Scene Change

How the arts landscape in Memphis is changing

By Andy Meek

Roger Pryor with Grinder Taber & Grinder cuts pipes to install plumbing in Crosstown Arts' new location inside Crosstown Concourse. Crosstown Arts will occupy the first and second floors in the oldest portion of the old Sears building at North Watkins and North Parkway. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)

The sprawling mixed-use complex opening next month on North Cleveland in Midtown is a high-profile example of where Memphis’ art community finds itself at the halfway mark in 2017.

When Crosstown Concourse opens there Aug. 19, it won’t just represent a new beginning that turns a former Sears distribution center into a 1.5-million-square-foot community mainstay. With tenants like Crosstown Arts moving in, the development is also a representation of how the city’s arts landscape is changing this year.

That’s always true from one year to the next. But that landscape is in the process of changing significantly – changing, as in literally and physically – at the moment.

Projects like the long-awaited opening of Crosstown, which will come a little less than a century after the original building held its grand opening in August 1927, promise new ways to support and to enjoy the arts in the city. Others include Ballet Memphis, which is hosting a grand opening celebration Aug. 26 for its new headquarters in the Overton Square arts and entertainment district. It will host a month-long series of programming leading up to that opening.

These and other developments come at a time when some arts stakeholders in the city are grappling with changing priorities and funding scenarios that make running their organizations a constant balancing act.

Here’s a partial look at what’s in store for the city’s arts landscape, and how it will look a bit different just a few months from now:

CROSSTOWN ARTS is preparing to shift most of its operation into the Concourse itself, while retaining its 430 N. Cleveland St. space as a community gallery that can be rented out by anyone for art events. The organization will still be holding youth workshops in its “story booth” space at 438 N. Cleveland.

Its Crosstown Arts organized exhibitions, though, will be housed inside Crosstown Concourse.

The $10.3 million Rosa Deal School of Arts at Christian Brothers University is preparing the next generation of artists in numerous disciplines. (Memphis News File/Andrew J. Breig)

“Our main gallery spaces are going to be moving into the building, and we’re going to have two main, big galleries,” said Crosstown Arts communications coordinator Bianca Phillips. “So it’ll be four times more gallery space than we have right now.”

She said the organization will also have a dedicated music room in the building where it can host concerts, as well as a screening room for art films.

Crosstown Arts is also building a 450-seat theater outside and adjacent to Crosstown Concourse set for a 2018 opening.

“We’ll also have a cafe and bar area,” Phillips said. “The reason we’re going to have a cafe is we’re going to have this arts residency program, and we wanted to have a space where the artists who come to stay here can get some free meals as part of the residency, but that cafe will also be open to the general public.”

Crosstown Arts was approved for an $11 million tax-exempt bond from the Center City Revenue Finance Corp. to fund construction of the theater.

“Our artist residency program is going to be a year-round multidisciplinary residency, and we’ll have studio space in the building for the resident artists as well as living space,” Phillips said.

Crosstown Arts will also run a shared art-making facility that she described as a little like a gym for artists. Artists will pay a membership fee and get to come in and use things like professional woodshop equipment and a digital lab. In addition to these and other features of the organization’s presence inside the Concourse itself, Crosstown Arts will also continue to host neighborhood events and festivals.

Ballet Memphis' new location will be a beacon at the corner of Madison Avenue and Cooper Street in Overton Square. (Memphis News/Houston Cofield)


BALLET MEMPHIS, meanwhile, has what you might say is something of a busy August planned.

Steven McMahon, the organization’s associate artistic director, said dancers start back to work Aug. 1, and Ballet Memphis is offering a free week of classes the week after that for children and adults. Ballet school starts again on Aug. 14, and officials will cut the ribbon at its new $21 million, 38,000-square-foot headquarters Aug. 24, with a donor thank-you event Aug. 25 followed by the community grand opening the next day.

Designed by archimania, the new facility replaces the former French Quarter hotel on the northeast corner of Madison Avenue and Cooper Street, so it will stand out as an anchor property in Overton Square.

“I think that moving to Midtown, particularly that intersection and having our headquarters there, it puts us at the center of the city in a way that helps us expand our reach,” McMahon said. “We can keep offering the best of what we do, but then we can look to the future to think about how we can continue to connect the community, offer things we may not even know of yet, and to be where the energy in Memphis continues to change.”

