Archive for September, 2012

Memphis Music, the King, and All the Others

Me and Elvis we were cool with the chicks
We had a smooth delivery and we knew how to get our kicks
Me and Elvis never worried ‘bout the cops
He flashed that badge he got from Nixon every time that we got stopped
Me and Elvis used to play pinball all day
And the machines would never tilt, no one ever had to pay
Me and Elvis liked our leather jackets black
And we’d ride up and down the river in a brand new Cadillac
Me and Elvis, Elvis and I…
Human Radio (1990)

Elvis Presley, Chattanooga, 1956, by Alfred Wertheimer (American, b. 1929)

Elvis Presley, Chattanooga, 1956, by Alfred Wertheimer (American, b. 1929), pigment print on watercolor paper, © Alfred Wertheimer

I always say, Memphis music is about one-third of any Memphis boy’s discourse, the other two-thirds being the Civil War and barbecue. Those are not rules of my own creation; it just works out that way.

By the time I was old enough to appreciate the world around me, several huge figures in Memphis music had come and gone, some tragically, others by choice or poor fortune. W. C. Handy, the first person to put Memphis music on the map, died in 1958, five years before I was born. Otis Redding and four of the Bar-Kays were killed in a plane crash in 1967, and Stax Studio, home of the Memphis sound, went bankrupt in 1975. Also, the owner of Graceland was found dead in his upstairs lounge on August 16, 1977. However, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s comment that “There are no second acts in American lives” does not apply to Memphis music. If anything, Memphis is the musical cat that has nine lives, and quite possibly more.

Growing up, we took great music for granted. Even though I can barely read a note of music, the Memphis music experience is such an immersive one that most people who are like me—eclectic listeners, really—recognize Memphis as the center of not one, but several schools of quality sound. Clubs and concerts featured acts coming through the city who wanted to play Memphis just for the sake of playing Memphis. The Sex Pistols played Memphis on January 6, 1978, one of their seven American stops before their breakup.

By the time I was in college, I started hearing the stories and meeting a lot of the people. It seemed like every guy I knew in Memphis said he was a musician; some guys actually were. A lot of us would go drink beer in places where bands played. Even in Memphis there are awful gigs, of course, and I remember two guys I know absolutely murdering a cover of the Eurythmics “Here Comes the Rain Again.” Another night, I remember a metal band in a low rent club crucifying a baby-doll on a drum stand while the band members stripped and danced naked around the scene. Those guys are probably accountants or database administrators now.

I was not impervious to it all, by any means. I learned to run sound a little, I ran laser shows for a while—I titled and co-produced the longest running Elvis laser light show to date back in the 1980s—Elvis: Legacy in Light, a sanctioned event of Elvis International Tribute Week. Later on, I even moved pianos—possibly the heaviest work I’ve ever had outside working for my dad—for a rockabilly piano player named Jason D. Williams, a man who claims to be Jerry Lee Lewis’s illegitimate son.

Through it all, I kept notes and listened, and built up my mental encyclopedia of Memphis music and I saw, I heard, I met, and I read about many, many of those who helped give Memphis the name it has in music. Without ever realizing it was happening, I was taken over by the hometown industry, no different than had I grown up in Hollywood and decided to go into entertainment.

For the past eleven years, I have lived in Washington and researched and written for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. In that time, I have curated and co-curated two Elvis exhibitions, and written thirty articles and co-produced ten short films on the Civil War. I am hoping my next assignment will be to put together a nice work on barbecue.

Warren Perry, writer, Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, and guest blogger

Warren Perry—author of Echoes of Elvis: The Cultural Legacy of Elvis Presley and co-author of Elvis 1956: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer—will discuss how Elvis’s life, widespread fame, and legend fit into the greater framework of American culture and beyond on Friday, October 12, as part of the Gibbes Museum’s Art & Fame lecture series. The series was organized as a complement to the Sound and Vision: Monumental Rock and Roll Photography exhibition. To purchase lecture tickets, visit our online calendar at gibbesmuseum.org/events.

