Creative Economics: The investment and profits envisioned by More for Memphis for Arts and Culture

Over the next several months, the High Ground Team will be diving deep into the More for Memphis plan: What it is, why it is, and where it's taking us. This week, we take a look at Arts and Culture, one of the six focus areas critical to the initiative's success.

When it comes to transportation and shipping, movement is big business in Memphis — moving out, through, and around. 

But in the Arts and Culture sector in Memphis, what is moving in or up? Who isn’t moving at all?

The More for Memphis (MFM) initiative says there is work to be done for the economic and social mobility of Black and Brown residents. 

“We must center ourselves in the beautiful legacy of the art, culture, and music that stems from the Black experience,” said Rychetta Watkins, chair of the MFM Arts and Culture Collaborative. “We have to own our heritage and invest in that.”

Watkins is the director of grant-making and capacity building for Memphis Music Initiative (MMI), a nonprofit that supports youth engagement, development, and skill-building around music. MMI is an anchoring partner for MFM. 

“We positioned ourselves as an anchor because we want to call people's attention to the fact that this is a real sector of our economy,” Watkins explained. “When people come to Memphis, they don't come to see the newest sorting facility at FedEx. They come to hear some of the most cutting-edge Hip-Hop in the country. Cultural institutions, museums, and historic sites make Memphis what it is. Why aren't we investing in those places?”

Taking creativity seriously

In 2023, Kathy Hochul, governor of New York, made the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act” a statewide law. One of MFM’s goals is to have this legislation adopted as law in Tennessee.
Students from Collierville High School attend a community feedback session for More for Memphis in September 2023.
Specifically, MFM aims to ensure labor protections for Memphis artists employed on a contractual basis and hold violating employers accountable. MFM estimates that these protections will help 3,800 professional freelance creatives in Memphis.

“We arguably have the best live performers in the country and yet many artists feel unsupported, underpaid, and feel that there is a lack of opportunities to flourish in the city that they’ve worked so hard to contribute to the culture of,” explained Ty Boyland, a producer, songwriter, engineer, and music educator working in Memphis for more than 30 years.

Boyland continued, “Addressing how to expand entertainment zones, including artists in creating legislation that provides resources for growth, and investing in youth music programming in, and out of, schools will add to the vibrancy and growth of the entire city.”

Lack of space

“We don't have an infrastructure that holds artistic talent, and I think we have to have a creative infrastructure here that keeps it so that we can grow the city,” said Ruth Abigail Gardner, co-founder and executive director of AngelStreet Memphis, a nonprofit that builds girls as creative leaders through music and mentorship. 

Gardner contributed to MFM’s data collection and analysis team, focusing on feedback from artists and artist organizations regarding barriers to Arts and Culture in Memphis. One of the problems Gardner and her counterparts uncovered was a lack of free and accessible spaces for artists in Memphis. 

MFM plans to increase arts amenities available in approximately 42 local libraries and community centers and fund shovel-ready community arts projects that are in close proximity to low-income neighborhoods. The MFM strategic plan paints the picture of a holistic framework that uses Arts and Culture to revitalize communities, sustain a creative economy, and ultimately foster a creative talent pool in Memphis.

Going from amateur to professional

MFM recognizes that there is a need to jumpstart the careers of creatives in order to retain talent in Memphis. The MFM strategic plan outlines a city/county-sponsored professional development program for artists and creatives.

The program would address the gap between K-12 education and careers by offering professional development workshops tailored to the creative industry along with grants for those who complete the courses. MFM estimates the program could jumpstart the careers of at least 180 creatives.

“We spend $20 million on a building and then give an artist $2,500 to put an image on the side of it,” Watkins commented. “That’s thinking small when it comes to Arts and Culture. If you properly resourced this sector — and that means more cash, infrastructure, and government support — it absolutely would grow.”

Departmentalizing creativity

Watkins supports MFM’s push for a government office of Arts and Culture. The MFM strategic plan advocates for increasing public sector support of the creative industry to improve the creative landscape of Memphis and Shelby County.

Watkins said, “If we had an office, it could be helping us to pursue opportunities to make ourselves more attractive to people who are looking to invest in this community, relocate their employees here, or build a new project here.” 

New York City has a Department of Cultural Affairs that provides access to Arts and Culture for residents. The City of Los Angeles has a Department of Cultural Affairs that leverages public funds to generate and support the arts, cultural experiences, and heritage. Watkins is calling on Memphis’ leaders to follow the blueprints of such cities with similar creative demographics. 

“Mayor Young's support for this idea is crucial. Not only the incoming administration and the executive office of the incoming administration but also City Council,” Watkins said. “Another key player is Shelby County with their Nonprofit Committee and Arts and Culture Liaison. Developing that warm collaborative relationship is going to really be vital.”

Watkins continued, “Another key person is the incoming Memphis-Shelby County Schools (MSCS) superintendent, Dr. Marie Feagins. She supported arts in the classroom in Detroit so it would be really great to have an educational partner who right off the bat understands the role that the arts plays.” 

Putting the arts back in schools

MFM wants MSCS to collaborate with local creative organizations to increase school-based enrichment and College, Career, and Technical Education (CCTE) opportunities. MFM calls attention to how the arts have been neglected through constant disinvestment and increased invisibility, impacting low-income Black and Brown youth the most.

“When youth have outlets to release stress, it also cultivates creativity. It does something for the individual that learning a trade doesn't always do,” Gardner explained. “I understand workforce development, but when we think ‘workforce,’ we think ‘workhorse.’ There's no motivation in that.”

M4M aims to increase school-based access to the arts through enrichment classes for approximately 8,400 MSCS students, particularly middle schoolers.

“We need cohesion in education, non-profits, private sector, law enforcement, and legislation. All of these areas play an integral role in how arts have been used, misused, and underutilized,” Boyland noted. “I think that the biggest pitfall [of MFM] would be the inaction by any of the stakeholders needed to actually do ‘More for Memphis.’ It would stall our efforts.”

Gardner echoed Boyland and Watkins’ pleas to stakeholders, adding the MSCS School Board and Shelby County Commission to the list.

Gardner said, “[MFM] is a huge initiative with a lot of promises and a lot of expectations in a lot of areas. And to me, the issue is the way we were trying to do Achievement School District and No Child Left Behind. We have to have some super bold leaders in powerful places that start saying ‘no’ to things that have been and ‘yes’ to things that haven't been.”
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Read more articles by Ashlei Williams.

Memphis native Ashlei Williams has been writing for business, philanthropic, minority and academic audiences for a decade. She earned her master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University’s Medill School and bachelor’s in English from Spelman College. In 2016, she started GJC Publicity, focusing on editorial, marketing, advertising and creative writing. Get in touch with her at [email protected].