He is hoping the new headquarters allows Ballet Memphis to find a new audience and attract people who didn’t know they were interested in dance or Pilates as fitness, as well as those who decide to send their kids to ballet school or dance school.

And the development keeps coming.

Not far from Ballet Memphis’ new facility, on the campus of Christian Brothers University, the $10.3 million ROSA DEAL SCHOOL OF THE ARTS opened this year. Among other amenities, it has writing labs, theater rehearsal rooms and studios for the visual arts to educate and train the next generation of artists in numerous disciplines.

The URBANART COMMISSION is joining the new tenants at Crosstown Concourse. The Hattiloo Theatre in Overton Square also opened a two-story second building adjacent to its facility – the Hattiloo Theatre Development Center – in recent months.

Downtown’s SOUTH MAIN ARTSPACE LOFTS are in development now, with completion of that project coming in 2018 when it will start making affordable housing available for artists and professional creatives.

According to Alyssa Kelley, a project manager for property development with Artspace, the project will include 58 units of affordable housing for artists and their families in a neighborhood with a need for affordable residential and artist studio space. “Memphis,” she said, “is home to countless artists and creatives, many of whom need safe, affordable and accessible space for living and working.”

ArtsMemphis president and CEO Elizabeth Rouse points out that the big projects like these and others don’t mean things aren’t happening at the neighborhood level as well. She points to things like the ORANGE MOUND GALLERY at the corner of Lamar Avenue and Airways Boulevard, which is a new visual arts space that’s used as a community hub so that local artists have a space to showcase their work but where community conversations and shared experiences also happen.


While the city’s arts scene keeps seeing new additions, there’s always a need for more support to be steered that way.

“I think there’s a huge opportunity for more support and especially for more value of the arts as not just an extra but really a critical part of our city, and a tool for addressing some of the challenges we face,” Rouse said.

“There are some pretty significant things happening now that weren’t happening five or 10 years ago. One of those is through ArtsMemphis we now have a grant program for visual artists. It’s called ArtsAccelerator, and through it we provide about $35,000 a year to artists directly. I think funders are beginning to look at how they support the arts, and support expanding and opening up access to funding.”

Since 2013, ArtsMemphis’ ArtsAccelerator has served more than 300 artists and awarded more than $100,000 in grants. The $35,000 awarded in fiscal year 2017 went to six local artists.

Investing in a community’s arts sector is important for many reasons. Key Public Strategies principal Kerry Hayes cites an estimate from Americans for the Arts, which says that for every dollar of public funds spent on the arts or arts-related projects, $9 of private-sector capital, will follow.

The UrbanArt Commission was the focus of a proposed Memphis City Council resolution that sought to take the public art component of the commission and bring it in-house to be run by the city’s Division of Parks and Neighborhoods, Hayes notes.

When Rouse says there’s an opportunity in Memphis to do more in support of the arts, the UrbanArt Commission would appear to be one of the starting points. One of the commission’s murals or sculptures is usually a strong early signal that a neighborhood or district is ripe for other types of economic activity and investment, Hayes says.

At press time, the city council had not yet taken final action on that public art proposal involving UrbanArt.

“I do think that public art and artists in the city benefit from there being a singular focus around the development of public art,” said the commission’s executive director, Lauren Kennedy. “This is what we do all day, every day. (At the city) there’s going to be competing priorities and needs and resources that the parks department will have to continue to administer outside of this program.”

Putting several hundred thousand dollars’ worth of city funding at risk wouldn’t mean the end of the UrbanArt Commission, Kennedy stressed, though it would be a significant blow. What it amounts to is the other side of the coin at a time when arts support in the city is ascendant – at a time when recognition of the value of art is high and rising higher.

But that work, of course, is never done.

“The arts are changing the DNA of city in really wonderful, disruptive ways,” Hayes said. “I think the most encouraging shift in thinking I've witnessed over the past several years as it relates to this is the growing realization that arts and design aren't separate from our city's larger agendas, like public safety, economic development, and blight abatement – they are essential parts of all of them. … A serious commitment to the arts sends a wonderful message about Memphis' priorities to the rest of the country.”