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VOL. 125 | NO. 186 | Friday, September 24, 2010

Event Spurs Crosstown Dreams

JONATHAN DEVIN | Special to The Daily News

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Some dreamers hope to save the world. Others just want to change one neighborhood for the better.

Todd Richardson and Christopher Miner, co-directors of the nonprofit Crosstown Arts, believe that rallying artists in an underdeveloped Midtown neighborhood will draw new businesses, residents and community pride under the looming shadow of the vacant Sears Tower.

The product of their vision, an event titled MemFEAST, will take place Oct. 1 at the Crosstown Arts office at 427 N. Watkins St. FEAST is an acronym for Funding Emerging Artists with Sustainable Tactics.

“We borrowed (the name) from another organization in Brooklyn where these kinds of events started,” said Richardson. “We decided it was inspiring enough

that Memphis should have its own version.”

At the $25-a-plate dinner, attendees will hear and vote on proposals from artists hoping to win a $1,500 prize that will be used to fund the creation of an engaging community arts project.

The $1,500 comes directly from admission revenue. The winner will have three months to create the piece.

“We’re still meeting people, but everybody (in the neighborhood) is extremely positive,” said Richardson. “MemFEAST is sold out now. We have 75 reservations and between 15 and 20 art proposals, which is more than we expected.”

A committee will jury all of the proposals, which include murals, installations, arts festivals, and even performance pieces, and select seven to be presented at MemFEAST.

“I think unless you have someone with gall enough to dream in an outlandish way then nothing American ever happens,” said John Weeden, executive director of the UrbanArt Commission.

Weeden said that grassroots neighborhood arts initiatives are on the rise, and for a number of reasons, they can be successful in luring businesses into blighted areas.

For one, the cost of creating art is relatively low, and when members of a community pool their resources to fund it, it creates a sense of community pride.

Art pieces help neighborhoods create visible identities and cultures that,

in turn, can help businesses brand themselves.

Public art also wards off vandalism and other signs of blight.

“(Drawing in new businesses) is a bona fide result of not only art and design, but the general greening of neighborhoods,” Weeden said. “Part and parcel of the same ethic is if you take care of your neighborhood, your culture and its distinctiveness, people are going to respond. It’s about making a place where people want to be a part.”

Oddly, neither Richardson nor Miner lives in Crosstown. The two met during their undergrad years and reconnected about a year ago while Miner was forming a similar arts residency program in Clarksdale, Miss.

Richardson teaches art history at the University of Memphis. Miner is a video artist with an MFA from Yale.

The beauty of the Sears Tower and the possibility of someday turning it into a multi-use retail and arts space with multiple tenants entranced both of the men.

“We are inspired by what the Sears building represents for Memphis,” said Miner. “It’s this huge, beautiful possibility. Not knowing whether it’s feasible or not (to use the Sears building), we still thought this is an amazing neighborhood. Some of the spaces just look like they’re asking to be turned into galleries.”

“If you look at the storefronts on the east side of Cleveland, everything between the Sears building and the Jehovah’s

Witness theater – with the exception of the flea market – every single space is empty,” said Richardson. “And they’re great spaces.”

The group defined the neighborhood as bordered by Jackson Avenue to the north, Union Avenue to the south, the I-240 loop to the west, and undefined on the east.

Crosstown Arts, the sole sponsor of MemFEAST, was founded in May and just got its 501(c)3 nonprofit status in mid-September.

“Our mission or premise for this year is to do a feasibility study and take our ideas and spend the time and energy on researching best practices from other programs in other cities and why they work,” said Miner.

Both Richardson and Miner are frank about their project being a drop in the bucket of the area’s needs.

“Do we have any fantasy that this one event will change anything? Not by any means,” Richardson said. “We hope that this will be a series of events. Every movement has to start somewhere.”

But Weeden points to national programs with the same general premise, such as Kickstarter.com, which funds small-scale arts projects, and said that dreamers often do make a difference.

“This is a couple of dreamers who have some big ideas and the ‘why-the-hell-not’ attitude,” said Weeden. “In Memphis, we have a lot of history with that. Rock ‘n’ roll is ‘why-the-hell-not.’ Fred Smith is ‘why-the-hell-not.’

“Memphis has proven that that question can be a great motivator.”

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