickels — whose Memphis fellowship ends in August — curated and wrote the catalog for “Persevere and Resist: The Strong Black Women of Elizabeth Catlett,” an exhibition of prints and sculptures by an artist whose work, according to Nickels, asks, “What does it mean to be a Black woman in the United States of America?”

Beyond the Black art emphasis, Nickels also organized the “Andy Warhol: Silver Clouds” show now at the Brooks, which presents a roomful of Warhol-designed metallic balloons inflated with a mixture of air and helium that causes the balloons to hover, like pillow-shaped clouds, between the floor and the ceiling.

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“Sharecropper,” a two-color linoleum cut from 1952 by Elizabeth Catlett, was part of of a Brooks Museum show curated by Heather Nickels.

Typically, Garrett said, museum fellowships emphasize research and are “quite dry,” in part because “to be a curator you need an M.A. (Master of Arts degree) and a Ph.D. and maybe 10 years later, someone might trust you with an exhibition.”

But contrary to this tradition, the Brooks’ endowed fellowship — the first in the museum’s history — will provide curatorship opportunities that are “unique in the nation” to young art scholars and museum studies specialists of color who have yet to earn higher doctorates. (Nickels returns to school in the fall, to earn a Ph.D.)

‘Long overdue and a moral imperative’

Staying in Memphis for three years, each Blackmon-Perry fellow will not only be expected to develop and curate an exhibition and write the accompanying catalog but will “steward” the regular purchase of work by artists of color for the museum’s permanent collection.

Resnick said fellowships that enable institutions to attract top talent “are the lifeblood of museums, much like at universities.” Without the $5 million endowment, this position “might have died on the vine instead of becoming evergreen, so to speak,” he said, but “having this in the mix takes us up a quantum level. It’s a difference maker for us.”

Heather Nickels.

Chosen by the Brooks board from recommendations from Resnick and the curatorial staff, the first Blackmon-Perry fellow will be announced this summer.

Administered by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, the $5 million endowment, formally established at the start of this year, “sits untouched” and provides “multiple six-figure” proceeds, Resnick said — enough to fund the curatorial fellowship, the mounting of exhibitions and the purchase of art.

The fund is independent from the museum’s ongoing $150 million capital campaign to build the new Brooks Museum on a large block at Front and Monroe Downtown. Colloquially designated as the “New Brooks” or the “Brooks on the Bluff,” the proposed riverfront building will contain 112,976 square feet of space — 30,000 more than the current Brooks.

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The new Brooks is expected to open in 2025, said Resnick, 65, who has been the museum’s acting executive director since the departure last year of Emily Ballew Neff, who had been museum director since 2015.

Theoretically, the fellowship’s emphasis on supporting Black curators should benefit not just Memphis but the art-museum community as a whole. “The field has suffered notoriously from not having curators of color,” Resnick said.

Whatever its overall impact, the endowment already has paid off in a way that will be “immediately perceptible” to visitors, Resnick said, with the recent purchase of “Migration of the Gods,” a new painting by Chicago-based Afro-Cuban American artist Harmonia Rosales.

In oil and gold leaf, the epic 6-foot-long painting depicts deities of the Yoruba people of West Africa arriving on the rocky coast of the “New World” after a brutal Middle Passage journey, glowing halos encircling proud if weary heads. The painting will make its Memphis debut in the fall.

Garrett said the new attention being paid to artists of color is “long overdue and a moral imperative.” She said the emphasis is especially necessary in a city with a majority-Black population, like Memphis.

“If you can’t see yourself in a museum, it’s the museum that is at fault,” she said.

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