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VOL. 117 | NO. 88 | Monday, May 5, 2003

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South Main art tours draw repeat visitors

South Main art tours draw repeat visitors


The Daily News

Open houses combined with free trolley rides have generated a great deal of foot traffic along Downtowns South Main corridor and inside its numerous art galleries.

Although last months fourth annual spring arts festival drew many visitors to the area, its the three years of free, three-hour art trolley tours held the last Friday of every month that have taught residents to recognize the talent of local artists and increased most galleries business activity, community members said.

The trolley tours themselves do not necessarily increase business while they are going on, they have more of a party atmosphere, and people arent interested in carrying pieces of art around at that time, said Tim Pierce, president of Thames gallery at 508 S. Main St. But, what they do accomplish is they get people back later on when they are serious about purchasing a piece or working on a project.

Jay Etkin, owner of Jay Etkin Gallery at 409 S. Main, echoed Pierces observations.

It was Etkin and another South Main gallery owner and artist, Ephraim Urevbu a native Nigerian who initiated the tours, which attract 2,500 or more people each month.

The trolley tours were a hit from the start, Etkin said. But they have been most effective in the long run, because they have gotten more people down here who live in the suburbs and had no idea.

The tours have absolutely helped.

Etkin said he normally arranges unveiling of new exhibits in his gallery one week prior to trolley tour dates for optimum marketing exposure.

The challenge is always getting people for that first visit down here, he said.

Many area residents hold an outdated stereotype of the area one that associated the district with vacant buildings and crime, Etkin said.

But, it only takes one brief visit to alter that perception, he added.

Catherine Sparkman of Southaven, Miss., made a special effort to attend Saturdays festival after remembering how much she enjoyed her first tour of the art galleries during one of the Friday-night events last year.

She said she enjoyed the overall hospitality of the galleries, which often offer complimentary snacks and glasses of wine during the tours.

It was just a neat experience mingling with the crowds and seeing some wonderful paintings, she said. The nice thing about it is that there arent any admission fees, which is what you think of when you think about the value of art.

With its galleries and numerous other businesses, the district is a hidden treasure tucked away Downtown, Sparkman said.

Olivia Cornwell, however, was busy last Monday closing her gallery at 503 S. Main, which opened in October.

She said the tours brought visitors into her gallery, but didnt yield many sales for her business. She believes the crowds dont appreciate the cost of keeping small galleries open.

Other nearby cities with active art communities, such as Little Rock, Ark. where Cornwell manages another gallery also offer community art shows.

But, many are designed as private showings only, Cornwell said.

Pierce said while other art communities in cities similar in size to Memphis such as Nashville have art walks quarterly, he believes having them every month is an advantage for Memphis arts district.

People count on it every month, and dont have to search for its calendar dates, he said. We are doing it the right way. Its fun, upbeat and the crowds get bigger each time.

Aaron Frye, associate director of Durden Gallery, 408 S. Front St., said the crowds that frequent the trolley tours today differ markedly from the visitors who first enjoyed the tours three years ago.

The crowd has changed since its inception, he said. I think they are now more appreciative of art they are more familiar with it now and arent just here to see what the hubbub is about.

Durden Gallery moved from South Main to the corner of Front and Huling Avevue less than a year ago. Frye said the move represents what he sees as a continual transformation of the district. He predicts more galleries will occupy the myriad of vacant building space within a few blocks of South Main in coming years.

Also flourishing in the area is construction of new apartments and condominiums.

Pierce said new nearby housing has brought more clients to his gallery, and has added to the clientele of interior design firms in the district.

Etkin said aside from generating more business for the galleries, the increased traffic in the district brought by the tours is causing more people to inquire about renting the gallery spaces for wedding receptions, parties and fund-raising events.

We feel like the area is very established, but there are a great number of Memphians who see it as a fluke and say it wont last, Pierce said. A few businesses close down and the pessimistic people say, See, I told you so.

But for those of us who are committed to the vision, we are confident. We know that Rome wasnt built in a day.


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