Since my stint here is winding down, I’m going to ask your indulgence as I write about Memphis. My suspicion is that many of you haven’t been yet, or weren’t intending to come, or plain don’t care about what goes down in our neck of the woods. I must admit, I know where you’re coming from. I’m an East Coaster, born and raised in New Jersey, who left for college and traveled all over the place, determined to avoid that vast bland-o-sphere we call middle America. I just couldn’t figure out what would be compelling about anything more than 50 miles from an ocean that wasn’t Chicago. I know this makes me sound like a jerk, but I also know that there are scads of people who think the art world exists only in New York, Berlin, London, and wherever the present Biennale du jour happens to have set up the big tent this week.
But let me assure you, I was wrong. Necessity being the mother of invention, we in Memphis have more than a few goings on and an art universe that keeps me constantly intrigued and entertained. What I find particularly compelling about the way things happen in Memphis is that everyone is everywhere all of the time. The city is too small for it to be otherwise, so we actually have what I can justifiably call an arts community. Everybody ends up at the same bars, the same openings, the same panel discussions, the same backyard parties, and so forth. I know for certain that people show up at art events when they have other things to do, other places to be, or just don’t feel like it simply because we all know that we are our own audience and the more we do for one another the more we do for everyone collectively. It’s a nice way to go about it, actually feeling involved in things, participating rather than observing. I’m well aware that Flash Art may not set up a branch office, but I think you should give us a try. Hell, all of your FedEx packages come through Memphis. So should you.
To help you along, I’ve made a little primer to some of the core nodes of our art world. To be honest, I was shocked at how long it was, but heartened to know that each of the below is an integral part of our machine.
Full disclosure: I know, work with, and/or patronize every one of the below.
Dwayne Butcher’s Blog. Start here. Dwayne is an artist and graduate of both the University of Memphis and the Memphis College of Art. His blog is the most up-to-date resource for all things artistic in Memphis. Galleries, museums, panels, whatever, Dwayne will find out and let you know. It is also a forum for his own art, which is well worth a look.
The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, in Overton Park, is our city’s museum. A comprehensive collection, strongest in European and American art. Our African and Native American collections are smaller, but strong. The Brooks also hosts films, performances, lectures, and all of the other events one would want their local museum to host. And their restaurant is particularly good.
The Dixon Gallery & Gardens were once a private home and now contain a small but immaculate collection of late-19th century European (mostly French) paintings. They also host travelling exhibitions which are not to be overlooked. The gardens are best on a Spring day and are proof that nothing finishes a day at the museum like a snooze on the grass.
The Power House, which is downtown in the South Main arts district and serves as the umbrella organization for both Delta Axis and Marshall Arts, is a bit like a Kunsthalle in an old power station. Exhibitions of international and local artists rotate through here, panel discussions, etc. Recent shows include Glen Ligon, local photographer William Eggleston, and Alec Soth.
The Urban Art Commission is exactly that. It serves as the central node for public arts funding and commissions in Memphis. Murals, sculpture, performance, architecture, it all happens here.
The David Lusk Gallery, along with L Ross, and Jay Etkin spearhead the commercial gallery scene in Memphis. Downtown’s South Main arts district is a hub, as is the stretch of Poplar Avenue between the Public Library and the Davis-Kidd bookstore. Don’t be fooled. Just because some of our galleries are in strip malls doesn’t mean they don’t have quality art.
Each of our three primary institutions of higher learning have their own art spaces as well. The Memphis College of Art, where I hang my hat, has galleries both in the main building, Rust Hall, and in the South Main district, where we run our On the Street Gallery. The University of Memphis has a small museum, and Rhodes College houses the Clough-Hanson Gallery.
What is perhaps my favorite aspect of Memphis’s art scene is that we often do for self, and we do it well. Instead of languishing in the reality that Memphis isn’t one of the usual stops on the art train, local artists take matters into their own hands. In the few years I’ve been in town, galleries and collectives such as these have been central to keeping things fresh and forward-thinking. Collective studio and exhibition spaces such as the Medicine Factory, VINI (Five in One), and the Rozelle Artists Guild (bragging rights: founded and run by current and former Memphis College of Art students) offer younger artists exhibition space and remind us all that the official structures are not the only means of building a career.
What they’ve done with studio spaces, others have done with gallery spaces. Material, which is run out of what appears to be painter Hamlett Dobbins’s living room, is always jammed to the gills with good work and everyone artist, critic, and gallerist around town. Odessa, nearby Material on the Broad Street art strip, has been a welcome recent addition. Performances, bands, panel discussions, and art exhibitions make up their menu, which never fails to satisfy. A personal favorite is the P&H Artspace, housed in the P&H Cafe on Madison Avenue. In truth, this is Memphis’s smokiest bar, but it’s filled to the gills—floor, ceiling, walls, table tops, you name it—with works of art. One wall is dedicated to a rotating series of exhibitions and poetry readings happen about once a month or so.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Memphis is responsible for much of American music. W.C. Handy invented the 12 bar blues downtown on Beale Street, some white kid from Tupelo made rock acceptable to the mainstream, and the Stax sound more or less perfected soul music. And we’ve got some damn good Hip Hop as well.
The Stax Museum of American Soul Music may be the best museum in America, if you like soul or have one.
Graceland, you’ve heard of. It’s owner was a guy named Elvis Aaron something.
Sun Studios is where the King launched his reign, Johnny Cash recorded more famous songs than I can remember, and even U2 came to worship. Maybe the most important room in the history of music.
A recent rebirth has been the Levitt Shell, which has hosted Elvis, Johnny Cash, and the Dead. Housed in Overton Park, adjacent to both the Brooks and the Memphis College of Art, the Shell has two concert series each year, in May/June and September/October, when the heat and humidity are low enough that sitting outside is sensible.
So please, come by. We’re on the way to just about anywhere, and fully worth a whole trip to ourselves. Eat BBQ at Cozy Corner and fried chicken at Gus’s. Let me know if you’re on the way, and I’ll find out what’s worth seeing.
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