Soul Sessions Podcast: Ryan Dennis
On today's episode, Chief Curator and artistic Director for the Center for Art and Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, Ryan Dennis.
Ryan talks with Soul Sessions host Paul Wolf in today's episode.
IN THIS EPISODE:
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Paul: This is Soul Sessions, conversations on culture from Jackson, Mississippi. I'm your host, Paul Wolf, bringing you a look at the people, the places, and the events that make us the City With Soul.
And on today's show, Ryan Dennis is here. Ryan shares her passion for storytelling and the intersection of community and art, and her observations on Jackson. Plus, we get an inside look at the exhibition A Movement in Every Direction: Stories of the Great Migration.
Paul: Welcome, Ryan Dennis. She is the chief curator and artistic director for the Center for Art and Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. Whoo, that's a mouthful, Ryan! I'm so glad you're here.
Ryan: Hi, Paul. So nice to be here with you and share space. It is a mouthful, and you aced it; good for you!
Paul: Well, thank you very much! I know you've been a very busy person for the past many, many months, but especially the past several weeks. Because we have a major art exhibition opening at the Mississippi Museum of Art. We're going to talk about that, but I first want to know a little more about you, and about the work you do.
Ryan: Yeah. I am a curator and a writer and an advocate for artists and communities of color. I've been in Mississippi now for two years. Actually, it will be two years in June. So I'm approaching my two-year mark.
Ryan: And prior to being here, I was in Houston, Texas, and in different parts of the country like New York. I've been working in the arts for over a decade or so. I don't want to share too much of the timeline because then everyone will start wondering how old I am, and that's always the best-kept secret.
But I have worked with artists to realize specific projects and exhibitions, and done a lot of community-based work along the way. My time here has been really beautiful, to A), understand the Jackson community; but also delve deeper into the vision and strategic goals of Betsy Bradley, who's our director and the kind of the leadership that she is envisioning for the museum with the community of Jackson.
I really have been focused on a hyperlocal visibility and exchange with Jacksonians, and it's been really exciting. I have to say a bit challenging, right? Because I moved here in the middle of a pandemic. So it feels like just now, really, I'm able to get out and meet people really one on one. A lot of my time here has been via Zoom. But people have been extremely welcoming, and it's allowed me to understand Jackson in a way that maybe I wouldn't have if I just jumped in upon arriving.
Paul: There's a way that community and conversation and art all intersect. And this is an important segue to talk about the exhibit coming up opening the weekend of April 8th and 9th at the Mississippi Museum of Art, "The Great Migration."
Just briefly, an overview, Ryan, of what this exhibit is all about, and the goals you're trying to accomplish with this groundbreaking exhibition.
Ryan: Yeah. So the exhibition is "A Movement in Every Direction: Legacies of the Great Migration." It's co-curated by my colleague at the Baltimore Museum of Art, Jessica Bell Brown, and myself.
Ryan: We have been working on this show for about two years, really thinking about The Great Migration as this historical phenomenon that has had deep reverberations with artists and people for years.
One thing people talk about with The Great Migration is this narrative that people left the South and went North. But we're really trying to be more expansive in how people understand The Great Migration: in that a lot of people actually stayed in the South.
They went from one southern city to another southern city, what we're calling intra-migration. We're taking a look at that intra-southern migration, thinking about westward movement, thinking about and encouraging ways that we can have a conversation, a storytelling around self-determination, agency, land ownership, the community, the social networks that were built from a moment like The Great Migration.
This exhibition is a commission with 12 artists from across the country that all have deep ties to the South: Mississippi, Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Houston, et cetera. And we are really excited. Next weekend the show opens on April 9th to the public, and we have a number of public programs that are kicking off our opening weekend, which start on Friday, April 8th.
I'm really honored to have gone on this journey with Jessica Bell Brown and our teams from both the MMA and the Baltimore Museum of Art. But also with the artists who really opened up themselves to talk about their personal ties, and the reasons why they do what they do, and how they do, based off of a family history.
Paul: We're going to put links to this exhibition in our Show Notes. Ryan, I know that this is here through the fall, then it goes to Baltimore for a number of months. Jackson is proud to be the first stop, the originator of this exhibition. So Jackson folks need to come out and see this. And I know it will draw people from all over the country.
Speaking of which, I'm going to go a little lighter here on you. You've been here a couple of years now. You've maybe found some of your favorite spots that you love to frequent. If you brought family and friends in town to see "A Movement in Every Direction," where might you take them if you have a little free time to get them around Jackson?
Ryan: Great question. Okay. I start my day Saturday, so we'll just act like this is a Saturday. I start my day at the farmer's market, because it's the one place that really keeps me grounded. And I love meeting all the local farmers. It's like my shrimp guy is there, get really great honey there. So farmer's market, for sure.
Ryan: I would likely also visit the Two Museums because it's right around the way from the farmer's market. They have this beautiful building and wonderful exhibitions and great leadership there.
Ryan: I will likely also go to Elvie's for brunch, because Elvie's is a fantastic restaurant. And I feel like at this point it's like a extension of community at Elvie's. A new favorite place that I've also taken quite a bit of a liking to is Johnny T's.
Ryan: Have you heard of this place on Farish Street?
Paul: Oh, of course.
Ryan: So I didn't realize how delicious Johnny T's was, and I've been going over there for a snack of macaroni and cheese and collard greens.
Ryan: Yeah. Since we would already be on Farish Street, we just launched an intervention of Shani Peters' Artists in Residency Program, the Collective Care Internal Pages. That is a public artwork on a block at Farish Street. So I will likely take folks there.
Ryan: And I would probably end the day kind of calm, like picnicking at the reservoir. Just taking a moment by the water and getting into nature. And then heading back home.
Paul: Sounds like a perfect day to me. Ryan, what makes Jackson such a special place to you?
Ryan: The people. The people here are what makes Jackson so special. And I think just being able to literally ground one's feet in the dirt here, and understanding how fertile this environment is, the land ... it is really quite special.
I feel like I'm so much more connected to my maternal grandmother here. I garden, and I do all types of new things that I've desired to do for such a long time. But I've always lived in a major city, and it just didn't work out. There's a kind of pace here; it's slow, you can take your time and be a bit more methodical, but also leisurely. And that's really nice.
Paul: We'll put links to you and the work you do here in Jackson. And of course, "A Movement in Every Direction: Stories of The Great Migration" exhibition. It opens next weekend at the Mississippi Museum of Art. That'll all be in our show notes.
Chief curator and artistic director for the Center for Art and Public Exchange at the Mississippi Museum of Art, Ryan Dennis, thank you so much for being here today.
Ryan: Thank you for having me. I really look forward to seeing everyone in the galleries.
Paul: Soul Sessions is a production of Visit Jackson. Our executive producers are Jonathan Pettus and Rickey Thigpen. To learn more about our organization and mission, head to visitjackson.com.
I'm your host, Paul Wolf. You've been listening to Soul Sessions.