The Process, A Letter from Director Kevin Sharp

Out of the swirling mists of infinite possibility, the Dixon strives for a program that is a unified whole. We take sometimes disparate elements and bang them against one another like chalkboard erasers (are there still chalkboard erasers?) until the dust falls away and hopefully an internal coherence is revealed.

For the program that starts in late January 2020, we began with an exhibition, Augusta Savage: Renaissance Woman, which comes to us from the Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens in Jacksonville. Augusta Savage was a gifted artist and influential educator, a crucial figure in the Harlem Renaissance, and the Dixon owns one of her most famous works. An Augusta Savage exhibition made perfect sense for us (we had organized a similar show in 2014). I saw the Cummer exhibition when it was on view at the New-York Historical Society and loved it. But I also recognized that it would not fill all our available galleries, given that much of our permanent collection would be at the Baker Museum in Naples, Florida. We needed something else.

We barked up any number of trees until we learned from our friends at the Mint Museum in Charlotte that they were putting together an exhibition that explored the influence of collage on twentieth-century American artists and photographers. Perfect! Collage is frequently described as the great aesthetic invention of the last century, with its fragmented forms not only influencing painters and sculptors, but also poets, musicians, and playwrights as well. I said, “We will take it!” They said, “It is already booked.” I said, “Huh?” and bristled a little. I really wanted that show.

A few weeks later, I heard back from my friends at the Mint that a venue had dropped out of the collage show (called Under Construction, good title). I said, “Fantastic, we’ll take it in 2020.” They said, “It is not available then.” I bristled again, and said, “Let’s figure this out.” They said, “Okay,” and we did. Arguably, the most significant collagist of the American twentieth century was Romare Bearden. A Charlotte native and an artist of African ancestry, Bearden spent his developing years in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. He was never a student of Augusta Savage and never an educator per se, but as a writer and philosopher as well as an artist, his influence on African American painters, artists in general, and even art historians, was just as profound as hers. The center of our program was taking shape, but we needed really crisp outlines to hold it all together.

In the Liz and Tommy Farnsworth Education Building, our Education team invited Memphis artist, Kong Wee Pang, to present her inventive works of art in our interactive gallery. I think her drawings and even some of her public art reveal at least a measure of debt to the collage aesthetic, even as she pushes its buttons and boundaries. For our Mallory and Wurtzburger show, we slotted in Lawrence Matthews III, another young Memphis artist whose work is inspired by and examines overlooked episodes in African American history. His photography is powerful, sometimes dark, and intensely compelling.

We were still without a plan for the Dixon residence, and time was running short. Then, as luck would have it, Winston Eggleston contacted me last summer and requested a meeting. The son of the great Memphis photographer William Eggleston, Winston and his family had recently launched the Eggleston Art Foundation, and hired Virginia Rutledge to be its director. Winston, his brother Bill, his sister Andra, and Virginia came by my office and expressed an interest in working with the Dixon on some future project. They could not have been more appreciative of the Dixon, we always need help with photography exhibitions, and I regretted that it might be years before any project we conceived might come to fruition.

I told Winston that the Dixon’s exhibition calendar is generally booked three and four years in advance, but I also noted the flexibility we had in the residence in early 2020. To my amazement, the Eggleston family seemed eager to explore that option. Ultimately, Virginia Rutledge and Martha R. Robinson Curator Julie Pierotti devised an installation plan that would feature still life subjects from the Dixon’s permanent collection, along with photographs from William Eggleston’s 1978 Flowers series, and digital loral subjects by Jennifer Steinkamp, an artist whose work I like very much. These blooms and bouquets in the residence will be in flower at the same moment that the Dixon gardens will be an explosion of color, including the 150,000 tulips the Gardens team planted last fall. I think the synergy between indoors and out will be nothing short of extraordinary.

The entire program is simply too exciting for words. Anyone who knows me understands how much I love works of art. What may not be as apparent is how much I love getting those works of art onto the walls of the Dixon; I may love the process just as much.

Kevin Sharp
Linda W. and S. Herbert Rhea Director


Posted by Kristen Rambo at 3:11 PM
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