Sunday, November 11, 2007

Defining Memphis Future Is An Art All Its Own

The Memphis Arts Council has handled the easy part.

Now for the hard work. Reborn as ArtsMemphis, it now has to make sure that its rebranding campaign is about more than a new name, look and logo.

After all, brands really are about culture, behavior and ambitions, and apparently, that’s why ArtsMemphis made the point that its new brand is about a change in attitude for the arts organization and about creating a vibrant city with a diversity of cultural arts offerings.

That’s quite a challenge, because it will take a fundamental shift in its traditional role in local arts and cultural development and a shift in its perspective of the city that it serves.

Elvis One More Time

ArtsMemphis showed how difficult all of this is when it stumbled out of the gate with its new brand. While insisting that it is embarking on an exciting new journey, it sent a curious message by putting a 50-year-old photograph of Elvis Presley on the cover of the magazine announcing its change in name and direction.

Rarely has Memphis seemed so fixed in time as when it summons up Elvis to define something taking place today that is supposed to be cutting edge and imaginative. As for us, we vote for a moratorium for all Elvis photos in hopes that we can at least get into this century and get current.

The use of Elvis’ photo also prompted some negative commentary from a group that all of us – including our arts organization – should do more to support – our current musicians. Several of them suggested that perhaps it’s time for Memphis’ power brokers to get acquainted with musicians who are still alive, and one only half-jokingly said that if the next Elvis were on our doorstep today, it’s highly unlikely that any program of ArtsMemphis would be helping him.

Also, the somewhat clumsy attempt by the branding consultant to connect the rebranding to the now obligatory mention of the so-called creative class made famous by Richard Florida was interpreted by some artists and performers as a put-down. More to the point, traditional arts weren’t exactly what Dr. Florida was referring to when he wrote about the kinds of investments that attract the creative class.

Artist-centered Plan

Actually, he suggested that vibrant cities need to focus on the creation of arts scenes, a band culture and a grassroots arts environment known for its creativity and energy. These, too, would be the ultimate proof that ArtsMemphis is intent on changing its old ways and embarking on a new journey, one that nurtures groups that may seem weird, eclectic, irreverent and unorganized to the conventional thinking of the umbrella arts organization.

We certainly hope ArtsMemphis is up to the task, because there is so much more that it can do and so much that needs to be done, things that do more than make sure the symphony plays, things that engender a culture of creativity in Memphis.

On one hand, there are important policies and programs that ArtsMemphis needs to champion. For example, it could develop, lobby and advocate for artist and musician-centered policies and programs. If Paducah can develop an Artist Relocation Program that’s lured more than 70 artists to the Kentucky city to take advantage of special financing for homes and galleries, surely we can do something. Along the way, the Paducah program has sparked redevelopment of a historic district in the river town.

The Arts Commission of Greater Toledo has begun its own program, Live Work Create Toledo, which aims to accomplish in an urban setting what Paducah did there. The Ohio city plans to attract 30 artists a year to the city while raising awareness of native artists and pursuing its goal of creating a community of artist studios that will create vibrancy and economic growth.

If They Can Do It

In Detroit, an arts group is developing the first affordable housing for artists, a 1920’s era, 32-unit apartment building that has been completely refurbished for musicians, painters, poets, sculptors and fashion designers.

The truth is that cities across the U.S. – Houston, Saint Paul, Portland, Minneapolis, Galveston, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Duluth, Buffalo, Washington DC, Fort Lauderdale, Monterey, Miami and Santa Cruz - are working on artist lofts and artist work/live spaces, and it’s past time that Memphis joins them.

Memphis, because of our much-vaunted heritage, must include musicians in this mix. In addition, ArtsMemphis could become the leader for creation of a tax-free arts and cultural district modeled after Rhode Island’s Tax-Free Arts Districts. There, artists who live and work in the district don’t pay state sales tax and other taxes on work created and sold in the district, and galleries in the district don’t pay state taxes of any kind for one-of-a-kind artwork. Again, tipping our hat to our music legacy, Memphis should include our music and musicians in these special incentives.

