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Meet Indie Memphis' new executive director (who once wanted to be a Beale Street Flipper)

Commercial Appeal Memphis logo Commercial Appeal Memphis 3/4/2021 John Beifuss, Memphis Commercial Appeal
a man wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera: Knox Shelton © Indie Memphis Knox Shelton

Indie Memphis has a new executive director.

Knox Shelton, a veteran nonprofit administrator who recently served four years as executive director of Literacy Mid-South, will lead the arts group that is best known for its annual Indie Memphis Film Festival, the organization's board announced Thursday morning.

Shelton was approved by the Indie Memphis board after what a press release called "an extensive five-month nationwide search." He will be the third salaried executive director in the history of the group, which last year hosted its 23rd film festival. 

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Shelton, 31, replaces Ryan Watt, who led Indie Memphis for five years before announcing his resignation to help launch a Memphis gelato company, Zio Matto. Watt was preceded by Erik Jambor, Indie Memphis executive director for seven years. Prior to Jambor, the organization had been run by volunteers.

"Film has been a passion of mine for my entire life," said Shelton, who officially begins his Indie Memphis job March 22. "I've long been a fan and supporter of Indie Memphis. Attending the festival was really my gateway to the organization."

Did he say "passion"? Asked to name his favorite films, Shelton demonstrated his cinephiliac bona fides by citing Victor Erice's "The Spirit of the Beehive," a 1973 Spanish film about a young girl who becomes fascinated with the Frankenstein monster; Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law," a 1986 indie comedy with Tom Waits and Roberto Benigni, and Agnès Varda's 1985 "Vagabond," a French drama that traces the tragic final days of a mysterious young woman.

Nevertheless, as executive director of Indie Memphis, his duties will be primarily organizational and administrative, with artistic director Miriam Bale largely overseeing the "curatorial" role of film programming.

Born in Jacksonville, Alabama, Shelton grew up in Knoxville and also lived in Virginia and Arkansas before moving to Memphis in 2012, following his graduation as a "classics" major at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, a small liberal arts school that has been described as "the Rhodes College of Arkansas."

Shelton said he moved to Memphis — a city he had visited often on family vacations — because he wanted to live here. "It's a true story but a little bit of a joke that for a while my dream job was to be a Beale Street Flipper," he said, "although I'm very far from being able to do any movements like that."

Shelton was an executive at Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Memphis before joining Literacy Mid-South some five years ago, eventually rising to the executive director role, which he resigned to take the Indie Memphis job. 

A 45-year-old organization, Literacy Mid-South works to promote reading and literacy skills, for adults as well as children. Shelton said he sees a connection Indie Memphis, which, according to its mission statement, works to "create community through independent film and support the development of filmmakers."

In the case of both organizations, "so much of our work is anchored in storytelling," Shelton said. He said film, like the written word, "has an amazing capacity to share perspective and to create empathy."

At Indie Memphis, Shelton actually will oversee a slightly smaller annual budget ($800,000, as compared to $1.2 million) and staff (Indie Memphis has eight paid positions) than he did at Literacy Mid-South.

Nevertheless, Indie Memphis — even in the era of the pandemic — maintains a robust schedule. The organization hosts regular "Virtual Cinema" screenings and Zoom-style public conversations with filmmakers while also making plans for such events as the annual festival, the Youth Film Fest and the Black Creators Forum and organizing its many grant programs for writers and filmmakers. 

Brett Robbs, president of the 17-member Indie Memphis board and head of the executive director search committee, said the fact that Shelton was in the organization's backyard all along did not suggest the board's search was not, in fact, "nationwide."

"We had applications from everywhere, from California to New York to Minnesota, so it was definitely a nationwide search," said Robbs, a former advertising executive. "The position is so important we wanted to make sure we looked everywhere to pick the best person, and we feel we did."

He said many candidates had extensive film knowledge or could boast executive experience, but few rivaled Shelton in combining a love of film with a proven track record in fundraising and administration.

"It's tricky to find a person with both those qualities," he said.

This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Meet Indie Memphis' new executive director (who once wanted to be a Beale Street Flipper)

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