MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - The Mid-South is home to some of the most unique museums in the country, and this 5 Star Memphis museum is FORGING its recognition among the BEST. It’s a special place that turns iron and other seemingly unyielding metals into breathtaking gems of beauty.
Located just south of downtown — west of the historic French Fort district and former Fort Pickering locale, across from the two ceremonial Indian mounds in Chickasaw Heritage Park — once the fortress of Chief Chisca, and right next to a 1930s-era hospital building now under renovation, sits the Metal Museum.
As a matter of fact, three of the museum’s main buildings used to be part of the hospital complex next door.
According to the museum’s marketing manager, Kim Ward, the hospital closed in the early 1960s and very shortly thereafter, “It was given to the city of Memphis and then a lease was signed with us for the Metal Museum in 1976,” Ward says.
In 1979, after 2 years of renovations, the three old hospital buildings opened for business as the then Ornamental Metal Museum, and a blacksmith shop and foundry were built, shortly after that.
Blacksmith and artist James Wallace served as de facto “administrator, curator, mechanic, plumber, and reluctant fundraiser” for almost 30 years until 2007. But, it was his vision and leadership that brought the museum from one of an industry filled with architectural ironwork, like decorative railings and fences, into one that focuses on art.
And while the museum does still exhibit and collect more industry-related works, Ward says the focus has shifted, “... to more contemporary metalwork. So we not only have work by living artists, by blacksmiths, we also have caste work by foundry artists, we have jewelry artists and beyond that. So, I think a large part of what he contributed was, really, making this place sort of a gathering place for everyone in the metals field no matter what their focus was.”
Jim Masterson, a Missouri native, is the Metal Museum’s current lead designer, full-time blacksmith, and shop foreman who’s been with the museum for 20 years.
He joined the Memphis museum after teaching at a California college of art.
“It’s sort of the mecca for metalworking. I mean it seems like anybody who does jewelry work, metalsmithing, blacksmithing, foundry, fabrication — they all know where the metal museum is at. And during the Repair Days we get, last year I think we had 128 artists here from all over the country, so we get a lot of people who come to support the museum” he says, adding that the Metal Museum is the only museum in the country dedicated strictly to metal works of art.
Masterson also lives on the property in the Artists' Residence, which is one of the buildings from the hospital complex. And according to Ward, that residence also often houses visiting artists when they come for gallery talks or workshops.
“It’s become sort of a home to all of these artists, and it’s a place where they will come and share their knowledge with others and younger generations. And I think that’s part of what makes this place so special,” Ward explains.
And while many people might mistake this museum as one of history, Ward says it is so much more than that.
“It was always meant to be a space where you could not only see art displayed, but you could also see art being made. And that’s something that’s very special and unique to the place,” Ward said.
And though the foundry is closed now due to COVID-19, you can still see some truly amazing works of metal art. The library, another of the old hospital buildings, hosts wonders from the museum’s permanent collection.
Meantime, rotating exhibits are housed in the main building — the third building from the hold hospital complex — with plans for a “Fans Favorite” exhibit located on the 2nd floor in the not-too-distant future.
Just as breathtaking is what’s outside the museum, for which museum staff recently put together an audio tour.
“So, if you walk around the museum, you’ll see lots of different sculptures all over the grounds. We’ve created a tour that sort of gives more information about the history of those pieces, who those artists are, where they came from, when they were acquired, and how they were made,” Ward says.
In addition to all of the artistic and educational endeavors that happen here on this beautiful property, the Metal Museum also hosts events — from company soirees to outdoor weddings.
But according to Ward, “They’re much smaller, more intimate affairs now. And of course, we do have new restrictions in place because of COVID.”
However, the view from the 3-acre lot more than makes up for that. Ward says the museum sits on one of the highest points on the Mississippi River in all of Memphis.
“So of course we have stunning views of the Mississippi River,” Ward brags.
Mark Twain is alleged to have called the view of the river here the finest from Cairo to New Orleans. Whether true or not, or whether or not you’re in the mood for art, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen a sunset from the gazebo at the Metal Museum.
Incidentally, the Metal Museum’s Annual “Repair Days” fundraiser — when you’re invited to bring metal items in need of repair — is set for Oct. 22-24, with all proceeds going to support virtual exhibition tours, educational activity guides, demonstration videos, apprenticeships, and more at the museum.
But this year, due to COVID-19 you’ll have to SCHEDULE a Repair Day appointment. Click on this link https://www.metalmuseum.org/upcoming-events to sign up, or get information on classes and virtual demonstrations.