Designs for Downtown

Artwork in empty storefronts spiffs up languished properties.

How do you transform a vacant building into a work of art?

Ask the people at the Center City Commission (CCC). They'll tell you about their partnership with the Rhodes College Center for the Outreach and Development of the Arts (CODA). The two organizations have been working together on the Downtown Storefront Art Project, to bring new life to Main Street between Adams and Peabody Place. During the past few months, art has been installed in two empty storefronts — one at 77 South Main, the other at Main and Union — with the goals of improving the appearance of the buildings and attracting commerce back to the Main Street corridor.

Although much of Memphis' downtown is flourishing, a few pockets have resisted revitalization, among them the Main Street Mall area. "The Mall is pedestrian-friendly," says CCC's urban planner Lorie Chapman, "but most retail businesses still desire exposure to vehicular traffic. Many of the properties along the Mall are also small parcels, with individual owners," a fact that can make it challenging to develop, she adds.

One of the keys, of course, is drawing the eye to the parcels, something artwork can accomplish. The storefront at 77 South Main, occupied some years ago by Debbie's Hair Affair, was brightened with turquoise paint before artist Mel Spillman installed four collages on wood panels featuring advertisements for hair-salon products from the 1950s. "The collages are very retro," says Rhodes student and storefront project manager Lauren Kennedy, "and look great on that vibrant color. It's really neat to see the response of people passing."

Next door, artist Dwayne Butcher has created 68 drawings that, with their fluid, biomorphic shapes, correspond to the name Smooth Moves, which until recently resided in that space. And coming soon across the street will be paintings by Darla Linerode Henson. "That's the old Stuart's [clothing store]," says Kennedy, "and Darla will be drawing on the building's history and creating a series of women figures in styles from the 1970s."

While the CCC maps locations of properties, identifies owners, and develops contracts, CODA's Kennedy chooses and works with the local and regional artists. She also contacts property owners, "the most difficult part of the job," she adds. "Some tell us they think art will block the space so that people can't see that it's vacant, or they think we're asking something from them. But what we're doing is giving some storefronts a cleaning they haven't seen in years, and that really helps them."

Kennedy — a senior at Rhodes majoring in art history and one of the first students to be involved in CODA — started on the storefront project in February. What appealed to her was the idea of making art accessible to any passerby. "You have people who go to every art opening and art gallery," she says, "but this way you're taking art out of the gallery and putting it down on Main Street. So the artist is meeting a new venue and those unfamiliar with art are introduced to it."

When Kennedy graduates next May, she hopes to pass the project on to another student who will enjoy it as much as she does.

Everyone agrees the art enhances a property's appearance, but what about its chance of being leased? Langston Brown, of Trezevant Properties, is leasing agent for the parcel showcasing Mel Spillman's beauty-salon collages. He says, "I've had two calls today from people interested in using that space for a hair salon. So the art has helped them see the possibilities within the space. And it has certainly made the building more pleasing to the eye." 

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