Crosstown Concourse / Alex Shansky

Crosstown Concourse / Alex Shansky Mural by Birdcap and Sentrock

January, 2019

When you’re here, you see it. Hear it. Feel it. Even as hip-shaking, culture-quaking, record-breaking music echoes in the background, you might notice an artist sketching simply. Close your eyes at the quiver of a violin string. Sense the exhilaration of a dancer who’s just left a piece of him or herself on stage. In Memphis, creative expressions are varied, but they come from the same place: the soul. 

On Beale Street in 1890, you could revel in the rollicking sounds spilling out of clubs or see one of the finest shows in the South at the Grand Opera House. When vaudeville trended, the venue was renamed for the circuit as the Orpheum Theatre. After a fire, and complete reconstruction in 1927, The Orpheum reopened, featuring crystal chandeliers, gilded accents and a Mighty Wurlitzer organ to accompany silent films and live theatre. In the same decade, a group of friends formed a community theatre. Clarence Saunders had found success (launching the country’s first self-service grocery store, Piggly Wiggly) but lost his fortune. The Pink Palace, his unfinished, uninhabited home—specifically the sloping arena of his unused swimming pool—provided a venue for the troupe that would call itself Theatre Memphis. 

But visual art had its patrons in Memphis too. The seed money for the city’s first art museum, including its Beaux Arts-style building, came from local Bessie Vance Brooks. The Brooks Memorial Art Gallery, honoring Brooks’ late husband, opened in 1916—without a collection. Acquisitions settled in, but the 1950s brought a seismic shift: The Brooks was getting a collection of European masterpieces, and a major expansion to house them. At the same time, the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Opera Memphis were gelling; Memphis Botanic Garden started planting. While Elvis was exporting a rock ‘n’ roll revolution to the world, cultural and creative forces were circling back home. 
In the 1970s, the circle expanded to include the home of Hugh and Margaret Dixon, filled with Impressionist paintings and surrounded by ornamental gardens. Like Mrs. Brooks, the Dixons had made their way in Memphis and chose art as a way to give back. They willed their home, now the Dixon Gallery & Gardens, to the city. On the riverfront, a Civil War-era hospital was being transformed to showcase a different medium: metal. In preserved buildings and on the shaded grounds of the old hospital, the Metal Museum became the country’s only museum dedicated to the craft of metalwork. A repertory theatre, Playhouse on the Square, stepped into the spotlight (literally: Moving into Overton Square surrounded the theatre with the sights and sounds of live music drifting from Lafayette’s Music Room and Ardent Studios). Judy Peiser began gathering film, oral histories and photographs of life in the Delta, illuminating, among other lifeways, the craft of roots musicians. She co-founded the Center for Southern Folklore to document our creative traditions—and to give voice to contemporary artists who would channel and evolve them. It was from this fertile ground that Memphis in May, a month-long celebration of cultural contributions made by Memphis and a designated country, bloomed in 1977. 

By the end of the century, we were applauding Opera Memphis in its new, permanent home—Germantown Performing Arts Center—and planning the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts to house the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. But if Memphis was sowing cultural seeds throughout the 20th century, it was also nurturing the theory that strife forges creativity. Suburban flight and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. threatened downtown districts and the institutions that helped anchor them, including Beale Street and The Orpheum. Broad Avenue, Overton Square and the Sears, Roebuck & Co. building—once buzzing with commerce, nightlife and neighbors mingling—sat quiet, vacant. 

But if there’s one thing Memphis knows, it’s how to stage a second act. The Orpheum was saved, preserved to its 1920s grandeur and, in 2014, joined by the Halloran Centre to expand its programming and educational outreach. In the 1980s, visual artists began moving into the neighborhood, followed by galleries and an official designation as the South Main Historic Arts District. Today, public art installations add to what’s on view inside South Main galleries and shops.  

It’s a similar scene in the Broad Avenue Arts District, where bold murals and the studios of local makers bring life to a thoroughfare that was all but abandoned in 2010. The same year, Playhouse on the Square introduced a brand-new theatre—and a cultural rebirth—to Overton Square: Playhouse is now running shows at three neighborhood theatres. Hattiloo Theatre, Memphis’ black repertory theatre, and Ballet Memphis, the city’s 33-year-old dance company, have built modern spaces in the neighborhood. All of these stages provide a solid base for the Indie Memphis Film Festival, celebrating its 21st year during the bicentennial.  

Nearby, The Brooks celebrated its 2016 centennial by diversifying its collection, commissions and programming. In the years since, Brooks visitors have dialogued about visual art and social justice to the sounds of Unapologetic, Memphis’ homegrown hip-hop label. They’ve watched performances by New Ballet Ensemble, the company/school that blends ballet with Memphis-style street dance (jookin’). New Ballet is just one local company providing opportunities for dancers of color. 

From South Main Street to Broad Avenue to Overton Square, Memphis’ cultural comeback has proven that art can lift—even make—neighborhoods. But it’s the Sears, Roebuck & Co. building that proved Memphis’ model of arts-centric rehab to the world. In 2010, the retail and distribution center that had served Memphis families (and catalog shoppers placing some 45,000 orders a day) hulked over north Memphis: a million-and-a-half square feet of blight. Two locals, Todd Richardson and Christopher Miner, saw beyond that. They founded Crosstown Arts to imagine how the building could be redeveloped. They hosted arts-based programs and a one-day pop-up event to help others see their vision. McLean Wilson joined the team. Over the next two years, a patchwork of 30 funding sources committed $200 million to redevelopment. Founding tenants signed on. The development debuted as Crosstown Concourse in 2017 and was quickly shortlisted for The Architectural Review’s “New Into Old” historic renovation awards, the only U.S. project to make the cut. With locally owned original restaurants, a microbrewery and a calendar packed with gallery openings, talks by resident artists, live music and film screenings (all hosted by Crosstown Arts), the Art Deco landmark has been reborn as Memphis’ “vertical urban village.”

Outside and across the city, cultural festivals help to keep Memphis’ creative spirit alive and aloft. Theatre Memphis has its own facility these days, and the Pink Palace is devoted to showcasing the cultural history of the region. That includes the annual Pink Palace Crafts Fair, celebrating its 47th year in 2019, where you might meet a local potter or printmaker. River Arts Fest is just over a decade old, but this juried art show on the Mississippi is already a fixture of the fall season. Memphis in May, now with the three-day Beale Street Music Festival, World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest and Great American River Run, is attracting more revelers than ever. There’s just one change planned for 2019: For the first time in 42 years, Memphis in May won’t honor a designated country. In honor of our bicentennial, the festival will honor Memphis instead. 

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