Local arts organizers make a bid to take over Memphis College of Art's Rust Hall

With the Memphis College of Art’s May 2020 closure approaching, the fate of the school’s main building in Overton Park is up in the air.

Leaders from the Memphis Fashion Design Network and the local chapter of the Rising Tide Society are taking steps to secure Rust Hall and remake the eye-catching mid-century space into a mixed-use facility for artists and creative entrepreneurs.

Abby Phillips, founder of Memphis Fashion Design Network, and Dorothy Collier, a mixed-media artist who started the Memphis chapter of the Rising Tide Society, are in the process of launching a new nonprofit, Memphis Area Creative Collaborative, and bid for occupancy and renovation of Rust Hall. 

Related: "Memphis College of Art: A $30M 'miracle' could save the school from closing"

Phillips has been working with the college’s community education department to develop the curriculum for their fashion design certification program for the past five years.

The Memphis Fashion Design Network’s current location at The Lab, 64 Flicker Street, is at capacity. Five fashion designers rent studio space, and it also has a small conference room and extra space for trunk shows, sewing classes and a small cowork area.

Related: "Art lights up lesser-known Flicker Street in Midtown"

Collier holds Rising Tide Society events at different locations across town.

Acquiring the 100,000-square-foot building would allow the two organizations to expand their vision and work significantly. The Lab is a miniature model for their Rust Hall vision.

Dorothy Collier (left), a mixed-media artist who started the Memphis chapter of the Rising Tide Society and Abby Phillips, founder of Memphis Fashion Design Network (right) want to operate a coworking space for artists out of Rust Hall. (Submitted)As a special project through the Memphis Fashion Design Network’s nonprofit status, the founders of Memphis Area Creative Collaborative are fleshing out a creative vision, business plan and the formation of a board and staff. 

“We’re looking to combine the aspects that Dorothy [Collier] and I are currently doing Rising Tide, individual artists, medium as a whole in a space and put it all together. It’s a coworking space for creatives,” said Phillips.

Rising Tide Society is a nationwide nonprofit that supports creative entrepreneurs who work collaboratively to foster community building. Collier has also worked with the community education department at MCA to launch the Positively Creative Series, a slate of workshops and classes geared toward creative entrepreneurs.

“That’s why Rust Hall is ideal. The groundwork is already there,” said Collier.

Rust Hall has four levels. Under the preliminary plan, the basement will be used for over 40 artist studios, workshops and classrooms along with equipment, which is already in place.

The first floor would be used for micro-retail, galleries and a restaurant — all open to the public. The second floor would be used for office space for arts organizations and coworking spaces for members. The third floor, meanwhile, would be renovated into an events space that overlooks Overton Park.

“That’s the beauty of this space. It’s not just studios. You will have access to collaboration, equipment and even clients. With trunks shows, we are bringing in people to purchase and growing these entrepreneurs in a way they aren’t currently getting on their own,” said Phillips.

Related: "Memphis College of Art is closing to students, opening its classes to creative entrepreneurs"

The location isn’t too shabby, either. Overton Park is a green space that is home to The Links at Overton Park golf course, Memphis Zoo, Levitt Shell, Brooks Museum of Art and a playground.

“Lots of my artist friends either work from home or if they do have a studio, it’s off the beaten path. Why are they paying that money when no one is walking by and seeing the awesome stuff they are doing?” said Collier.

“We do not want to reinvent the arts wheel. We want to bring in all of these existing organizations to be a part, uplift and make their jobs easier,” said Collier, who is in initial talks with Creative Aging, Indie Memphis and Memphis Black Arts Alliance about the possibility of holdig programming at the Rust Hall space. 

Collier and Phillips are working on branding and drumming up capital and community support for the project. They are consulting with Paradigm Creative on a catchier name.

They are also working with a fundraising specialist to solicit the necessary capital. The building has $3.3 million in deferred maintenance needed to just open the doors. Though their bid for the building has not been approved, the Memphis Area Creative Collaborative is fundraising to show community support for their proposal. If the Rust Hall location falls through, the founders plan to launch the initiative in another location.  

“Our biggest piece now is the fundraising piece of it. We know for renovations we will need to raise about $12 million. We don’t expect that to be all at once but pledged over a five to ten-year period. But that’s what the overarching capital campaign looks to be,” said Phillips.

The duo is also taking part in an 18-month ArtSpace Immersion program, a capacity-building program for creating and maintaining local spaces for creatives. It supports cohorts of arts organizations in their real estate needs.  For Phillips and Collier, they are working to understand the process of interior renovation and allocation of square footage.

Related: "Artspace lifts up artists to build capacity and community"

Unlike Rust Hall, which is owned by the college, the land beneath and around it is city-owned. The City of Memphis is working with national consultants to smooth out issues related to leasing the acreage

MCA owns Rust Hall and will have to decide if they sell it or gift it to a new user. In January, the Memphis Area Creative Collaborative will submit their proposal to turn the building into a mixed-use support center for the local arts scene. Officials from the city, Overton Park and MCA will be part of deciding the fate of the building. Other competing proposals are expected. 

Urban planning consultant U3 Advisors held an open forum two weeks ago on October 16 at Rust Hall and took ideas from the community on the future as well as the Brooks Museum, which plans to move to a new location in Downtown Memphis by 2025. On November 28, ideas culled from the forum will be presented to the community.

While the future of Rust Hall may be up in the air, the hope is that the community education programs currently offered by MCA, like the Positively Creative Series, will move into Memphis Area Creative Collaborative.

“Memphis College of Art served 850 youth for their summer program this past year. We would love to continue that effort and those programs and to continue the scholarships program,” said Collier.

If the chips fall the other way and they don’t get Rust Hall, Memphis Area Creative Collaborative as an organization has taken on a life of its own, and will still have real space needs, so Phillips and Collier are considering other physical locations.

“We are exploring other options and know that’s a possibility. But we do feel like because of what the college already has in place with the workshops, studios and labs, it make the most sense. We can recreate it. But we would love to be in Rust Hall,” said Phillips.

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.