Crosstown Concourse wears many hats. Inside its brick facade, a high school, restaurants, retailers, apartments, educational and healthcare organizations co-exist in a collaborative fashion to become “better together” — a vision being put into practice by Crosstown Arts, an nonprofit with a focus on cultivating the creative community in Memphis.
In 2017, Crosstown Arts opened the doors in its new home within the renovated Crosstown Concourse, a one million-square-foot former Sears & Roebuck distribution center. The building houses the organization’s contemporary art center that includes an artist residency program, gallery and large-scale exhibition space, screening rooms and live music venues. The nonprofit also operates a youth program, a community-organized exhibition and performance venue, a 425-seat black box performing arts theater, a cafe and bar.
Founded in 2010, Crosstown Arts tailors its programming to help foster a reputation for Memphis as not only a spot for entertainment, but a place for artists to develop their disciplines, accomplished through diverse programming and events that cover mediums in video and film, music, visual arts and more. The nonprofit offers platforms for the artists to showcase their work, as well as collaborate with other creatives.
The multi-disciplinary residency program for visual arts, writers, musicians, dancers, playwrights and curators plays a significant role.
“A big part of it is interfacing with other creatives. We are looking for a wide variety of people doing a wide variety of work. We want people from Memphis, from elsewhere in the country, international folks. So, this networking across exposure is really important to us. We are also looking for people from different backgrounds and different places in their career,” said Mary Jo Karimnia, Crosstown Arts residency manager.
Applications for the 2020 residency program open on May 15 and run through July 15. The spring session just wrapped up with the summer session slated to start on June 3. Two 20-day residencies are offered during the summer. Meanwhile, spring and fall have two three-month sessions, and a 10-month studio-only residency is offered annually.
The program hosts several different events throughout their sessions, including artist talks. These discussions on current residents’ work and creative process are open to the public.
“We had a visual artist that wrote a series of haikus based on her own work. It’s a free space for them to talk about whatever they want,” said Karimnia.
Open studio events are also held so the public can get an inside look at resident artists’ work.
About 300 people attended the open studio event for the spring residency. Spring residents Scott Carter, Chen Yang and Jia Yang are coming back for full gallery shows in the fall.
Participants are housed on the 8th and 9th floors of the concourse. There is a bank of 12 furnished apartments, with one two bedroom space for families. Residents share a common kitchen and laundry. Meals are provided five days a week by the Crosstown Arts cafe.
There are also shared workspaces that go across disciplines of digital arts, woodworking, printmaking and photography to list a few. Residents cover the costs for materials and any travel expenses.
“It’s not necessarily just about quality — artists have to be at a certain level to get into the program — but we’re really looking for a dynamic mix. We want to give time and space to people to learn more about their craft, to network with other people who are in their own genre and outside their genre as well. We want to encourage the dialogue between Memphis and the outside world,” said Karimnia.
Musicians, meanwhile, have access practice space and a shared studio.
“A lot of places offer music residencies but often they’re only for classical artists, and we take musicians from any genre so, that’s a unique thing about what we’re doing,” said Karimna.
The program usually hosts two or three musicians at a time. During the spring program Natalie Hoffman, front person for local noise-punk recording artists, Nots, was a resident. Along with New York musician, Yagan Fahmawi, Hoffman showcased her music in The Green Room, Crosstown Arts’ new listening room.
During the spring program Natalie Hoffman, front person for local noise-punk recording artists, Nots, participated in the Crosstown Arts residency and showcased her music in The Green Room. (Submitted)
Since ramping up its music programming in February, The Green Room has hosted a variety of music. Its flexible set up, including curtains and a stage that can be moved to different parts of the room, allows for an intimate performance to a packed house. Located on the second floor off of the Crosstown Arts gallery space, the music venue has capacity for 150 and is attached to the Crosstown Arts Art Bar, which is separated by a door and entryway.
“It’s a listening room, and there aren’t a lot of spaces like this in Memphis where you can go, and you’re in a space that’s dedicated to listening to music. It’s great for musicians because the full attention is on them,” said Jenny Davis, The Green Room music programmer.
Programming includes the Spotlight Concert series with Memphis Symphony Orchestra classical musicians, playing solo or in small groups. There is also a live DJ series called SPINS, and a funk-soul-R&B oriented showcase. Additionally, there is Live from The Green Room, a recurring series featuring solo performances.
“You can really expect to hear anything from classical to jazz to Americana to soul and funk. So, it’s really a wide range of musical styles you can hear in there [Green Room],” said Davis.
On May 10, former Memphian Will Kimbrough will perform his blend of folk, blues, gospel, country, punk rock and jazz. This will be followed on May 17 by Grace Askew, a Southwestern/Southern gothic full-band show. Swamp soul queen Marcella Simien will kick things off. The Spotlight Series, which begins on May 21, will feature a full chamber orchestra. Andrew Crust, assistant director, will conduct works by Gustav Mahler.
“We try to have all different kinds of music and all different artists. We hope it’s a place you can go, and even if you’re not sure what it is you are going to hear, you can feel sure that it’s going to be something that’s interesting and a great musical experience,” said Davis.
The nonprofit also supports a film and video production arm that documents all events at Concourse Arts. It is also creating a work-in-progress full-length documentary about the Concourse from its inception, opening and ongoing construction. It crosses over with the residency program, capturing all of the artist talks and making profile videos of the residency participants.
“The main interaction is in the same way all of us on staff at Crosstown Arts have the privilege of participating in, which is just the meeting and daily interaction with these awesome people who come from all over the world to spend a few months sharing their talents here in Memphis,” said Justin Elliott Thompson, Crosstown Arts director of film and video production.
Longtime friends with Christopher Miner, the managing director of Crosstown Arts, Thompson volunteered to shoot video of events and start work on a potential documentary about the arts organization and the renovation efforts for the building, which eventually turned into a full-time job for Thompson.
The Green Room is a music venue next to the Crosstown Arts gallery space and bar. (Submitted)
From this early start, a video and film program grew out of it that now documents the visual artists featured in the galleries, music concerts and a youth program. He has created film programming that includes: Shoot and Splice, a monthly filmmaker forum with Indie Memphis every first Tuesday of the month; the Microcinema Club for Crosstown Arts, a monthly short film screening series; and co-curating a weekly film series that just started last week in the Crosstown Theater.
“We have hosted some really, really great filmmakers, directors, make up artists, actors, writers, editors, cinematographers, colorists and composers who give their time and their talents talking to the Memphis film community about what it is they do,” said Thompson.
Additionally, as part of Crosstown Arts’ outreach mission, he has created a youth education program, conducting film workshops both in-house at Crosstown Arts and with the writing class at Northwest Prep Academy, just up the street from the Concourse on Poplar Avenue. Each semester Thomas guides the Northwest Prep students as they write, shoot and act in a movie.
“I think the greatest hope is that the video content spreads the word about the deep pool of talent that exist here in Memphis ... just spreading the word that Memphis is full of passionate, talented and ambitious artists, writers, musicians, song writers, craftsmen and filmmakers,” said Thompson.