The Stone Institute

South Main Art District, Really?

South Main Art District. Really?

I hope by now, many of you have figured out that I got married to a beautiful woman named Angie last November. It's not a secret. There are reasons one would keep things close to the vest for awhile, most of the time it has to do with timing. Wise men say timing is everything. I believe that timing is everything is one of those pearls of wisdom only the wise understand and use to their advantage.

It matters not how Angie and I came into some of the South Main property downtown, but we did. People affectionately refer to the building we own as "the Green Beatle." There has been a revitalization of sorts to this area of downtown Memphis as well as other areas such as Overton Square and the Cooper-Young District. A few nights ago I passed by the Square on a weekend and it was hopping. People everywhere, restaurants full and parking was at a premium. Everyone was outside, there was a vibrancy in the air. It was a young white crowd. Every square foot of space was lit up.

When I heard about the South Main district many years ago, it was designated as the art district of the City. Many people continue to tell me that it's the art district. Imagine my surprise when I went to the art district of Memphis and found that there is absolutely no art. Sure, restaurants galore, but no art. Twenty six restaurants have opened up on South Main and six have closed, leaving nineteen still operating. There is a trolley night which is supposed to bring citizens to the Art District to see art, but all they do is see the inside of the restaurants which may have art in them, but no galleries.

Yes, there are a couple of small galleries around the South Main area, but no public sculpture to speak of, no yearly sculpture or painting competitions, no art supply stores, no public space for artists to use for their studios, no open air markets for artists to sell direct to the public, no green spaces for yearly installations, no walkways with sculpture from point A to point B. Just nineteen restaurants and bars, some of which were old brothels in their day when brothels were fashionable and accepted in the Bible belt. There's even a few dive bars to round out the group of nineteen. One thing is for sure, no art.

Beale Street is famous for the Music Arts. However, many of the patrons of Beale Street are not necessarily from Memphis. It's a street that attracts more non-Memphian tourists than Memphians. The street itself is actually owned by the City of Memphis, but leased to operators who own the buildings. Sounds a bit like England, where the Queen owns the land and gets a cut of every business or residence located on the soil of Britain. Thank goodness Memphis leaders stopped at Beale Street.

There is a Downtown Commission. They have great ideas for the downtown area. Conceived and derived by profiteering developers who have a great linear vision about the way the city ought to grow. They have used their influence in many areas of Memphis, and overall, these developers have failed the City and the Artisans in so many ways. When I recently asked one of the owners of one of the restaurant/ bar businesses about the art district being designated as South Main and the obvious lack of art, he quickly responded to me by saying that seven murals have been painted on or around South Main. That to him, was art. I hope my surprise at his thoughts were not telegraphed by my body language.

What a bizarre way to look at what art is; murals are a form of art and I am all for murals, but they need maintenance or they will fade and lose their luster. Besides, the murals I have seen have been predominantly related to African-American issues, political statements about the oppression and segregation of blacks. There is a need to express the historical disturbances that existed in our culture in the past in an effort to avoid repeating them again. But how are we going to move forward if we constantly live in the divisions of the past. South Main has one of the best access points to the Civil Rights museum where Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed. The Civil Rights museum serves a purpose for our community and our Nation, but it has not facilitated nor thwarted the mending of our City's racial divide and the many flavors of racism that exist.

Developers can't bring races together. They seek to make money. Preachers and Ministers can't bring races together. They seek to divide our community and believe they and only they have the answer: God. They only allow access to their church facilities if someone commits to their religious persuasion through tithe. The City Council can't bring races together. They seek only to further their personal political career and stay in power. Beale Street can't bring races together. It only allows people to hear music and no one on the street thinks about the betterment of the community, only the betterment of their personal bank accounts. City Leaders can't bring races together. They are too busy making government bigger and creating taxes to find ways to employ more people under each of the City departments. Big City government assures election outcomes.

Who can heal a broken City? Artists can. Art transcends all races, creeds, religions, morals and political agendas. Artists change the world. Artists bring the best out in people and the worst. Artists are known for changing the world one day at a time, one person at a time. The Visual and Literary Arts can move mountains. And they have.

The 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination is next year, roughly seven months away or so. There will be thousands of people making the pilgrimage to Memphis to see what has emerged after one of the greatest tragedies in the history of our nation. And as they walk into the South Main district to enter the Civil Rights Museum, they will see nineteen bar and grilles, a bunch of vacant beat-up old buildings for sale by people who just want to make a profit, or owners that believe the value of the property will climb and a City that is frozen in time. Memphis had an opportunity to move in a direction forty-eight years ago that would have put Memphis on the map in terms of what amazing things could emerge from a national tragedy like Dr. King's death. But instead, our City, County and Religious Leaders have forsaken what good could have come from his assignation, only to promote their personal agendas and continue much of the same constructs that probably contributed to his death in the first place.

If South Main is the art district, it should be allowed to develop into a So Ho in New York City or a Canyon Road in Santa Fe. Developers need to embrace the idea that true artists dedicated to the visual arts, not those people who say they're artists, should be able to find affordable housing, affordable materials to use in their projects, are not going to turn a big profit margin until they are established and have a following to support their art. It takes marketing, community involvement and seed money. There is nothing keeping South Main from being an Art District other than Memphians who will not support local artists nor sponsor national art competitions and film festivals. In addition, we do not need twenty people or more on a commission, each having their own agenda instead of putting the community first, to make things happen. It only takes five or seven community activists. Having everyone involved is like having no one involved. Look at our City, County, State and Federal Government, everyone and their mother is involved. Stagnation has come to roost in our Nation.

Let's get moving Memphis. Bring great Art to South Main and forget about adding another Bar and Grille. Memphis has enough places to eat, dance and party. But no real place to see or interact with artists who have one goal on mind: to change the world.

Kevin the Artist known as Kiki 

Posted by Kevin Merigian at 10:34 AM
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