The Commercial Appeal

S. Main leader in arts scene is dead

Mcgowan was also Vietnam veteran, writer

- By Fredric Koeppel

Robert McGowan, South Main homesteade­r and founder and director of the short-lived but influentia­l Memphis Center for Contempora­ry Art, died at his home in Cooper-Young Thursday night after a long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 65.

Mr. McGowan, an artist who rarely exhibited in Memphis, launched the Memphis Center for Contempora­ry Art at 416 S. Main in 1988, in a storefront building next to the building that he and his first wife, Annie Mahaffey, bought in 1981 and renovated.

The nonprofit gallery showed the work of more than 100 local and regional artists, mounted two video and performanc­e art series and cosponsore­d four profession­al art forums.

Don Estes, who along with Mr. McGowan and Cory Dugan founded the quarterly arts journal NUMBER: in 1987, described his friend’s contributi­on to the local art community as invaluable. “Robert had a purpose with MCCA, and that was to show contempora­ry art in a way that had not been done in Memphis. The idea was to be nonprofit and noncommerc­ial and to focus on artists who deserved the exposure.”

MCCA closed in February 1991, primarily due to a lack of funding.

“Robert’s relationsh­ip with the (Memphis) Arts Council was abrasive. He could be hard-headed,” said Estes. “He was pretty adamant about keeping the whole thing pure. The aspiration was noble, but the money wasn’t there.”

Mr. McGowan left South Main after the shuttering of MCCA and divorce from Mahaffey.

“We owe Robert a debt of gratitude that I’m sure was never fully expressed,” said Jeff Sanford, who headed the City Center Commission from 1998 to 2010.

“He had a vision for South Main when most people couldn’t see from one building to the other.”

Mr. McGowan never completely gave up art, but for the past decade he devoted himself to fiction, concentrat­ing on his experience­s in Vietnam, where he served with the Ninth Infantry Division in 1968 and 1969. He published works in a variety of magazines and journals and brought out several books of short stories.

Survivors include his wife, Peggy McGowan; parents, Robert and Ellen McGowan; and sister, Beth McGowan; all of Memphis.

No formal service is planned.

The family will receive visitors at the gallery of Bert Sharpe and Patti Lechman, where a retrospect­ive exhibition of Mr. McGowan’s work is on display Sunday from 1 to 3 p.m., 344 S. Main. In lieu of flowers, memorial donations may be made to Methodist Hospice, 6400 Shelby View Drive, Suite 101, Memphis 38134

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