When it comes to promoting its brand, Memphis has been criticized for being something of a one-note town.
But Memphian John Kirkscey has an idea to change that. "Memphis is the arts Mecca of the South," Kirkscey says. "We need to start celebrating our present culture, not just our past."
Kirkscey is the "idea guy" behind the Memphis Art Park, a proposal to create a public park on the Front Street promenade that would "provide both locals and tourists with an attractive destination to enjoy a wide variety of local art while providing our city's emerging artists with vital arts facilities."
The proposal includes an arts center at the Cossitt Library with space for studios, classrooms, and galleries, a performance venue on Monroe Street between Front and Riverside, and a rooftop park on the parking garage at the corner of Front and Monroe.
"We should be nurturing arts and creativity," Kirkscey says. "We're not going to be a Fortune 500 town. We shouldn't be trying to be Atlanta or Dallas."
Kirkscey grew up in Germantown and has a background in international business. After completing his undergraduate degree at Ole Miss, he bounced around, living in Costa Rica, Miami, and New York, getting his masters in Phoenix, and doing corporate banking in Houston.
"Some people backpack in Europe," he says. "I went to Costa Rica."
A fluke brought him back to Memphis a few years ago, and he rediscovered the city through fresh eyes.
"I realized what an amazing city this is in terms of creativity. This is an arts town. That's our niche," Kirkscey says.
He began thinking about an arts park after a visit to the Cooper-Young festival a few years ago. Friends for Our Riverfont — a group that formed in response to the Riverfront Development Corporation's (RDC) plan to build office buildings on the public promenade and a land bridge near Mud Island — had a booth. Friends for Our Riverfront's plan included a great urban park on the promenade.
For the next two years, Kirkscey did research on art parks and began working on his proposal full-time last spring after noticing that plans for the promenade had stalled.
"An art park seems like something both groups could be happy with," Kirkscey says. "It adds vitality to the area; it has green space; it's in the public use so it honors the easement."
He's been meeting with members of the Friends for Our Riverfront and the RDC, as well as the Center City Commission, the Memphis Regional Chamber, the Memphis Convention & Visitors' Bureau, and the Memphis City Council.
Kirkscey also has approached foundations to help fund the art park. His vision is to set up the park as a non-profit with an executive director (though he clarifies he is not interested in running it).
"I don't want to go to the city for money. I just want to go to them for the green light," he says.
To unveil his proposal to the public, Kirkscey held an event during the most recent South Main Art Trolley Tour. In the little sliver of space between Earnestine & Hazel's and Gestures, he set up what he calls "a miniature version of what an art park would be."
Seven artists painted from 6 to 9 p.m., when their work was auctioned off. Kirkscey's cousin, Jonathan Kirkscey, a cellist who plays with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Mouserocket, performed solo. Jazz group the Spondoolicks also performed.
And, of course, there were architectural drawings detailing Kirkscey's vision.
"I think people in Memphis get frustrated and then they get cynical. I don't think they would get so frustrated if they didn't think this city had so much potential," Kirkscey says.
"Our whole downtown should be a platform for the arts. That's the way to get downtown Memphis going."
To learn more about the proposed art park, visit memphisartpark.org.