"Public art has become much more an expectation rather than something we can’t afford or as something unnecessary," said Carissa Hussong, executive director of the Metal Museum about Memphis' 20-year dance with public art.
These days anyone traveling through neighborhoods, from Midtown to Orange Mound, can appreciate more than 140 pieces of free public art ranging from painted murals to elaborate mosaics to gargantuan metal sculptures to whimsical moving pieces. There are at least 20 more similar projects in the pipeline thanks to the 20-year-old UrbanArt Commission.
“Overall we wanted to beautify the city and engage people in their environment and create a sense of place through the artists,” Carissa Hussong, the UAC’s first director, said. “It was about creating a vibrant city.”
“Our goal was to use art to create a sense of place, to capture the cultural heritage through art that is visible, not something you to had to go into a museum or a corporate building to see,” said Hussong, who now serves as the executive director of the Metal Museum.
The Memphis Area Transit Authority and Urban Art Commission commissioned bus stop sculptures along the hampline
The UAC was founded in 1997 thanks to some key Memphians, including Kristi Jernigan, an art collector and investor and one of the visionaries behind AutoZone Park as well as Rick Masson, a former city CFO and CAO and current executive director of the Plough Foundation, who took notice while visiting art-packed cities around the U.S. the sense of tenancy and engagement engendered by public art.
They wanted something similar for their own city in Memphis and learned about the Percent for Art programs that were transforming these cities.
“I think the UrbanArt Commission has changed the landscape by changing people’s expectations of what public land looks like. (Art) has become much more an expectation rather than something we can’t afford or as something unnecessary.”
In 1959 the city of Philadelphia passed an ordinance that required developers building on Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority-associated land to dedicate at least one percent of the total construction budget toward commissioned art for the site.
According to the PRA, the Percent for Art program “encourages redevelopers to conceive of innovative applications for public art and to create work that engages the public and challenges them to think about their surroundings in new and exciting ways.”
The resolution has brought about hundreds of pieces of public art that can be experienced by Philadelphia’s citizens and visitors not only in parks, libraries, and plazas, but also high-rise commercial towers, family housing and hotels.
Brandon Marshall painting a recent temporary mural at the Crosstown strip.
So Jernigan and Masson, along with other philanthropists and city leaders, took to slowly but surely convincing local administrators to pass a similar ordinance in Memphis, and in 1997 the UAC was born to lead these projects.
The UAC is a private nonprofit that partners with the City of Memphis through its Percent for Art program as well as neighborhood groups, private developers, universities, and others to produce art works of varying media. It is funded by grants, private donors, the Tennessee Arts Commission and Arts Memphis.
Through the Percent for Art program, which allocates a portion of the city’s capital improvement budget each year for public art, the UAC contracts with the city as a private non-profit to manage the program, recommend projects to pursue within the budget cycle and oversee the projects to their completion.
Carissa Hussong, executive director of the Metal Museum
Over its 20 years of arts advocacy and execution, these efforts have generated a ripple effect in how Memphians view their town and what they expect of their environment, their leaders, and the builders of their city.
“I think the UrbanArt Commission has changed the landscape by changing people’s expectations of what public land looks like,” Hussong said. “It has become much more an expectation rather than something we can’t afford or as something unnecessary.”
“A city should care about the aesthetics of its public spaces,” said current UAC executive director Lauren Kennedy.
Neighborhoods like the Broad Avenue Arts District and developments like Loeb Properties’ Overton Square and the Highland Strip have taken the UAC mission and incorporated a similar vision into their business model.
Pete Beeman's sculpture in the foreground of Loeb Properties' painted watertower in the Broad Avenue Arts District.
There are currently more than a dozen public art pieces in Overton Square with more planned. Loeb Properties was one of the first to bring about public art in the now ultra-hip, destination-oriented Broad corridor.
“I think that the city of Memphis making an investment in this work helped set a precedent that art is a valuable addition to our public spaces,” Hussong said. “Early high-profile projects like the Ben Hooks Library and the Cook Convention Center helped to bring possibilities forward and made a statement that has since resonated with the city, private developers, businesses.
Art has become an important and memorable part of a successful space. It’s seen as part of the solution and creates a sense of identity and space and is part of what makes these places successful.”
At 20 years and a burgeoning landscape of art works, and with new leadership in place under Kennedy, the UAC sees it as a time to ask what’s next?
Kennedy has answers.
“We are unique as a nonprofit because 70 percent of our operating budget is from earned revenue not contributions,” Kennedy said. “Because of that, we weren’t exploring contribution revenue so much.”
She’s hoping to change that.
Birdcap and Nosey42's collaborative mural in the Broad Avenue Arts District backed by the Urban Art Commission.
“We’ve had a great response in the last two years, with new local support from foundations, individual donors, private projects, and we’re also earning some money,” she said.
One of the more exciting happenings in Kennedy’s eyes is the move they will make later in the year into the Crosstown Arts office space at 422 N. Cleveland once the organization shifts to the Concourse building.
“It just ticks all of the boxes for us,” Kennedy said. “I’m so excited to have people drive down Cleveland and see our sign.”
If all goes according to plan, once Crosstown Arts moves into the Concourse building in May, the UAC will build out more office infrastructure into the current gallery situated at the front of the building, while still leaving plenty of open space for training sessions and even the occasional show.
Other plans for their 20th anniversary include reactivating existing public art spaces through programming such as performances by the PRIZM Ensemble and working with the upcoming Explore Bike Share program to help host bike art tours.
Lauren Kennedy, executive director of the Urban Art Commission
“You get used to seeing stuff, so you start to not notice it if you don’t point it out,” Kennedy said. “Our office is so small that after we get a project up we have to immediately move on to another.”
What Kennedy hopes to be a feather in their cap is the recent partnership with the City of Memphis Division of Planning and Development in its comprehensive plan Memphis 3.0. Three artists will be selected from an application pool to sit in on the planning board and meet with neighborhood residents to discuss how to best shape their neighborhood for the future.
“We’re asking artists to do what they do naturally -- creative problem solving, and dare I say it, thinking outside the box,” Kennedy said.
The three artists will contract with the UAC to work 20 hours a week for 15 months from August 2017 to October 2018.
“This is an opportunity to hit a really big note,” Kennedy said. “We will see repercussions for the next several years and to really move the needle on blighted properties in Memphis.
“Memphis can be understood nationally as an innovative city for art in public spaces,” Kennedy said. “We have the room, we have the cost of living, and we have access to people in power. There is no reason why we couldn’t be that city.”