Picture this: Visual art enjoying a renaissance in Memphis

Renegade curators and innovative "gallery" hosts are shaking up the Memphis art scene, creating a vibrant and inclusive community that is free to create outside of traditional structures.
The artistic community in Memphis is used to taking hard knocks. The “Great Recession” that took hold in 2009 is just the latest gut punch from which Memphis artists must recover, and a new surge of creative energy is helping to make that recovery tangible for the whole city. Out of the recession, local artists and community organizers are changing the way we understand artistic spaces, building icons of public hope, and making a new normal by putting themselves to work.  

The revitalization of the Sears-Crosstown neighborhood driven by Crosstown Arts and the creation of highly visible public art projects by the UrbanArt Commission and ArtsMemphis is bringing the power of art to the forefront of the public consciousness. At the same time, the establishment of community hubs around neighborhoods like Broad Avenue Arts District and Binghampton and shared spaces like Levitt Shell and the Greenline incorporate artful experiences into the daily lives of Memphians.

The ever-growing community of support has also enabled individual local artists to rethink what's possible. Buoyed by hope and the collaborative spirit, an ever-increasing number of creatives are "going rogue." Renegade curators are using grassroots organizational tactics to curate art events outside the boxes of mainstream art spaces, museums, and commercial galleries.  In the new landscape even previously unknown artists are creating small-scale exhibits that make big waves in the Memphis art scene.
Some of the most innovative art happenings are occurring in private residences-turned galleries like Adam Farmer’s Glitch, Lauren Kennedy’s Southfork, and Joel Parson’s Beige.  Some are happening in galleries occupying unusual spaces such as Tops, an austere art space in a former coal chute run by Matt Ducklo and John Weeden, or Greely Myatt’s Wrong Again Gallery which inhabits a single door way.  Some shows spring out of unusual collaborations like the annual Art of Science Exhibition, a collaboration between local artists and St. Jude Research Hospital, or Ian Lemmonds' epic unicorn themed exhibit in 2013.

But why are these relatively small scale, low budget art events enjoying so much success in Memphis? The momentum seems contagious and hints that, much like the local music scene, visual art is enjoying a renaissance in Memphis.

The DIY Curator
A long-time Memphian, Ian Lemmonds works with online design at the Commercial Appeal, is a photographer and is the innovator behind the popular local t-shirt brand, Memphis Threat. But he has also been curating art shows in his free time, organizing exhibits in multi-functional venues that rally some of the city’s best local artists.

Though he has worked in mainstream galleries and exhibited at L. Ross and the Dixon Gallery, Ian Lemmonds sees his work as a renegade curator as some of the most important. “Artists are some of the smartest people you know, they’re some of the most creative people you know, and they’re also some of the poorest people you know,” says Lemmonds. Through his curatorial work he addresses the need for a mechanism of discovery in Memphis that doesn’t burden struggling artists financially.

Lemmonds and curators like him take inspiration from other cities like Cincinnati and Detroit where creative communities are cutting costs by reclaiming and repurposing abandoned or underutilized spaces. When crafting a show he bypasses traditional and expensive application processes by reaching out to the talented people around him. He finds space for their work in both low cost community venues and in the abandoned spaces that are so ubiquitous to the city’s urban sprawl.

"Local artist are just beginning to embrace the thing that has always defined Memphis’s character – that gritty, blue collar, DIY ethic. The fact that you have galleries out of peoples’ houses is one of the most punk rock things ever," he says. “If they will not recognize our brilliance, then we have to do it ourselves,” he continues. “And, I don't mean to sound egotistical when I say brilliance, but there is brilliance here.”

Lemmonds hypothesizes that out of the box art shows are gaining community support because they fill a void that isn’t being met by commercial galleries and well-funded museums. He says the public's disinterest in art is based in a feeling they "don't get it" or that art "makes them feel stupid."

"Most of the artists I admire are highly trained and highly educated, but their work is extremely approachable. You don’t have to be an expert at art to love what they do," he says of local talents.

Exhibits like his “Super Epic Memphis Unicorn Magical Exhibition Show” at Marshall Arts last year provide an inviting atmosphere where art is made accessible and fun without condescension. The ground-breaking show hosted the work of more that thirty artists and serves as supporting evidence to his theory. The tongue-and-cheek exhibit opened on April fools day last year and attracted more that 400 people, many of whom were new to the Memphis art scene.

“With postmodernism,” he explains, “there was a kind of obfuscation that was in style. Now we don’t have the luxury to be jerks to anyone. Art shows aren’t just for artists; they need audiences."  

His most recent exhibit “Inspired Resistance” inhabited the main gallery at Crosstown Arts in February and was, in a way, a call to arms for creatives struggling to make ends meet. Featured artists like Bobby Spillman, Carl Moore and Alex Paulus are living proof that a day job shouldn't mean the death of an art career. These talented individuals and their multifaceted careers show that multi-tasking is just a part of the "new normal." In fact, job security can lend artists the liberty to take risks in their home studios.

