Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Wonder Woman

By Glenna Parks

JANUARY 11, 1999:  Kaywin Feldman, 32, arrived in Memphis this week for her new job as the director of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. She is among the youngest museum directors in the country and faces a serious challenge as she attempts to invigorate a museum that is taken for granted by many Memphians.

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Michigan, Feldman received her bachelor’s degree in classical anthropology. It wasn’t until her senior year at Ann Arbor that her career path began to take focus. She spent her senior year abroad, studying in Rome, where she says she “fell in love with art history.” This new passion led to the University of London, where Feldman earned two graduate degrees in museum management and art history.

The new director at Brooks brings a worldview that transcends the Mid-South – the entire country, in fact. Raised in a military family, Feldman has always been at ease with international travel and familiar with museums. Her father was stationed in London when she was a child.

“Museums were family entertainment,” she remembers, as she explains how her parents marched their children through every museum they encountered during the many years they lived abroad. “We looked at everything.”

London wasn’t enough to satisfy Feldman, the student. She found her inspiration in the nearby land of the Dutch. With easy access from London, Amsterdam – the whole city – was her “museum of choice.”

It’s a romantic story, really. Feldman spent endless days wandering the city, identifying the locations where famous paintings were first exhibited or locations where they were painted. She paid special attention to 16th- and 17th-century Dutch painting.

“It was Rembrandt city,” she says, describing her passion for the detailed technical qualities and dramatic emotional values of the light that she sees in Dutch painting. Searching out the historical studios, the first galleries where paintings were shown, and the general digs of those artists of Amsterdam appealed to the archaeologist in her and created a hands-on historical experience that influences her current work.

During one of her first jobs, as an educational curator for the British Museum of Art, Feldman developed a Rembrandt Exhibition Guide that was published by the British Museum Press. While working in London, she became interested in the informal art education of children, creating a teacher packet so that the classroom teacher could reinterpret the museum experience.

The family passion for information which Feldman seems to have inherited, combined with her anthropology, museum management, and art history degrees and work in London, prepared her for her first tenure in the United States. She was named director of the Fresno Metropolitan Museum of Art, History and Science before she was 30 years old. After three short years in California, Feldman was named to the post at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.

At Fresno, Feldman quickly developed a reputation as someone who knew more than just the art side of the museum business. “What I liked about Kaywin Feldman was her record in Fresno,” says Dr. Tom Stern, head of the Brooks board of directors and chairman of the search committee that selected her. “She balanced the budget and had a surplus. She increased attendance and she increased the endowment. Also, she had actually managed a museum for three years.”

Feldman was able to turn her age into an advantage during the interview process. “We thought she was a terrific candidate, very unusual and somewhat improbable because of her youth, but she diffused those issues immediately,” says Jeffrey Nesin, president of Memphis College of Art and a member of the Brooks search committee. “She had a personal adventurousness and strength matched with a scholarly experience that would be an asset to the city.”

Nesin admits there were some initial doubts on the search committee. “We all were skeptical about her youth at first, but quite impressed when we met her,” he explains. “Representing a museum is a full-time job. That, added to actual directing, takes a highly energetic person.”

Of course no one in Memphis is assuming that Feldman is going to make her work at Brooks her final career stop. It isn’t likely that she will be retiring here in the year 2032. For the search committee, it was something of a trade-off.

“We decided to take someone young and hope that she uses us to make her reputation,” Stern explains. “I hope she’s so successful that someone really big takes her from us when she’s ready.”

The nature of curating large urban museums like Brooks, where shows are booked two years in advance, will give Feldman plenty of time to focus on the nuts and bolts of running the institution before she can bring in an exhibit she can call her own.

“She’s going to have her hands full for a while, but eventually she wants to curate a show,” says Stern, who adds that he feels certain what her first exhibit will focus on – Dutch painting.

He is on target. “I would love to have the opportunity to curate a Dutch 17th-century painting show,” Feldman says, when asked about what her first exhibit might be. But she knows that something like that is farther down the road. First she has to learn more about this strange new city she has landed in.

“I certainly see the year ahead as a time of getting to know the staff and the collection,” she says. “I am still at the stage of asking questions and learning about the institute.”

She says becoming acquainted with the people here will be job one. “I welcome the opportunity to meet Memphians and see what they want for their museum,” she says.

What makes Feldman so special? What keeps her from being just another scholarly, tweedy art historian pontificating about the paint quality of a brush stroke, the patina of a bronze sculpture? The answer is in her thesis, “The Evolution of a Cultural Form: Images of Satyrs in Flemish Art, circa 1540-1640.”

In this work, Feldman leaves the Calvinist austerity of Rembrandt’s town that she loves so much for the Greco-Roman revelry of Rubens. Dig into this paper and you will find Feldman’s wild side – her interest in satyrs, the party animals of the art world, the over-sexed goat-men with their insatiable desires.