Image, Music, and Memory

I love my job because with each exhibition change, I get to work on something totally different. The past few months were particularly fun as I prepared for our upcoming Main Gallery exhibition Sound and Vision: Monumental Rock and Roll Photography. What could be better than sitting at your desk checking out photographs of The Rolling Stones, David Bowie, and Kurt Cobain?

Bruce Springsteen, Haddonfield, 1978

Bruce Springsteen, Haddonfield, 1978, by Frank Stefanko (b. 1946). Pigment Print on watercolor paper; 40 x 50 in. (framed). © Frank Stefanko.

It has been interesting to consider the power of these images, and how they connect to personal memory. Many people have stopped in my office over the past few months to glance through the photographs in the exhibition. Nearly everyone has had a strong reaction to at least one of the images, due to an association with a specific memory or time in their life.

A Frank Stefanko photograph of Bruce Springsteen on the cover of The River, 1980.

A Frank Stefanko photograph of Bruce Springsteen is used on the cover of The River, a crucial album in the musician’s career, released in 1980.

For me, Bruce Springsteen’s The River instantly makes me think of my dad. Seeing an image of the album cover in this exhibition immediately transported me to elementary school—probably around age eight or so. I have this vivid mental image of a cassette tape of The River sitting on the center console of my dad’s bright yellow 1975 MG. Nothing made me feel cooler than cruising around my tiny hometown in my dad’s MG with the top down, listening to Bruce Springsteen. I cannot hear The River without thinking of my dad, and I cannot see Frank Stefanko’s photograph of The Boss without hearing The River. The image, music, and memory are inextricably connected in my mind, and always will be.

My sister Angie and my dad in his MG, 1981.

My sister Angie and my dad in his MG, 1981.

So I encourage you to visit the Sound and Vision exhibition and see what memories come flooding back to you. You are sure to see some familiar photographs, and to leave with a tune stuck in your head. It’s a fun exhibition, and we have lots of great programs planned, so be sure to check our website for details. The exhibition opens on September 21—I hope to see you around the galleries!

Pam Wall, Curator of Exhibitions, Gibbes Museum of Art

Hurricane Who? The Gibbes is ready!

“Mariner’s Poem on Hurricanes”
June too soon.
July stand by.
August look out you must.
September remember.
October all over.

-Published in Weather Lore by R. Inwards in 1898

Although not completely accurate (hurricanes can and do occur in June, July, and November) this mariner’s poem reminds us that August and September are the prime months for tropical storms and hurricanes. How do you prepare for hurricane season? Hopefully you have given some thought to this question since the North Atlantic Hurricane Season kicked off June 1, 2012. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has predicted the formation of 9 to 15 named storms, 4 to 8 hurricanes, and between 1 and 3 major hurricanes this year. Though the forecast number of storms is less than in previous years, even relatively slow hurricane years can leave a lasting impact. Thus far none of the tropical activity has pointed itself at Charleston (I am looking for wood to knock on) but we still have a few nervous months to go as the hurricane season does not end until November 30, 2012. For those of us whose job it is to oversee the care of museum art collections, that date seems a very long time away!

A satellite image of Hurricane Hugo, September 21, 1989.

Hurricane Hugo approaches the South Carolina coast in this satellite photo taken on September 21, 1989. (Photo credit: NOAA)

Thankfully, the Gibbes staff has hurricane preparation down to a science. The building was put to the test in 1989 when the powerful Category 4 Hurricane Hugo barreled into Charleston. While the Museum suffered power loss and minor flooding, the artwork was unaffected due in part to a fledgling disaster plan and the efforts of a dedicated staff. Over the past twenty-three years, the Gibbes Museum of Art Disaster Plan for Collections has been revised, added to, tested, revised again, tweaked, practiced, tightened, and updated with such regularity that all those involved are confident the Museum could once again weather a strong hurricane. Major hurricanes such as Andrew (1992) and Katrina (2005) have strengthened the national museum community’s commitment to disaster planning and placed great importance on preparedness, communication, and salvage techniques. Museums are now required to have a comprehensive disaster plan to achieve accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums.

