Kate: First, I’m super curious to hear how initial conversations about producing a Triennial event in Tennessee even came about. What a crazy undertaking! My husband is a visual artist and I can tell you there’s already lots of excitement in the community, even though the show doesn’t open until 2021. Word travels fast. Is the concept of organizing a massive, comprehensive show like this something you’ve considered for a while or did it come up quickly?
Brian: Everything officially started in December of 2014 when my wife Carolyn Jobe and I founded the organization Tri-Star Arts. We started out with the question, “What’s missing in Tennessee?”. We knew there was a lot of contemporary art activity in the state, but not many people were aware of that. We identified a need for a single web resource (locatearts.org) to find the best art exhibitions on view as well as the top contemporary artists practicing across the state. The idea of a large-scale exhibition for the state was always a part of the initial vision as well.
After spending most of your life in Tennessee, you moved away for several years. What brought you back?
I grew up in Memphis, Tennessee and met my wife Carolyn, who’s from Nashville, while completing a degree at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. From there I attended graduate school at the University of Texas at San Antonio and lived there for a total of four years, followed by over a year in New York City. We were really energized by those five years away and our experiences in those art scenes. Returning to Knoxville in 2009, our first priority was to meet people and connect. We wanted to know the Tennessee art scene as arts professionals.
To better achieve our goals of uniting the state through visual art, we moved from Knoxville to Nashville in the summer of 2016. Being centrally located allowed us to traverse the entire state more easily while serving as a central base of operations for our family. What we didn’t know is that within six months, we would agree to merge with another nonprofit, Seed Space, and run those programs in addition to our other initiatives. It slowed down the Triennial planning, but it paved the way for our regular public programs including exhibitions and a speaker series that bridges the digital space of our web resource and the major yet intermittent event of the Triennial. We reconfigured our annual programming to become collaborative exhibition projects and visiting speaking events across the state to underscore both our statewide focus and our mission to spotlight existing arts institutions.
As someone also working in arts administration, I’d love to hear about experiences in your career that have given you the confidence to take on such a massive project. This is a whole other ballgame than your beginnings in a studio practice.
There have been a lot of things that led to this moment in our professional careers. I’ve taught college art courses for over a dozen years, but I also spent time working at Blue Star Contemporary in San Antonio, the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and the Knoxville Museum of Art. Those were all insightful experiences and someone who was particularly inspiring was my boss at the Blue Star Contemporary, native Memphian and incredible artist, Bill FitzGibbons. He’s been in San Antonio since the mid-1980s, and he was the executive director at Blue Star during my time there. Observing both the scope of his job and the way he engaged the public taught me so many things. He was always talking to all kinds of people across the city and was a great model for networking on behalf of an organization. I really internalized my observations in ways I can draw on now as a networker and communicator.
Carolyn was an administrator and graphic designer for the Chelsea Music Festival in New York when it was founded. She worked with them for four yearsn and gained unique insights into what the early years of starting a nonprofit looked like. So, when we started our nonprofit together, we could combine the valuable insights and knowledge her experiences provided. We’re also very encouraged to have had Andrea Zieher join our team as the Director of the Tennessee Triennial. She moved down here from New York this past spring, though she officially began in her role at the beginning of the year. She ran ZieherSmith Gallery in NYC along with her husband Scott Zieher for over 15 years in addition to serving as past-President of NADA: New Art Dealers Alliance. She was also an original member of our board of directors, beginning in that role in April 2015, so she’s been a supporter of our vision from the very beginning.
In my experience, something about the Tennessee art community – Memphis in particular –sets itself apart from other states. At least the couple of places I’ve been involved. How did your experience living and working in other major U.S. cities impact the way you’re organizing the Tennessee Triennial? What was the take away?
It was a huge benefit to see different styles of programming happening within a variety of organizations and places. In particular, Texas is a place that identifies as a state art scene. Like in Tennessee, Texans love their hometown and there is a sense of city rivalry within the state, but they’re more than willing to engage a statewide perspective when art is concerned. In Tennessee, as well as Texas, intentional art programming like what we’re doing fosters a community that has an interest in its broader local region and identifies with a wider scope of cultural focus. And in New York City, we saw firsthand the power that contemporary art holds when it’s always present in a variety of spheres (business, education, philanthropy, entertainment). The main thing we took away from both experiences was the possibility to connect art communities across the nation to our local scene, and that relationships are at the heart of contemporary art growth and innovation.
As far as artist selection goes, we’re talking about a massive number of people and artwork to sieve through. That’s got to be daunting. How are you selecting artists for the exhibition? Juried call for entry?
The Tennessee Triennial is a curator-driven exhibition similar to what you see with Prospect New Orleans and Front International in Cleveland. Each Triennial will have a different curatorial team that researches artists and artworks to develop a cohesive vision for the show. They may already be familiar with some artists they select, while they may conduct their first studio visits with others who they discover in the course of their research. We’ve just recently announced our two curators.
I saw that! Lauren Haynes of Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas, and Teka Selman, an independent curator from Durham, North Carolina. Congratulations on reaching such a milestone in the process!
They are absolutely amazing professionals, and we are so excited to be working with them. In the case of the Triennial, Tennessee artists will be a part of the show, but it is truly a national triennial that will feature exceptional art from across the country. When people discover excellent work by Tennessee artists in the Triennial, they’ll see it in context with all the other great works made by artists from across the U.S.
It’s a little premature, but when do you think you’ll publish a list of the artists included in the exhibition? I assume that’s one of the most frequent questions you’re being asked.
You can expect to see that information sometime next year.
So exciting. In closing, tell me what your main goals are for the year following the Triennial. What do you want people to be saying about the exhibition and the work you’re doing with contemporary art?
In the state of Tennessee, I’d like locals to be more familiar with all of the places they can see art and discover artists practicing in the state. The Triennial will take place in over a dozen venues in three cities simultaneously, but our aim is for it to feel like a complete and coherent show in each individual city, as well as a sort of treasure hunt where you feel inspired to venture to other areas of the state to see the show in its totality. Maybe it’s places you’ve thought, “Ah, I always meant to go there” and the Triennial provides a compelling reason to finally get there. Nationally, it should highlight Tennessee as a visual arts destination, making people aware that this place is more nuanced and complex than you knew. We’d like to join in the wider conversations happening in other Middle-American biennials and triennials as well as the myriad and growing art scenes defining the country. The age of digital communication is doing so much to decentralize the major urban art centers from the coasts and bringing focus to the interior of the country. That’s what we feel we’re kind of caught up in — in a really exciting way.
Kate Renner is Associate Director of Education at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
Brian Jobe is the Co-Executive Director of Tri-Star Arts whose core programs are Locate Arts and the Tennessee Triennial for Contemporary Art, coming February 5 – May 2, 2021.