But while these policies would be progress for Memphis, its help is needed even more to develop the kind of creative city described by English author and cultural consultant Charles Landry three years ago to Leadership Memphis’ annual community breakfast.

Creativity As A Civic Virtue

Mr. Landry described a city where creativity is as much an engrained attribute as the river. In this way, arts, culture, creativity and innovation should become the overriding objectives of ArtsMemphis, because they lead to economic growth, creative civic decision-making and a vibrant city. To do this, Memphis must be a place where new ideas flourish and people from all walks of live come together to create a better place to work, live and play.

No sector of our city is more equipped – and more logical – to lead this than the Memphis arts community, and no city needs its impact more than ours. As Steve Tepper, associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, said recently on Smart City, a successful city is one where ideas and creativity are part of the civic DNA, and because of it, “new ideas find their way into the governing of the city, into the social fabric of the city. A creative city is a spontaneous place. It’s a place where the unexpected can happen.”

In these kind of cities, no one is more important than boundary-crossers, and what better description is there of musicians and artists. When traditional boundaries are eliminated, different kinds of people from different parts of the city experience a collective sense of community and a collective effervescence of energy that says that anything is possible here. It’s hard to think of any part of Memphis that should be better, or more involved, in doing this than the arts and cultural community.

It’s this attitude that creates the vibrancy and spontaneity that ArtsMemphis now states as its goals. As Mr. Tepper pointed out, the same goes for festivals, street fairs and street performers, and this is another way that ArtsMemphis’ involvement could be especially productive.

More Than Performances

And circling back to the young creatives, all of this is important because creative cities are receptive to youth and find ways for them to get involved in the development of their cities. In the end, if ArtsMemphis is successful, it will no longer just be about bringing good artworks and performances to the people. More importantly, it will be about enabling the creative capacity of all people.

The good news is that there has never been a more creative time than this. Young people in particular want to be participants and not merely spectators. They are making their own films in record numbers, they make their own music in their own home studios and a majority of them say they want to write and publish a book of their own.

It is in this do-it-yourself participatory environment that Memphis can find its greatest opportunities and most exciting niche. If any part of Memphis should be thinking out of the box, it should be our umbrella arts organization, and that’s why we think it would be helpful if it would start by conducting a complete inventory of all the creative assets in Memphis. This requires a definition of arts and culture that includes poetry slams, garage bands, grassroots arts movements, digital filmmakers and more.

The Road Ahead

With this inventory, we would have a deeper understanding of the sources of creativity in our city, and most of all, ArtsMemphis would have the ingredients to change the destiny of Memphis itself.

Charles Leadbeater, author and European innovation consultant, on Smart City recently, described a world where citizens will demand to “co-create” their own communities. The city that develops this new platform for civic collaborative innovation first is the city that invents the recipe for future success, he says.

All roads to the future start with creativity, and if ArtsMemphis really wants to drive us to the future, it will shift gears and become the vehicle that takes us to our ultimate destination as a creative city.


gatesofmemphis said...

ArtsMemphis could stop charging affiliated groups (as opposed to funded groups) $100 to affiliate. Affiliation includes "being listed on the website and having the season of events included in the ArtsMemphis online calendar". That service should cost AM almost nothing (if they have a good web site). Removing barriers like that would help start them in a new, open direction. And probably make their website more of a resource.

Regarding the inventory of the creative assets, self-registration of affiliation could provide an inexpensive and perhaps larger inventory. AM could have an annual party encouraging the initiative. Affiliates will be freed from paying $100, and they will get free beer.

Anonymous said...

Harlan T Bobo would have been a great one to put on the cover, or Jim Dickinson, or Billy Gibson, Susan Marshall, Amy LaVere, Willie Mitchell, Al Green, hell anybody actually ALIVE and still working.

Harvey said...

Nurturing a creative mindset and community sounds like an excellent idea, but I wonder if such a mindset can be nurtured. My qualm comes from looking back on the unstructured history of Memphis innovation. First, with innovations such as the supermarket(Clarence Saunders), modern hotel(Kemmons Wilson), and profit sharing(Hull Dobbs), I see capitalism (with all its warts) as the main driver of innovation in the history of the city.