So how do we prepare for a hurricane at the Gibbes? The Museum has a hurricane plan that goes into effect the moment a storm is predicted to hit the Charleston area. This plan exists in written form, and the details are reviewed with the entire staff at the beginning of each hurricane season. The plan contains general information about different types of disasters and how to respond as well as information specific to the collection including object inventories, emergency contacts (conservators, art shippers, storage facilities, archival suppliers), insurance policies, and art salvage techniques. The plan also details pre-storm activity which involves securing artwork on exhibit, moving objects away from all windows (we still have a few!) and covering storage racks and archival containers with plastic sheeting; much of the plastic is in place year round and simply needs to be pulled down and secured. One of the greatest hurricane threats besides wind is potential flooding and loss from a storm surge. To prepare for this possibility, we make certain all artwork is stored at least 6 feet off the floor, the recommended industry standard. Advance planning will always be a necessary component of protecting the museum; staff will work to secure the museum until it’s time to evacuate.

A major concern museums face after a hurricane is loss of power which affects climate control elements and can cause rapid fluctuation in temperature and humidity. Abrupt changes in relative humidity (RH) can result in dimensional alteration to hygroscopic materials (wood, ivory, etc.) resulting in warping and splitting of many sensitive materials that comprise the art collection. High RH (above 65%) can also cause mold growth and metal corrosion in as little as 48 hours! In order to mitigate the risk involved with loss of climate control and rising humidity, the Gibbes maintains powerful fans that can circulate air (and run via a generator if necessary) in the event of HVAC loss. Museum staff stock other necessary supplies including flashlights, batteries, blotting paper for drying wet art, cameras, pencils and inventory sheets for recording damage, brooms, mops, shovels, a weather radio, paper towels, boxes and cartons, first aid kits and more. These supplies are stored on a special disaster cart; a complete inventory of the disaster cart is conducted at the start of each season to make certain all supplies are present and accounted for!

The disaster supply cart is on wheels for easy movement.

The disaster supply cart is on wheels for easy movement.

Fans are available to circulate air if the building loses climate control.

Fans are available to circulate air if the building loses climate control.

In addition to in-house disaster review, Gibbes staff also attends periodic disaster training workshops run through professional museum organizations. For example, in 2008 the South Carolina Federation of Museums (SCFM) staged a mock water disaster (with mock collection items) at Middleton Place Foundation for the workshop, Disaster Recovery for Museum Collections. Workshop participants spent the day learning how to respond to a water disaster and salvage and recovery techniques for paintings, furniture, textiles and a variety of objects. The workshop was led by Sharon Bennett, a veteran of Hurricane Hugo, who has taught numerous disaster preparedness workshops throughout the Southeast. A past-president of the Southeastern Museums Conference (SEMC), Sharon has served as the chair of the American Institute for Conservation Emergency Planning and Response Committee.

Workshop participants encountered this mock water disaster at a disaster-training workshop organized by the South Carolina Federation of Museums.

Workshop participants encountered this mock water disaster at a disaster-training workshop organized by the South Carolina Federation of Museums.

When participants arrived at the workshop they were greeted by three shelving units filled with wet art (framed prints and paintings), textiles, metal objects, ceramics, books, papers, and glass items. These objects were not just wet; they were thoroughly soaked (thanks to a very effective sprinkler and Mother Nature who added a little rain of her own). The water relocated some objects from their original shelf location to the ground and many were buried under a layer of Charleston’s sandy soil. It was a true disaster designed to mimic what an institution might face after a hurricane, flood, or man-made water catastrophe. After a long, wet, hectic day—sometimes frustrating, often satisfying, and overall informational and beneficial—participants left with a better understanding of how to create or update their own disaster recovery plan. By handling the various types of damaged collection items they gained experience in all aspects of a wet salvage and recovery efforts and left the workshop better prepared to write realistic and comprehensive response sections for their individual disaster plans.

