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VOL. 119 | NO. 144 | Friday, August 12, 2005

New Arts Association Forms Downtown

Group promotes, addresses needs of growing arts community

LANCE ALLAN | The Daily News

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BUZZ OF ACTIVITY: The South Main Arts District has experienced rapid growth in recent years as Downtown residential and commercial activity flourishes. -- The Daily News File Photo

Downtown is more than just business, sports, entertainment and condominium development. It's also a place where the visual arts are flourishing, particularly in the South Main Arts District.

A new voice. To create public awareness of the growing Downtown arts community - and to provide a voice for its artists - a team of Memphians has launched a professional association specifically for members of this community. The Memphis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association got its charter earlier this summer. Based on a similar organization in Indianapolis, the group is open to artists, galleries, art-related businesses and art dealers who work or live Downtown.

Downtown gallery owners and proprietors have been meeting informally for several years. The group decided the time was right to create an official organization.

"Several of us have known for a while that we needed to have a real, formal organization with mechanisms in place to move things along," said Arnold Thompson, artist and owner of UniversalArt Gallery in the South Main Arts District, and also the first president of the association. "When you have it in an informal situation, things can stay on the table for way too long because there is nothing in place to move them along systematically. This association gives artists and people who sell art a unified voice that they can sit at the table with in all kinds of situations and have real representation based on the needs and opinions and desires of the group."

Model organization. The catalyst for MDADA was an April trip to Indianapolis by a delegation of Memphians involved in the arts.

"We knew this was going to have to happen, and it was just really timely to go to Indianapolis and find that, along with many other wonderful things, this was a really good model," Thompson said of the Indianapolis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association. "We're tweaking it and making it fit our situation specifically, but 90 percent of it is a good model for us to use just as it is."

ARTS ADVOCATE: Arnold Thompson, artist and owner of UniversalArt Gallery in the South Main Arts Dis-trict, serves as the first president of the Memphis Downtown Artists and Dealers Association. -- Photograph By Lance Allan

The Indianapolis organization focuses on art galleries, art-related businesses and artists within a 20-block area in the center of the city.

Flourishing community. In Memphis' case, the group extends to the river to the west, Crump Boulevard to the south, Chelsea Avenue to the north and Marshall Avenue to the east. The association addresses the special needs of the Downtown art community, particularly the growing arts district.

"The South Main Arts District has so much going on down here, and we want to make sure that we don't get left behind," said Mary Cork, gallery director at Glasshouse 383 and the association's vice president. "All the development happening on South Main, the main reason that South Main has gotten the reputation for being this artsy, cool area is because it started out as a real artsy, cool area."

Group goals. MDADA has several short-term goals. With a core membership so far of 15, the group has committees to address membership, public relations and bylaw formation. The group is looking to grow - associate memberships are available for members of the arts community who do not work or live Downtown - but for now, its numbers are expected to stay low.

"We want to keep a manageable group together while we're forming it, and then once we get going, we'll certainly welcome as many new members as we can get," Thompson said. "Right now, we just want to set up a framework with a manageable number of people. With that being said, we've made open calls to our meetings. Up to this point, we've included whoever comes."

Cork said one of the association's first objectives is to get an artists' directory in place, as well as a Web site.

"We want to start out with the basics," she said. "I think really we want to focus on helping artists start out in the Memphis arts community and have an organization that they know they can go to that is going to promote awareness of them as artists and also provide a place where they can meet other people that could probably help them do things. There's so much we could do."

Downtown destination. South Main has come a long way as an arts destination in recent years. At last month's Friday Night Art Trolley Tour - which runs from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. the last Friday of every month - many gallery owners said the event attracted its biggest crowd ever.

But the new association recognizes that more can be done to help the area grow - similar to what has occurred in Indianapolis. Cork, who grew up in Indiana, said Indianapolis' vibrant arts scene is a relatively new development.

"What they're doing now is a drastic turnaround," she said. "That city is really focused on the arts now. It really took this organization, IDADA, and also having city government that was really involved with wanting to get the funding for different things popping up all over town.

"We're starting out simply."

Catalyst to growth. Carissa Hussong, director of the Memphis UrbanArt Commission, said the creation of an association like MDADA is crucial to the growth of the Downtown arts scene, and it will play a part in promoting art-related tourism.

"There is a need for collectively looking at cultural tourism and how to make that happen," Hussong said. " South Main has such a strong group of people, and it's good that they're working together."

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