Looking specifically at satyrs, Feldman addresses the changes in their representation that paralleled a Dutch instinct to paint “real” people. Up to a certain point the satyrs were not specific portraits, but just classical depictions of male heads.

Feldman is tickled about the Rubens’ satyrs, who were portraits of neighbors and friends of the artist. One would assume that painting a portrait of a local as a satyr spoke volumes and opened the lid on social political commentary.

Ugly satyrs (half-goat, half-man with giant penises) and beautiful nymphs (wild, flirtatious spirits in human female bodies playing hard-to-get) were the sexpots of the artists’ iconography. Their references are legendary, from literature to science. Changing from an idealized depiction of a satyr to one who looked like the guy next door probably provoked reaction, especially when one remembers that the Catholic church stored Caravaggio paintings out of sight for many years because the Italian artist is alleged to have used a prostitute as a model for the Virgin Mary. There is a wealth of social history to understand whenever artists place idiosyncratic references (such as portraits) into iconographic images. It will cause a roar every time it happens.

And doesn’t it bode well for Memphis that this new, young, well-educated museum director is coming into this position with such a sense of humor and curiosity? Brooks needs someone to maintain the decorum and at the same time to keep us awake. We need to know the history of the art so we can get beyond the drop-dead boredom of that split-second look as we march in a steady pace through room after room full of art and artifacts.

Many museums have membership problems. Graffiti artists, low riders, and tattoo artists have been invited through the hallowed doors of art galleries in recent years in a deathbed attempt by museums to stay alive. Some museums are taking their walls downtown, into subways and empty storefronts in order to confront the audience.

Art can’t have its nose in the air either. The person who studies an exotic tattoo from a New Zealand native or an image of a contemporary Chinatown dragon is probably the same who could admire the intricacy of an illuminated page from the Book of Kells. Feldman appears to be the kind of director who would already be looking at each with the same degree of scholarship and interest.

It is precisely the combination of daring youthfulness and savvy world-class experience that this city expects from Feldman. Not unlike high-tech companies with their 25-year-old CEOs, the Brooks is depending on her street smarts and intellect to save it from becoming a tomb.

It was a bold stroke to hire this young woman, but the museum needs Feldman’s fresh eye and her daring. It needs the boldness that she exhibited while traveling alone in India and China. Perhaps that boldness might give the museum its wake-up call.

The director of an institution that has had too many directors in its recent past, a serious problem with declining membership, and a conflict of opinions about a possible merger with The Dixon Gallery and Gardens needs to hit the ground running with her own vision that can be compatible with the needs of this city.

With a two-year window before she curates her first show, Feldman’s influence will be more strongly felt in the practical, day-to-day operation of Brooks. Her contributions will be reflected in the strategies she develops for building attendance at the museum and for raising its visibility in the city and region.

It will take a fast-thinking, aggressive, and smart person to pull it off. If her experience in California is any indication, she is probably up to the task. For her work in Fresno, Feldman won the Central California Excellence in Business award for 1996, and was named in the Top 40 Under 40 for that same year.

In California, Feldman showed that she knows how to use popular culture. Her success with “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” a popular exhibition and festival that she organized at the Fresno museum, suggests that she might consider multimedia exhibitions and events here.

“‘It’s Only Rock and Roll’ was an exhibition of contemporary artists’ responses to rock-and-roll, with a public festival. Something similar could happen here,” she says. If she could pull it off in Fresno, imagine what Feldman might do with a consideration of the historical relevance of blues music and rock-and-roll in Memphis.

Feldman understands the complex issues of politics and aesthetics, supporting an instinct that lets a low rider exist within the same embrace as a Dutch master, a computer programmer with a painter. She has an unsullied wholesomeness of intellectual curiosity and a ribald sense of play that can think up unlikely alliances and ideas.

She knows that today’s museums are in crisis and that to survive they have to keep the art door open. The Brooks collection primarily represents a white, European history. Memphis is anything but that. It is important for the city to regularly exhibit work that has meaning for the public, and it will be interesting to see how this director addresses the whole public in future exhibitions. After all, this is a city-owned institution that has to confront a broad base of aesthetic issues.

Feldman brings a reading knowledge of Greek and Latin as well as passable acquaintance with French, Italian, Dutch, German, and Spanish, to her job. She has traveled on five different continents. She recently went on her own to India and also took the new Beijing-to-Shanghai-and-Hong Kong express. Her luggage got lost, so she continued with only a backpack and two new T-shirts. She has led art-history cruises and tours to various sites in the modern world and slipped off with friends to see exotic Tunisia. She is especially fond of Italy and Turkey because of the classical treasures. It is clear that Feldman is a hands-on historian with a voracious sense of exploration.

This new job will be a challenge. Even for Wonder Woman. But with her personal history, her education, and her sense of humor, it appears that this bright young art historian is prepared to deal with whatever obstacles she may face.

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