Second, for sure, much of the art that has come out of our city has been groundbreaking and barrier crossing. But, it seems to me that the greatest of the art innovators (Isaac Hayes, Booker T & The MG's, W.C. Handy etc...) have grown organically. In fact, many of them grew up in a culture that did not bat an eye at, lend a hand to, or give a care about their innovation. They were not present in a nurturing society, yet their artistic output, and its effect in Memphis will probably never be rivaled.

The same can be said for the great artists, writers, and musicians of the delta. Itta Bena, MS does not have an art council, but it does have one of the best writers in America as its son (Lewis Nordan).

I am not saying that art and creativity are totally at the will of the winds, but I am wrong in saying that great art movements in societies by their nature don't lend themselves to structure and calculation. Perhaps not as the Renaissance attests with its patrons and prolific and excellent art output. But still, it seems odd to me to create "creativity". I invite criticisms, comments and suggestions.

Anonymous said...

Interesting discussion. I agree about the elvis cover. Strikes me as incredibly unimaginative, as unimaginative as Graceland's recent tv spots.

I also think the one poster who said that great art is developed, in part, by the pressures of our capitalist society, is only half right. Our capitalistic society encouraged Memphis artists to sell their work, not to make it. Booker T Jones learned to play the clarinet and piano and organ not because he wanted to make money, but because he loved it. It was in him. The music of the Delta that migrated north to Memphis to take root on Beale and then in the famed studios of Sun and Stax and Hi emerged as a response, a relief if you will, to pain and suffering. Art, first and foremost, is expression, the tangible result of the soul speaking aloud. Only then does commerce follow.

On another note, the Bemis Center in Omaha, Nebraska could easily exist in Memphis:

Harvey said...

I'm not arguing that capitalism is the foundation for artistic creativity in Delta/Memphis history. Rather, I was noting that Memphis was home to some of the most creative capitalistic minds of the American 20th century. At the same time, Memphis has also been home to much excellent art. That art has not, to my understanding, grown because Memphis welcomed it with open arms through art programs and ginuflects to the artistic community.

I think you are hitting the nail on the head when you talk about the artists of the Delta. Their art has grown out of suffering and loss, not abundance. They produced good art in the face of a culture that was at best uncaring about it and at worst, downright hostile against it.

Therefore, our history being what it is, I question the thesis that we are a few well funded programs and changed mindsets away from an artists paradise. Certainly, one can create a community in which good art is discouraged, I'm just not sure the inverse will produce what we want it to produce.

Let the record show these two things. 1. I am not an artist. I like art, but I have no art gift. 2. I love the waves of artistic creativity that wash through Memphis' history. I simply question whether we can reign those waves in and tame them

Elizabeth said...

I agree that there is an incongruity to the Elvis cover.

I also take issue with the epiphanic boast regarding the name change (as conveyed in the CA: "Finally came the eureka moment; the elided words 'arts' and 'Memphis' conveyed the inseparable notion of Memphis as an arts city, while sporting the graphic concision of an AutoZone or FedEx.")

Apparently the former GMAC was oblivious to the fact that two local artists - Dwayne Butcher and Bryan Blankenship - had long before created a website entitled ArtMemphis for local artists and art events.

Auchsen Darch said...

This wouldn't be the first organization to claim that they are "looking forward" while simultaneously looking back. While I have great respect for visual arts, I cannot help but be less than impressed by a visual arts organization that uses marketing that so clearly "looks back".

The problem isn't with art, it's with those who wear the mission statement of "forward thinking" and at the same time attempt to rely on the past. By putting Elvis (yes, he is awesome.) in the promotion, we get a "business as usual" approach to leadership in the Memphis community. Not that I don't know the truth: Elvis' first record was created because he got a grant from ArtsMemphis. It's just a fact: You can look it up.

Perhaps their slogan should be "ArtsMemphis: Changing Things by Preserving the Status Quo."

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

Like how I made a reference to the future while embracing the past?

Mediocrity is the new pink.