In The Beginning

June 1979

Having seen the cover of this month’s Memphis, I think you’ll agree that this particular issue has, shall we say, an unusual look. But that’s only fitting, given that this month’s cover story explores one of the more unusual and perhaps the most comprehensive celebrations of local art that has ever been put together in this city. Titled “Present Tense: The Art of Memphis from 2001-Now,” this particular exhibition occupies every nook and cranny of The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, showcasing as it does the work of 83 different Memphis-connected artists.

Never before, as best I can tell, has the work of so many different local artists been gathered in a single place. We’re blessed that a fair share of the participants have had their oeuvre displayed in these pages over the years; John Robinette, for example, whose current work in the Dixon show is featured on page 40, was doing illustrations for Memphis magazine way back in 1979 (see right). The image on this month’s cover is a bit more contemporary; the artist is Beth Edwards, and it’s part of a diptych titled Sunup and Sundown (2004).

Wandering through the Dixon and viewing this visual extravaganza (something that every Memphian should do before it closes on April 14th), I was reminded of just how blessed Memphis is to have, not just this one impressive art institution, but another one across town whose collection is equally exceptional and whose annual calendar of events is equally first-rate and diverse. Few cities our size in the country can boast of two institutions devoted to the visual arts that are of the caliber of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and The Dixon Gallery and Gardens.

(Later this spring, the Brooks has scheduled a blockbuster exhibition of its own, saluting the centennial of the birth of perhaps Memphis’ most talented painter. “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar And the American South” opens there on June 8th.)

Memphis has long been considered an “arts” town, but more often than not, the main spin put on that reputation has revolved around record turntables and CDs, not canvases and sculptures. Not for nothing is our city best known as “the home of the blues and the birthplace of rock-and- roll.” If American cultural icons like W.C. Handy, B.B. King, Elvis, Kirk Whalum, and Justin Timberlake call your city home, you shouldn’t be surprised that popular music is what most folks think about when they think about the arts in Memphis.

That’s all well and good, but we locals do need to remind ourselves from time to time that there’s a whole lot of shakin’ going on here in any number of other areas of artistic endeavor. Not only do we have two first-rate fine-art institutions; we also have two long-standing independent local theatre companies, Theatre Memphis and Playhouse on the Square, with a third community group, Hattiloo Theatre, coming on strong. We now have two vibrant ballet companies, Ballet Memphis and New Ballet Ensemble and School. We have one of the finest symphonies in the South, and the Memphis Symphony Orchestra’s vibrant connectivity with every area of the community is well-matched by the efforts of a resurgent Opera Memphis.

No doubt we have our share of political and economic problems, but in the area of the arts, both fine and not so fine, things have never been better in Memphis. And as winter gives way to spring this month, that’s cause for genuine celebration all around our community. 

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