Art Works Blog

Art Works in Memphis

January 26, 2010
Washington, DC

On Friday, January 15, the weekend of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman had an opportunity to visit Memphis, Tennesee, a momentous site in Civil Rights history, now home to several cultural revitalization initiatives. He was invited by the Hyde Family Foundations, which have worked closely with public and private partners for more than 40 years to build a better Memphis by fostering education, civic assets, and communities.

In the morning Rocco learned about how the Memphis Housing Authority's success in transforming troubled public housing centers into mixed-income residences in neighborhoods throughout the city. Local architect Frank Ricks reviewed efforts to link and leverage various cultural assets from the Mississippi River eastward, in a district he called "So Fo" – South of the Fed Ex Forum arena in downtown Memphis. The National Civil Rights Museum is housed at the Lorraine Hotel, which was the site of MLK's assassination. This landmark has played a key role in catalyzing neighborhood improvements that have led to the designation of a "South Main Arts District" in downtown Memphis.

From L-R: Deb Landesman, Barbara Hyde, President of J.R. Hyde III Family Foundation, NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman, and Pitt Hyde, Founder of J.R. Hyde III Family Foundation at the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. The museum was built around the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April 1968. Photo by Lance Murphey

Next, Rocco toured a landmark of Memphis music history, a community known as Soulsville home to seminal soul-music recording studio Stax Records, now the location of the vibrant Stax Museum and the Stax Music Academy, which mentors young people through music. There, he learned from University of Memphis professor Charlie Santo about the Memphis Music Magnet Program, which seeks to improve neighborhoods by attracting and supporting musicians. The program, currently under development, will offer housing and home ownership for working and retired musicians, neighborhood music centers to provide affordable rehearsal space, equipment rental, a health clinic, traveling musician dorm, and a music education-related community center. "Let's tie creativity to revitalization," said Santo. "Not just focused on tourism, but also on residents and artists."

NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman greets Memphis arts, civic, and philanthropic leaders at a reception at the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate institution. Photo by Lance Murphey

"We're at the juncture of losing the "Memphis sound" said one participant at an afternoon roundtable on the role of music as an economic engine for cities. Hosted by CEO for Cities head Carol Colletta, the closing talk brought together leaders in tourism, music, and philanthropy to look at Memphis musical assets and challenges. Suggested improvements ranged from a stronger marketing infrastructure, to a musicians directory, to direct support for emerging artists. A recurrent theme was the need to preserve Memphis' unique musical heritage through arts education. "Memphis and New Orleans should lead the country in music education," Rocco said. He also noted that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan understands the importance of arts education.

NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman listens to student cellists at the Stax Music Academy in Memphis.Photo by Lance Murphey

Memphis has a great deal to be proud of, and many people Rocco spoke with used the words "role model" to describe Memphis' stellar and varied achievements in cultural and neighborhood revitalization. It's clear that Memphis leaders get the importance of the arts in urban development.

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