The event, MemFeast, was billed as “a competitive banquet of community art ideas and actions, equal parts family-style dinner, show-and-tell, and immediate philanthropy.”
Attendees enjoyed a vegan meal, listened to public art proposals, and voted on their favorite to be funded and implemented. The winner, Tommy Wilson, proposed seed-bombing wildflowers over blighted areas of the city.
“We couldn’t believe that 60 people cared about what we were doing,” said Todd Richardson, co-leader of Crosstown Arts and the Crosstown Development Team. “It was a meal, a communal thing, and that’s a beautiful example of what we’ve done as an organization as a whole. We’ve given people a stage to present their work and get everyone talking about art.”
Indeed, that’s right in line with Crosstown Arts’ mission to “provide resources and create opportunities and experiences to inspire, support, and connect a diverse range of creative people, projects, and audiences … regardless of prior experience or expertise with creative interests.”
Crosstown Arts was founded in 2010 as a nonprofit arts organization with a greater mission of leveraging enough public support and funding to salvage the long-abandoned Sears Crosstown building. Co-leaders Richardson, a University of Memphis art professor, and Christopher Miner, a video artist, had a vision of creating a contemporary arts center within the Sears Crosstown building, but they knew from the start it would take more than art to fill the building’s 1.5-million square feet. It would, in fact, take a village to fill that space — a vertical urban village.
Richardson said Crosstown Arts was inspired by both the work of AS220 (a contemporary arts center in Providence, Rhode Island, that offers artist live/work spaces, performance space, a cafe/bar, and more) and MASS MoCA (an arts center in North Adams, Massachusetts that was developed in a former industrial plant), but all along, the long-time college friends-turned-coworkers knew the development of Sears Crosstown would include other components, such as education, healthcare, residential, and retail.
“Ours was always much more of a vertical village. Early on, we knew there’d be apartments and a school and Memphis Teacher Residency, so we always knew it would be more diverse than only arts exhibition space,” Richardson said. “And we had all these other great tenants who came on board. For example, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare taking 107,000 square feet is incredibly significant and not something we could predict at the time. It was the middle of the Recession, and we had no idea what the public response would be.”
Crosstown Arts has a unique role in the development of Crosstown Concourse. It’s both the developer and a tenant of the building.
“Crosstown Arts, in partnership with Kemmons Wilson Companies, is the developer that led the team to design, recruit tenants, and make everything happen. But alongside that, Chris [Miner] has been developing Crosstown Arts as a contemporary arts center that will be a tenant in the building. We’ll have 40,000 square feet in Concourse to serve as a contemporary arts center.”
When Crosstown Arts moves into its spaces in Concourse this fall, it will expand to include multiple galleries, a film screening room, a music venue, a cafe and bar, and a full-scale residency program offering live/work space for artists. Additionally, on the ground floor, Crosstown Arts will run a membership-based shared art-making facility with a woodshop, digital lab, and other art-making equipment, as well as a full schedule of workshops and recurring programs. A separate performing arts theater, under construction on the north side of the property, will open in 2018.
But Crosstown Arts didn’t wait around until the building’s completion to get started. The organization made its public debut with that 2010 MemFeast event, and since then, it’s expanded to host monthly art exhibitions and musical performances in its 422 N Cleveland gallery; community-organized art shows in its 430 N. Cleveland gallery; film programming partnerships with Indie Memphis; art programming partnerships with ArtsMemphis, UrbanArt Commission, and others; youth arts workshops; and much more.
“It was really important early on to put Crosstown on the mental map,” Richardson said. “When someone is going out on Saturday night, will they think, oh, what’s going on at Crosstown Arts? Whether it’s a jazz show or art opening or whatever, getting people into that habit of thinking of Crosstown took some time.”
Emily Halpern, Crosstown Arts’ assistant director, said Crosstown Arts’ work helped to reactivate a neighborhood that had been somewhat dormant for years.
“While a few businesses and studios were here, Crosstown wasn’t top of mind for many Memphians. Inviting the public back into the neighborhood through shows and openings and experimenting with scheduling multiple events at the same time, whether that was block parties or events with our tenant neighbors [along Cleveland], helped to bring a lot of energy and activity to the area,” Halpern said.
With the building project in mind (though not a sure thing until funding was approved in late 2014), Crosstown Arts slowly grew and evolved to take on more and more components of a full-scale contemporary arts center.
“Contrary to some advice we were given early on, we decided to incubate everything,” Richardson said. “If you develop the policies and procedures for a 1,200-square-foot gallery, it’s not too dissimilar from an 8,000-square-foot gallery. You still go through the same steps.”
Crosstown Arts began organizing monthly art exhibitions in its gallery on N. Cleveland in 2013 with the goal of expanding to multiple exhibitions in its galleries within Concourse. It launched an artist residency program in 2015, hosting one local artist at a time. When it opens in Concourse, the residency program will host 16 artists from Memphis and around the country or the world. Starting small offered a chance to work out the kinks.
“We started out over here to establish our model. The ultimate goal connects multiple components in a larger space that would offer more opportunities and a full-service experience for artists and the community,” Halpern said.
As Crosstown Arts was growing and incubating new ideas, Richardson and the development team were hard at work recruiting tenants to Concourse and lobbying for funding.
“When we started the feasibility study, we gave ourselves a five percent chance of this happening,” Richardson said. “This was never a succeed-at-all-costs deal. We shared a vision and thought people would either buy in and be a part of it or they wouldn’t.”
When we started the feasibility study, we gave ourselves a five percent chance of this happening.
But they did. And by August 2012, eight organizations had stepped up as founding partners in the project. Seven of those — ALSAC, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Church Health, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Memphis Teacher Residency, Christian Brothers University, and Crosstown High — followed through and have committed to space inside Concourse. By the end of 2014, $200 million in funding had been secured from 30 different sources, and the project was a go. The Crosstown Concourse project broke ground in February 2015 and will remain partially under construction at the time of its opening day celebration on August 19. Most construction, with the exception of Crosstown High and the performing arts theater, should wrap up this fall.
While the vision for the project originated with Crosstown Arts, Richardson is quick to point out that Concourse couldn’t have happened without the buy-in of tenants, residents, and public support.
“I love when people in Memphis ask who made Concourse happen. No one can say, and I love that,” Richardson said. “It was truly a team effort, and if anyone deserves credit, it’s the tenants themselves and the incredible community support we’ve received over the last seven years.”