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VOL. 125 | NO. 231 | Monday, November 29, 2010

Crosstown Arts Looks to Take City to Next Creative Level

STACEY WIEDOWER | Special to The Daily News

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As an arts community, Memphis is world-renowned. The city’s rich, bluesy culture is inextricably tied to its deep traditions in the visual and performing arts.

A newly formed nonprofit is working to take the city one step further – to establish Memphis not only as a strong arts community, but as a strong artists’ community.

And there’s a difference.

“Obviously a deeply rooted arts community already exists in Memphis,” said Christopher Miner, co-director of Crosstown Arts, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping grow a Memphis artists’ community and residence. “It’s represented by artists in all media in performance spaces, theaters, museums, galleries and book stores located from Downtown to Germantown, as well as the arts organizations that work to support artists and bring quality art to Memphis. An artists’ community is a specific place as much as a network.”

Miner and Crosstown Arts co-director Dr. Todd Richardson are taking cues from a similar initiative in another city: Providence, R.I.’s AS220 project. The group hosts a free lecture, “Leading a Cultural Renaissance in Providence, R.I., and What Memphis Can Learn From the Experience,” at the Crosstown Arts office at 427 N. Watkins St. Thursday. An opening reception begins at 6 p.m. and the lecture begins at 7 p.m.

Through AS220, arts leaders in Providence have transformed not only the city’s arts community, but entire neighborhoods. The 25-year-old group has grown from a grassroots organization that occupied one rented room to nationally recognized arts and cultural institution with three mixed-use buildings in downtown Providence.

For the lecture, Crosstown Arts is partnering with the University of Memphis Art Department to host AS220’s Umberto Crenca, who will discuss specific ways Providence has built a thriving community through the arts.

Miner and Richardson hope to see similar bridges built among artists living and working in Memphis. Among their goals, they hope to see the creation of a shared space where artists of all forms can create work, collaborate or experience each others’ work.

“The more diversity among artists the better: painters and playwrights, filmmakers and fiction writers, composers, printmakers and poets, sculptors, scholars, musicians and songwriters, with all levels of expertise and experience,” Miner said. “It can function as a kind of research and development lab for the arts, providing artists with the resources and equipment necessary for both the creation of new work and the exploration of new ideas through creative collaboration.”

Miner, a video artist with an MFA from Yale University, teamed up with Richardson, an assistant professor of art history at the U of M, to form Crosstown Arts when the two of them discovered they were working toward similar goals in different ways.

“As an artist interested in finding new ways to connect the broader art world with what is happening in the South, (Miner) had previously been working on creating an artist residency program in Mississippi,” Richardson said. “As an art historian at the U of M, I was also interested in the power of arts and culture for community and economic development.”

Among its early initiatives, Crosstown Arts has launched MemFeast, a public workshop on the arts that kicked off this fall with a dinner that featured presentations by seven artists on proposed community art projects. Attendees at the sold-out event cast votes for their favorite project, and winner Tommy Wilson received $1,500 to complete his project, titled “Bomb the Blight.”

“The success of the first MemFeast inspired us to keep it going,” Richardson said. “For the next event in February, we’re hoping to involve more people and reach a wider audience for the artists through a partnership with Memphis College of Art.”

The February dinner will be held in the unfinished fifth floor of MCA’s new Downtown graduate school.

Also, Crosstown Arts is planning a series of town hall-style meetings to get input on arts-related issues. In addition, the organization will offer tours of the former Sears Crosstown building in hopes of stimulating ideas for new uses there.

The organization also is working on a feasibility study on the potential need and financial viability of an artists’ community that would incorporate an artist residency program, exhibition/gallery space and art-making facilities, Miner said.

“The results of the study will determine our future,” he said. “We prefer that our decisions be driven by data as much as all our collective ideas, and we are taking a full year to research models in other cities, get community feedback and determine the best plan for Memphis.”

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