At the end of the year, Mark Nowell is relinquishing the helm of ArtFarm Gallery of Fine Art and the arts publication Bluff, enterprises the metal sculptor initiated to focus attention on the artist community that has occupied the Marshall-Monroe neighborhood since the mid-'80s. "This is the first time in my life that I've ever been so distracted by a cause, politics, [and] being the member of a community," he says. "But now, I want to go back into the studio." With the loss of Nowell's persistent leadership and recent speculation regarding the area's redevelopment by the city, the future of ArtFarm seems increasingly fragile.
The earliest motivation for ArtFarm, says Nowell, was simply to coordinate an arts festival and open house to encourage patronage in the neighborhood. Later, the effort was expanded to create an artists association when the area, dubbed the "Edge" in 2000, was targeted as part of the Center City Commission's Memphis Medical District Master Plan. Following four ArtFarm festivals in the past several years, this summer's "EdgeFest" on August 17th was the first organized by the Edge Community Association, a "big brother" to ArtFarm that encompasses the interests of not just artists but a variety of businesses and residents in the area, including bars and restaurants, a Baptist church, a tattoo parlor, and several garages. Mike Todd, president of the Edge Community Association, says the moniker better characterizes the neighborhood's geographic orientation to downtown while also celebrating its "eclectic heritage and cutting-edge perspective."
The attention generated by the neighborhood's real estate has accelerated considerably as downtown redevelopment -- the light-rail extension on Madison; the proximity of AutoZone Park; UT's biomedical research facility slated for the site of the former Baptist Medical Center Campus -- has effectively surrounded the area. The CCC's plan for the Edge calls for the reconfiguration of the dizzy cluster of streets to enable increased storefronts on Madison, buildings designed for both retail and residential use, parking garages, and a 250-room hotel adjacent to historic Sun Studio.
The inevitable development of the Edge, hastened by Memphis' emerging status as a hub for medical research, is ultimately beneficial to the once-blighted area and for Memphis at large, but it will require deliberate action by artists and the city to ensure the continued presence of an art community. As the Sohos and South Mains of the world can attest, the casualties of redevelopment are often the very occupants who gave the neighborhood its distinctiveness and charm. Gentrification is predictable, so enlightened municipalities have established decisive means of incubating artists' activity and preserving cultural amenities as assets to redevelopment even while property values rise.
Claudio Perez-Leon, who worked for the formation of both an artist and community association in the neighborhood in 2000, holds the view that the artists' only hope is to become property owners through tax incentives, tax freezes, or matching funds to purchase targeted renovations and infill development. Todd says a proposal for Tax Incremental Financing status, where all taxes generated by redevelopment remain in the district to foster further growth, might be useful for "providing down-payment assistance for artists purchasing buildings or rent buy-downs."
Other means of retaining artists are rent control, subsidized studio spaces, or artist-relocation programs. Both Nowell and Perez-Leon cite case studies of such efforts throughout the country. The South Main Arts District's response to gentrification, the much-touted "artist incubator," is envisioned as a residency program that subsidizes artist's living and working space for finite terms of occupancy, though, unfortunately, it still has no funding or location. Danita Beck, artist, independent curator, and project manager for the UrbanArt Commission, who recently returned to Memphis after living and working in Boston, witnessed that city's South End District artists acting collectively to ensure rent control in designated studio spaces when the price of real estate ballooned.
"We need this. We need to keep this going," Beck emphasizes. Her interest and involvement with ArtFarm began after she got back to town and discovered the limited venues for art exhibits, where "even restaurants and cafes had gone to more exclusive lists and galleries," whereas the atmosphere at ArtFarm is accessible and open to experimentation and even risk. Beck believes that there is still a lot of potential for the continued presence of artists if they will organize and build some alliances, suggesting that perhaps even neighbor AutoZone Park and the Redbirds would be interested in the ArtFarm effort.
Beck is one of a team that will operate ArtFarm when Nowell takes his leave. The group, which also includes Melissa Barry, Teresa White, Monique Poussan, and Suzy Hendrix, has been working in the gallery for over a year and hopes to utilize the space as a cooperative gallery, according to Nowell. All have been instrumental in the coordination of several recent events at the gallery: the Summer Harvest exhibit, including two excellent and sorely underappreciated local painters, Frank D. Robinson and Corey Crowder, and the introduction of performance nights, the first of which featured Normal To Oily, a film by David Horan and Michael Schmidt, music and dance by Metal Velvet, and paintings by Wess Loudenslager. Nowell is confident that the gallery, where he will assume the curtailed duties of "maintenance man," is in capable hands if it can just weather the redevelopment. He hopes that someone will step in to carry on Bluff.
To officially end his leadership of ArtFarm, Nowell has published a pamphlet which warns of possible gentrification in the Edge and is a final plea for recognition of the neighborhood as an official arts district to ensure that studios and working spaces remain safe and affordable. He believes that the fate of the artists' community is at a crossroads, that the unique contributions artists have made to the area should be recognized and preserved as assets or they will be "squashed and dissolved because of rapid urban growth."
"Are we going to have another bar district or do something to get artists to stay in Memphis?" crows Nowell, who insists that failing to nuture the "creative class" ensures a steady brain drain, as young artists leave the city for greener pastures. "Forget trying to get them to come here. Just get some of them to stay -- the Carlos Villisantes and Robert Fordyces and countless others that have gone on, year after year, and move to Brooklyn, Miami, and San Francisco. People move. They don't stay here, and it's not being addressed! There's no reason for them to stay. So let's just start with an affordable studio district where you can be around other artists and start producing without having to worry about getting robbed."