The triage area at the SCFM disaster-training workshop.

The triage area at the SCFM disaster-training workshop.

Emergencies can come in many forms from treacherous weather to mechanical breakdown not to mention potential hazards such as fire, water, mold, and even insects. Museums need to be prepared before a disaster happens. Disaster planning events such as the SCFM workshop provide the resources and time to take on this important task.

So as you keep a watchful eye on the tropics over the next several months, rest assured that Gibbes staff are doing the same and will continue to do their very best to protect and preserve Charleston’s stellar collection of art of the American South.

Zinnia Willits, Director of Collections Administration, Gibbes Museum of Art

My Social Media Summer @GibbesArt

This summer I had the great opportunity to be involved with PR and marketing at the Gibbes Museum of Art. I’ve known for time that my interest in art would lead me to the art management realm. However, up until I started this internship, this was based more on theory than experience. I had no idea what was involved in the promotion, preservation, and upkeep of an art collection and a museum. As a student of art history with no formal studies in management, it is easy to focus solely on the interpretation and understanding of art and somewhat forget about the homes in which these objects are housed. And that is what the Gibbes feels like for the Charleston and Lowcountry area—a home for art that celebrates, preserves, and cultivates an understanding in the artistic identity of the south. The Gibbes’ Beaux-Arts building is a work of art itself, and it was fascinating to learn about the roles of the people who are responsible for the smooth operation of this museum.

Gibbes Museum of Art Twitter page

Gibbes Museum of Art Twitter feed.

During the summer, one of my main duties included managing and creating some of the social outreach efforts—namely on Facebook and Twitter. These sites are excellent tools to get information out to the public in a quick and provocative way. I researched and developed short posts to connect the art or history of the Gibbes to current events or interests. Through this process I have become very familiar with the museum and its collection in a multidimensional way—not only is a post about highlighting information about a work of art or an event, it is also about creating conversations around Charleston’s cultural community, past and present. It’s always great to see responses to these posts and know that there are others out there who find these connections just as intriguing as I do!

B.B. King, Newport, 1968, by Dick Waterman

B.B. King, Newport, 1968, by Dick Waterman (b. 1935), pigment print on watercolor paper, © Dick Waterman.

Another large project that I had this summer was the creation of promotional ideas for social media for the upcoming fall exhibits, Sound and Vision: Monumental Rock and Roll Photography and Willard Hirsch: Charleston’s Sculptor. For Sound and Vision, I researched not only the famous musicians who are featured in the pictures, but also the photographers who captured the unforgettable images of these stars. In many cases, these photographers were partly responsible for the artist’s fame. Dick Waterman (b. 1935)—who photographed Son House, Mississippi John Hurt, and B.B. King—also worked to revitalize the blues movement by seeking these artists out, recording them, and becoming a lifelong friend. Other times, photographers were hired for a shoot or two and ultimately captured the iconic photo that immediately comes to mind when thinking of a musician. Who can think of The Doors and Jim Morrison without picturing the black and white image by Joel Brodsky (1939–2007) of Morrison with arms outstretched, staring out at the viewer? Interestingly, some of the photographers describe these as dumb-luck shots, and were surprised by the monumental responses to them.

Though learning about the musicians featured in the photos was interesting, I was more fascinated with the accounts of the photographers. We usually don’t hear the stories from behind the camera when looking at portraiture. Gered Mankowitz (b. 1946), who photographed Jimi Hendrix in 1967, describes the relationship between photographer and musician as one that relies heavily on trust. These photographers were tasked not only with the capturing the likeness of their subjects, but also with conveying a sense of the musician’s personality and persona. I can’t wait to see the photographs in person and I’m sure it will be an incredibly impressive exhibition! Make sure to keep an eye on Facebook and Twitter for fun facts about the works of art on view this fall, and the related programs and events. Please join in the conversation!

Alice Van Arsdale, museum relations intern and guest blogger