For Lemmonds, these opportunities show artists they can continue working and resist quitting. "There’s a whole generation coming up under us and another under that, and it’s our responsibility to tell them, 'you can show’.”

Bringing Art Home
Adam Farmer, a former Memphis College of Art student, converted his home into "Glitch" last June, one of the most unique galleries in Memphis. He took a leap of faith by quitting his job and now supports himself entirely by selling his own paintings and through his work at Glitch. Like Lemmonds, Farmer believes helping artists find low-cost exhibition space is important to this non-hierarchical art movement. Invited artists exhibit their work free of charge; Farmer asks only for a ten percent commission on sales.  He even offers his space as a place for traveling artists to reside or locals to spend late nights as they create new installations.

“By definition Glitch is a minor malfunction,” says Farmer. His home/gallery is on  Cowden, a residential street in the Cooper Young neighborhood. His neighbors have mixed feelings about entertaining the large numbers of art enthusiast that attend his openings every third Friday of the month. "One neighbor loves what I do. One neighbor hates what I do," Farmer confesses. Despite the controversy, Glitch has enjoyed critical success and draws a growing viewership. Over 150 people attended his last event.

Through Glitch, Farmer questions the function of everyday objects, ordinary spaces, and the information that we are bombarded with every day. "I’m questioning function and pushing it as far as I can,” he explains. "Every closet in the house is its own sculpture, every room is its own installation."

It’s true that Glitch is no white cube. The walls of the main exhibit space (once living room) are covered floor to ceiling by a busy collaborative mural, painted by Adam and nearly every artist that has exhibited there. "The paintings on the walls are sort of like cave paintings. They build off of each other like a big sketchbook that you pass around every show," says Farmer.

When new exhibits are installed they are layered directly on top of the existing work – paintings on top of paintings, sculptures within sculptures. The whole house is intended to be viewed as one giant work of art. Though hyper-stimulating, the colossal pastiche of images, objects, color and pattern is not thoughtless. Frenetic collaboration is a well-considered part of his concept.

Though Adam is conscious of influence from Alex Harrison’s Warble House (a haven for past MCA students) and the DeCleyre Cooperative (the University of Memphis area's local art space, music venue and communal living space), he sets Glitch apart.  “We’re talking about a cooperation between control and chaos, not just a youthful expression of anxiety." Non-commercial spaces like Glitch afford curators and artists alike unprecedented freedom.

Farmer believes that the success of his gallery and the work of other creative space-makers is born of a local desire to connect with art in a way that is comfortable, playful and inviting. "I think that most people here in the south don't view art the way you 'should' view art. They almost see it as an insult. The only way to change that is by not having art shows at exclusive galleries and museums that seem like elitist sanctuaries. So it’s at a home.”

Joel Parsons' position as a transplanted resident gives him a unique perspective on the art in Memphis. He studied at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and is now working as an assistant professor of art at Rhodes College. He also acts as director of the college's Clough-Hanson Gallery and is the Exhibitions Coordinator at the National Ornamental Metal Museum. Despite his formal training and well-established career, Parsons too has gone rogue.

Parsons and his partner Steve McMahon opened Beige in the living room of their Bluff City apartment in 2012.  Parsons had been impressed by the well-respected apartment gallery scene in Chicago and was driven by the need to establish an artistic home for the LGBT community in Memphis. He also cites the influence of his predecessor at the Clough-Hanson Gallery, Hamlet Dobbins. Dobbin’s was one of the first artists in Memphis to blur the line between public and private art space; his Material Gallery on Broad Avenue combined a residence, studio and gallery.  

"We opened the gallery out of necessity," says Parsons bluntly. “It sounds extreme, but it's really about survival. It's about making a place and building a community that will nourish and sustain our work and our lives, which didn't really exist in Memphis otherwise." He sees the gallery as his contribution to Memphis' growth. "We're committed to living here, and Memphis is not yet the city that we want it to be. So we have to put in the work."

“To us, art is about relationships and ideas. It's also a great excuse to get a bunch of people together in the same room. So it made a lot of sense that hosting an art space would be integral to the way that we lived here.”   McMahon and Parsons further support their community by sponsoring “a micro grant for emerging queer artists in Memphis."  As Parson explains, “[It] is totally funded by people who come to our events. It's called the Sugarbaker-Milk fund. All of the money in the donation bucket at the end of our events goes into the fund, and then we sponsor projects by local artists."

Like Ian Lemmonds and Adam Farmer, they are also motivated by a desire to connect on a deeper level with art viewers and provide space for under-represented artists. However, they are less concerned with economics of the post-recession art world. “There's definitely a void to be filled,” affirms Parsons. “But it’s a void of truly contemporary art that's relevant to our lives, and that pushes the conversation forward. A lot of the art that happens in Memphis looks really good hanging over a couch, and that's great – there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. But there are other worlds of amazing art that aren't meant for that kind of consumption, and it takes work to make a place for that art. That's what Beige is about.”
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Read more articles by Melissa Farris.

Melissa Farris is a local artist and curator.