Friday, May 23, 2008

An Interview with Kevin Sharp, Dixon Gallery and Gardens Director

Posted by on Fri, May 23, 2008 at 4:00 AM

When Kevin Sharp, a tousle-haired 50-year-old, self-described "Americanist" with 20-years experience in the museum biz, took over as director of the Dixon Gallery & Gardens last September, he immediately announced that the museum needed to rethink its mission.

If the museum was to continue to grow and evolve in a healthy way it needed to be more than just another stop on the touring exhibition circuit, he said. It needed to originate its own exhibits. Sharp now says the Dixon will be developing original exhibits and sending them out on the road as early as 2009.

For 10 years, Sharp worked The Art Institute of Chicago assembling original traveling exhibitions and creating copy for accompanying catalogs. He's passionate about his work and sees no reason why Memphis can't distinguish itself as an art town.

Memphis Flyer: You’ve said that the Dixon needs to originate exhibitions. How close is any of this to happening?

Kevin Sharp: We've already got significant shows in development here. One of the joys of museum work is conceiving, developing and implementing exhibition programming. And we are well on our way on two or three shows that will be shown at the Dixon and at other institutions as early as 2009.

The first couple of shows are projects that I brought with me from [Cedarhurst Center for the Arts in Mount Vernon, Illinois] and have, in some cases, been mulling over for years.

And all of these shows will open here first at the Dixon then move on to other venues?

The first one won't open here. It will open at Cedarhurst. It's a project called "Regional Dialect: American Scene Paintings from 1900 to 1940." It's just a great age of American art, when artists were engaged in their communities, exploring American life in ways that had never been done before, or really since.

The second show in 2009 is an exhibition of American Art of the Civil War era and that will come from public and private collections from all across the country.

Is it difficult to come into a situation like the Dixon, where there may be established ways of doing things, and trying to do something else?

The board of trustees, staff, and community have all been very supportive of this change in direction.

What are the advantages of originating exhibitions?

We're in the business of celebrating creativity and originality. So we're healthiest as an institution if we're original and creative ourselves. So there's an internal benefit. It also raises the national and international stature of the Dixon as a leader. It puts us in a better position to acquire loans and to work with better and better institutions.

How do you see yourself as being different from other directors?

I don't want to be separated from my audience. When I came into the business 20 years ago and looked at all the great directors they were all almost like kings. They were all men. And they were almost like nobility -- patrician in a way. And that's not what I’m all about.

There was a time when culture was handed down from on high. Now everyone has access and you never know where the next innovation is going to come from. So anybody who wants to have a meaningful conversation about art and its role within a community—well, thats a conversation I want to have.

I like being directly engaged with the audience at the Dixon. The best day I can think of is standing in front of some painting having a meaningful conversation about art.

-- Chris Davis

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