The connections between the Memphis arts scene and the Berlin Wall may not be obvious, but a new documentary could offer some lessons for local artists.
Nearly six years in the making, two Memphis filmmakers, Eric Swartz and Sarah Bolton, will host the Memphis premiere of Children of the Wall on Wednesday, March 21st. The film, featuring stories from 20 artists, musicians, and performers from Berlin, Germany, is about the artistic and cultural explosion of Berlin after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the recent development and gentrification of the city's arts district.
"What I was really feeling in Berlin [before we began filming] was this creative energy," Swartz said. "I had this naive notion that maybe it had something to do with the Wall and the minds of the East and West coming together to make this awesome thing happen."
The further Swartz and Bolton fell into their research, they discovered that there were more connections between the fall of the Berlin Wall and a blossoming arts movement.
"What we found was that it was more about the vacuum of space that the collapse of the Wall created — the economic vacuum and the real estate vacuum — because people would abandon East Berlin and East Germany for the west in hopes of getting work. The economy [in the East] was desolate," Swartz said.
"There were all of these empty warehouses and buildings, and artists tend to migrate into those spaces," Swartz continued. "These places really became cultural meccas."
But today, as bankers and developers are beginning to notice the thriving arts district in Berlin, artists are finding it increasingly difficult to hold onto the spaces they have saved and cultivated over the last 20 years.
"For me, it's like a flagship for the topic of gentrification of art spaces in particular," Swartz said. "Banks are trying to foreclose [on Berlin art houses] and kick the artists out."
Gentrification and development are not unique to Berlin. Swartz said Memphis, though home to a growing arts scene, may need to find the balance between pushing for economic growth and providing a space for local artists to work and thrive.
"We're in the middle of some development in Memphis, like Crosstown Arts, which is great," Swartz said, "But I think artists have to learn how to develop themselves as a business if they want to stay in a space and continue to do what they're doing."
Swartz points to the South Main Arts District as an example. In the 1990s, property was cheap. Enterprising artists began buying space for studios, and South Main became safer and more sophisticated, eventually resulting a gentrified arts district that prices out some artists.
The city of Memphis and nonprofit ArtSpace are trying to solve that problem by creating affordable live/work space for artists inside an old South Main warehouse on St. Paul.
Children of the Wall premieres at Studio on the Square on March 21st at 7 p.m.