What’s the future of Overton Park? Memphians have their say in final public forum

Dozens of Memphians gathered at the Lester Community Center on November 28 to spitball ideas for the future of two of Overton Park’s most iconic buildings, the Brooks Museum of Art building and Memphis College of Art's Rust Hall.

Memphis College of Art will be shuttering its main building, Rust Hall, in 2020 when the school closes its doors. The Brooks plans to relocate Downtown by 2024. Combined, the adjacent buildings offer 186,000 square feet of space, including gallery, classroom, food service, auditorium and event spaces.

“The Memphis College of Art has served as the maker of artists for many decades. Over and over again, we’ve heard the importance of arts being central to any future iterations of what is in this space,” said Nicole Buchholz, of U3 Advisors.

The national urban planning consulting agency is working with the city on the vision and strategy of the project.

The visioning process, Project Overton Park (POP): Reimagining Rust Hall and the Brooks Building, began October 16 with a public forum at Rust Hall. A draft of guiding principles, including the use, maintenance and stewardship of the two buildings, was developed with the help of community and park stakeholders.

U3 organized the second and final public forum to solicit feedback on the initiative's recently developed principles.

The consulting firm gave a 20-minute presentation sharing case studies, ideas and a draft of guiding principles before breaking up into four smaller groups for discussion.

The draft principles include:

  • Enrich Rust Hall and the Brooks building with creative and respectful reuse concepts.
  • Enhance Overton Park and connect to the surrounding communities.
  • Represent the diverse tapestry of the Memphis community, ensuring accessibility to all.
  • Become a resource that strengthens the Memphis community.
  •  Ensure long-term financial sustainability.

“One thing that has come up over and over again is that these are a public open space.
People want to be able to come in, make their own and be part of the buildings’ future,” said Buchholz.

The group decided that the buildings should also serve the arts community, provide continuing education and generate revenue for sustainability. A park hub, community arts space, mixed-use spaces and even an arboretum were some of the suggestions that came out of the discussions.
Rust Hall (Submitted by POP)“These have brought great insight - a lot of honest conversations from ideas that people have had to concepts from partners in Overton Park to the more difficult questions of inclusion and how we can make these institutions be reflective of who Memphis is today,” said Buchholz.

Since the first forum, U3 Advisors has collected a lot of feedback: about 100 people attended the October meeting, resulting in 200 comments; 214 people participated in a survey with more than 1,500 comments. Conversations have also been held with more than 15 different organizations and stakeholders.

Organizations have already come forward with their ideas for how the building could be reused. For the Brooks Museum, Ekundayo Bandele, Hattiloo Theatre founder, proposed a national museum for black theater. Meanwhile, gallery owner Jay Etkin would like to open the Memphis Museum of Tribal & Visionary Art.

The Metal Museum proposed expanding its programming and exhibit space into Rust Hall; and Memphis Fashion Week founder Abby Phillips envisions housing a creative collaborative and Makers Academy, offering studio and retail space, equipment and other services for artists, as well as continuing arts education, events space and a restaurant.

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

Several Memphis College of Art alumni were also at the meeting as advocates to keep the school’s doors open.

On a parallel track to the Rust Hall and Brooks reuse plan, the Overton Park Conservancy and the City of Memphis are launching a comprehensive planning process for the park — the first one in more than 30 years.

The major concerns are how to make the park equitable for all Memphians; how to honor the historic and present uses of the park while anticipating future needs of the community, and how to make Overton Park financially sustainable.

The OPC Master Plan is a separate process, but The Rust Hall and Brooks Museum vision will need to dovetail to create a cohesive Overton Park.

While a vision is coming into view, the city’s process for proposals is still unclear after two public meetings. Alex Feldman, of U3 Advisors, said they are in talks and working on details in the coming weeks.

Meeting attendees suggested that workshops could be organized to help potential applicants develop their proposals. With the amount of space and capital needed, collaborations could be facilitated so a single user won’t have to carry the burden of maintaining the space.

As the vision for the buildings take shape, now that public meetings are complete, organizers plan to craft the final guiding principles by the end of the year. Phase two, which includes partner solicitation and request for proposals, is expected to wrap up by early spring of 2019.

“This is not the end. It’s really the beginning,’’ said Feldman.

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.