Opinion » Viewpoint

An Agenda for Memphis

Organized support for our indigenous culture will help our city to thrive.



As reported in the Flyer recently, a pair of successful Broadway productions and a couple of well-marketed primetime TV shows are giving Memphis some exceptionally high national exposure. Some Memphians are overjoyed for the complimentary marketing our city is receiving. Others are underwhelmed by their perceived lack of genuine Southern soulfulness.

However you regard the artistic merit of these projects, the boost to our regional tourism is undeniably positive. Having our city's name in lights in the middle of New York's Times Square is invaluable, and Memphis music and landmarks figure prominently in almost every scene of the new TNT series Memphis Beat.

Of course, our unique mystique has long served as creative fodder to artists, musicians, writers, and movie makers from around the world. Memphis is mentioned in more popular songs than any other city in America, and until recently, our primacy as a popular filmmaking location was well-known.

However, we do ourselves a disservice when other cities profit from our Memphis brand. The clearest current example is New Orleans, which beat out Memphis as the filming location for Memphis Beat because our tax incentives were simply inferior. Memphis filmmaker Craig Brewer was compelled to take his $25 million budget for Footloose to Atlanta for the same reasons.

When other states pull film and TV projects away from Memphis, they pull our city's creative workforce with them. These individuals — the writers and directors, the actors and choreographers, the makeup artists and set builders, the camera operators and graphic designers, the soundmen and recording engineers — are integral not only to our film and music scenes but to our entire creative economy. Where there is no work, they will not and cannot stay here — and we need them.

Arts and culture contribute more than $100 million annually to our city and employ more than 3,500 people. As we can see in areas like Cooper-Young and South Main, neighborhoods that boast a high concentration of artists and arts venues enjoy strong local businesses and more stable home values. This enhanced quality of life triggers an "upward spiral" of continued prosperity as more families and businesses migrate into these exciting arts districts.

Memphis needs a strong cultural sector to recruit strong businesses — and for those businesses to recruit workers. I can tell you from personal experience that it is the quality of our museums, our galleries, our symphonies, and our theater and dance companies that people inquire about more than anything else before moving here.

Shreveport, Atlanta, New York, and other cities would do anything to have the rich artistic and technical talent that Memphis takes for granted. In order to ensure that Memphis remains a city of choice for our creative class, several things must happen:

When the Tennessee General Assembly reconvenes this year, I plan to pursue a strong package of tax incentives that will lure new film and recording projects to Memphis. This legislation must also include residency incentives and tax credits for cutting-edge digital artists, software developers, and new-media practitioners.

We must provide a continuum of support and awareness for the arts that begins in childhood. Every child in Memphis should grow up with a healthy understanding of their hometown's worldwide significance as a creative capital.

Emerging artists who are making the most exciting and challenging work of their careers should receive the ample financial, moral, and professional support they need to remain in Memphis. The city is filled with experimental, ambitious groups and collectives doing terrific work, from Collage Dance Collective to Odessa to Voices of the South. Each deserves of your discovery and support.

Being an arts patron means more than writing checks or buying season tickets. It means committing to professionalizing the arts by paying artists what they are worth. No one chooses a career in the arts in order to get rich. But when hard-working artists face too many difficulties making ends meet here, they will invariably leave for cities that allow them to make a living more easily.

Memphis' brand is not its past accomplishments but its future promise. Let's seize our moment in the spotlight to invest in our creative economy and solidify our rightful position as the South's creative capital. Doing so will lead to even more economic success and more enduring — and more authentically Memphis — creative works in the future. A C Wharton is mayor of the city of Memphis.

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