Seeing neighborhood revitalization through an artist's eyes

While public art has traditionally been an afterthought in urban renewal, the Collabortory makes art an integral part of development projects. Through rigorous community research, the group has put the commissioning process in the hands of the artists.
Memphis' public spaces are undoubtedly having a moment. In recent years, we've become a city dedicated to creating beautiful and connected green areas and infusing declining neighborhoods with creative developments. New bike paths, investments in parks, the commissioning of public art and other placemaking strategies are being undertaken across neighborhoods and shared spaces.
 
Public art is a key part of creating dynamic public spaces, lending character and building a sense of community, so why are artists often the last involved in the planning and development of these projects?

"I felt there was something missing in the public art scene in Memphis," said Cat Peña.
 
A dedicated artist and teacher who has a wealth of experience in cultivating public art, Peña taught classes on the subject at Memphis College of Art. She has held positions at the Urban Art Commission and helped facilitate notable public art projects such as the art in the new Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital facility.
Several artists' studios dot the landscape of the Edge.
 
Collabortory is Peña’s vision come to life: a new creative platform that offers an alternative method to publicly and privately funded Percent-for-Art programs in which the site, budget and a preference of medium are predetermined prior to including artists in the commissioning process. 
 
"Within the current framework, artists are often seen as an 'add on' rather then an integral component to the development or reanimation of the community," explains Peña. 
 
With an aim to turn that process on its head, Collabortory is adding artistic forethought to neighborhood redevelopment, starting with the Edge District. Peña hopes to put the creative needs of the community in the hands of artists and to "better understand what art should be inserted in spaces and places."
 
Collabortory advances a collective research method to the forefront of the commissioning process, giving artists better insight into the needs and wants of a site prior to conceptualizing and proposing a piece of artwork.
 
In the first phase of Collabortory, eight local artists will conduct a year-long, artist-run investigation of the Edge District. The neighborhood's location--situated between a living-working Downtown and a flurry of construction in the Medical District--makes it ripe for redevelopment  work and investor attention. The neighborhood was the site of a MEMFix event in 2014.
Kiersten Williams blogs, "I know few venture through the alley ways of the Edge, but the Spot is definitely one to check out. I wish it was more available to the public."

Funding for the Collabortory project in the Edge is provided by the Downtown Memphis Commission and is part of the group's effort to redevelop this often-overlooked quadrant.
 
The neighborhood research encourages each participating artist to log entries on general artist observations in the Edge--the beauties, strengths and struggles--into a shared blog. The culmination of the artists' time, observations and blogs will be formed into an exhibition that will be open to the public.

Marco Pavé, a participating artist, captures the spirit of the neighborhood's potential in a recent blog entry: "As I look over the Edge, I don't see a bottom, I see the sky, and it's the limit."
 
For the artists, this exhibition becomes a show-and-tell for their ideas about what kinds of public art might most enhance the Edge community. The end result? The DMC and other investors will have a myriad of thoughtful, well-executed proposals to choose from when making redevelopment plans.
 
While currently Collabortory is conducting their work in the Edge District, Peña has plans for the concept to be "nomadic" in nature.  Next year, the Collabortory mechanism will move its focus to a different area of the city.

Read more articles by Kate Crowder.

Kate Crowder is a freelance writer and veteran educator who has taught for over a decade in public schools. The longtime Memphian and mother of three is frequently found on the stage as musician, actor, or director when not filling her role as contributor and Assistant Editor at High Ground News.
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