How Feldman's time in Memphis prepped the incoming National Gallery of Art director

By Updated: December 15, 2018 4:00 AM CT | Published: December 13, 2018 2:38 PM CT

Earlier this week Kaywin Feldman was named the first female director of the National Gallery of Art in the museum’s 77-year history – and nobody in Memphis was surprised.

Feldman, who officially will begin her tenure at the Washington, D.C., museum on March 11, served as director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art from 1999 to 2007.

“We are not surprised, but thrilled,” said Emily Ballew Neff, who now serves as president of the Brooks. 

"In the '90s, the Brooks had a revolving door and Kaywin came in and added a tremendous amount of continuity and professionalism," said Neff, who joined the institution in 2015.

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Neff called Feldman a terrific manager who focused on the visitor experience, engagement and education. She also described her as very nimble, very agile and a very, very effective manager of the Brooks Museum.

“She came in and really put important processes in place and helped professionalize it,” Neff said. “She stabilized the institution.”

Feldman hired Marina Pacini, the Brooks Museum’s chief curator and curator of American, modern and contemporary art, in 2001.

“What she brought to the institution was great passion for collections, for exhibitions, for scholarship, for staff and for the role of the museum in the city of Memphis,” Pacini said. “… She still has deep ties to the community and talks about her love of the place.”

Pacini said Feldman’s interest in art spans the chronology of the globe.

Some of the Brooks Museum's exhibitions during Pacini’s tenure included “Pictures Tell the Story: Ernest C. Withers” and “The Quilts of Gee’s Bend.” The museum later acquired the whole Withers exhibition.

Other Feldman acquisitions include the archives of “Memphis World,” a local historic African-American newspaper.

Feldman took advantage of the Memphis in May International Festival honoring South Korea in 2003 to commission a piece by South Korean artist Nam June Paik the previous year. The work, “Vide-O-Belisk,” features tube television sets and is housed in the museum’s rotunda.

“One of the reasons she commissioned that piece (is because) she was trying to put something in the rotunda,” Pacini said. “She wanted visitors, when they walked in, to immediately have an art experience.”

The Art Therapy Access Program, created under Feldman's tenure, is nationally recognized and one of the programs the museum is most proud of, Neff said. Through the program, participants engage in art-making with registered art therapists. It also includes museum tours and an exhibition of art therapy works.

James K. Patterson, who founded arts nonprofit Delta Axis and currently sits on the Brooks Museum’s board, said Feldman has a passion for art, is a problem solver and very nurturing to employees.

“She’s a terrific human being,” he said. “It’s such an honor to have participated in her career.”

“Kaywin is much beloved, and for good reason, in Memphis,” Neff said.

Feldman, a Boston native, received a B.A. in classical archaeology from the University of Michigan and an M.A. from the Institute of Archaeology at the University of London. At the latter, Feldman specialized in Dutch and Flemish art.

Memphis College of Art awarded Feldman an honorary doctorate in 2008.

MCA president Laura Hine said the college is pleased to learn Feldman will be the new National Gallery of Art director.

“While in Memphis, she made great strides for the arts and left an indelible and positive mark upon the community,” Hine said. “I'm sure she'll do the same at the National Gallery of Art.”

Feldman will be only the fifth director of the National Gallery of Art, which houses more than 150,000 works of Western art ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day.

More than 1,000 employees work at the museum and it has an annual attendance of more than 5.2 million. It presents more than 1,500 free public programs annually.

After leaving Memphis, Feldman joined the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where she serves as the Nivin and Duncan MacMillan director and president.


Memphis Brooks Museum of Art National Gallery of Art Minneapolis Institute of Art Kaywin Feldman Memphis College of Art
Elle Perry

Elle Perry

Elle Perry covers arts and culture and other news for the Daily Memphian. She is a native of Memphis and a two-time graduate of the University of Memphis. Elle previously worked for the Memphis Business Journal and has written for publications including The Memphis Flyer and High Ground News.

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