Block Art

The addition of Memphis College of Art’s gallery and grad school brings new life to South Main.

Jonathan Postal

On a sunny afternoon, Carol Lott sits in the window of a South Main coffee shop considering the future of what local guidebooks label Memphis’ historic “arts district.”

Many galleries have moved out, replaced by clothing stores (that benefit from foot traffic) and other small businesses (that don’t need it).
“Monday through Friday, this place is pretty slow,” Lott says. The Realtor and president of the South Main Association nevertheless sees an artistic renaissance in the district’s future — one that could help bring more working artists back to the area and be a boon to commerce.

In September, the Memphis College of Art opened its new graduate center and gallery space at 477 South Main. Since the school year began, approximately 100 young artists, most in their mid-twenties, and new full-time faculty are getting (re)acquainted with the neighborhood.
“Young blood is a good thing to have in an arts district,” Lott says. “[The students] bring both energy and activity. I can’t wait to see what happens.”

In addition to completing its $2.9 million graduate center, MCA grew in other ways over the summer. A new residence hall opened in Midtown. The college’s administration moved into what was formerly the graduate art studios on Poplar Avenue, clearing the way for more undergraduate classroom space in Rust Hall in Overton Park.

This comes at the same time that the private, independent art school is searching for a replacement for the affable, bow-tie wearing president Jeffrey Nesin, who moved back to New York City after almost 19 years. If his tenure had a theme, it was expansion. Within three months of his 1991 arrival, the college was looking into student housing. His thinking: “When you send your kids off to college, you want to know where they are at night.”

The college now owns 22 properties.

Interim president Ken Strickland says the new facilities are the culmination of a 2005 strategic plan and $10 million capital campaign to increase enrollment to 500 students, from the mid-400s in 2009. “We saw an opportunity to take a fairly dramatic step,” Strickland says.
Nesin says the graduate center downtown now gives MCA a “unique campus” that straddles the city.

“I’m really an urban educator,” Nesin explains. “The density and excitement of city centers are conducive to what we do. When people think about art, they inevitably think about the nineteenth century idea of someone with an easel in a field. And we do that; it has its own dignity. But we’re also reaching out to the business aspects. Having a resource center on Main Street brings our students closer to the twenty-first century idea of what a school of design should be.”

Preservationists give the college high marks for its “adaptive reuse” of the 49,025-square-foot warehouse on South Main, built in 1913, and conveniently located in front of a trolley stop.

Architect Rebecca Conrad, with Askew Nixon Ferguson Architects, says the building was more utilitarian than historically relevant, though its facade contributes to the old-time charm of South Main.

"We wanted to respect the historical era of the building while showing it has a modern-day use,” Conrad says. “It’s a balance between old and new. For example, we preserved the columns on every floor with the bell-shaped capitals.”

Longtime local arts and culture writer Fredric Koeppel, who has followed the school’s growth for years, says that the college’s expansion could ultimately attract more of what scholar Richard Florida dubbed the “creative class” to Memphis, and specifically, to Downtown.

“The impact is on the city itself,” Koeppel says. “Many students who graduate from MCA stay here and get jobs in design, advertising, or graphics. They are the backbone of the newer advertising and marketing firms in the city. As more students and faculty come from other places (outside Memphis), it means the city gets more diverse.” M

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