I'm in Overton Park a couple times a week, either taking my mutts to the dog park or biking through on a weekend ride. It's truly a beautiful place. The deep woods, the green spaces and trails, the diverse and cheerful humanity jogging and biking, playing golf and soccer, or just sitting on benches watching their children play. It's the living heart of Midtown.
But, as everyone knows by now, change is coming to Memphis' "Central Park." After some prodding from the Flyer's Toby Sells, who broke the story a couple weeks ago, the Brooks Museum of Art revealed its intentions to move downtown — likely to the corner of Union and Front Street — to become part of the city's proposed new riverfront development plan. Museum officials cited a lack of space in the venerable museum's current building as a primary reason for the decision to move.
Then, on the heels of that bombshell, the Memphis College of Art announced last week that it would close its doors after fulfilling its educational obligations to its current students, probably in May 2020. In a statement given to the media, the school cited "declining enrollment, overwhelming real estate debt, and no viable long-term plan for financial sustainability."
Rust Hall, the primary MCA building, is a gorgeous, airy, modern-looking piece of architecture, but according to two MCA board members I spoke with, it needs major updating — another expense the college couldn't find the means to pay for.
So now there are two beautiful city-owned buildings in Overton Park that will need tenants of some sort. There is time to sort this out and come up with answers that make sense for the park and the city. The timetable for Brooks' move, according to director Emily Balew Neff, is five years or so. And nothing will happen on that front until the city's proposal to use TMZ funds for the riverfront is approved. And, as mentioned, MCA will be sticking around for two more years.
When these announcements were made, conspiracy theorists began speculating that a grander, more sinister plot was afoot — that, in some mysterious way, the Memphis Zoo was involved or that the two arts organizations were somehow in cahoots to abandon the park.
But as details have emerged, it's become clear that Brooks is moving because it wants to grow and build a new home. And it doesn't hurt that a couple of very wealthy and well-connected people are wanting to make that move happen.
MCA, on the other hand, is closing because it created more real estate debt than the institution could handle — $7 million, according to insiders — and paying off those notes became prohibitive. Did the MCA administration over-reach? Was creating a grad school and building new dorms and buying buildings downtown a bridge too far? Could the school be right-sized and survive if brought back to its original scope and mission? We'll never know, unless a deep-pocketed sugar daddy comes to the rescue.
The fact is, small fine-arts colleges are struggling in other places, as well. Nearly 20 such schools have closed around the country since 2015. And Forbes.com recently ran a story about the many colleges and universities across the country that have leveraged themselves into financial difficulties by over-building and over-borrowing. It's a trend, and not a good one.
On my visits to Overton Park, I often see an MCA van parked in front of Rust Hall emblazoned with the school's slogan, "We Make Art Work." Well, art worked for 80 years. Now? Not so much.
Now, it's on us to figure out how to "make the park work."