MEMPHISMUSIC_NOV

The Memphis Music Magnet is arts-based neighborhood revitalization with a Memphis twist, designed to augment the redevelopment of the Soulsville USA neighborhood by making it a community of choice for musicians, music-related creatives, and other artists. ArtPlace spoke with Rhonda Causie, Director of Grants and Innovation at the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and Charlie Santo, Associate Professor of City & Regional Planning at the University of Memphis, whose students have worked with multiple stakeholders to help develop the Memphis Music Magnet concept.

ARTPLACE: Have you gained any political traction with your efforts? If so, with whom and how did you do it?

Santo: We are gaining a certain kind of traction. Despite its important heritage, the Soulsville neighborhood has not seen significant private market interest or positive population change in some time, so the kind of traction that we need to gain in order to have success relates to overcoming negative perceptions about the neighborhood and lending credibility to the possibility of revitalization in Soulsville. I believe the events we have hosted so far (and the associated media buzz) have helped illustrate that potential. Over 500 people attended the first MSO performance at the Magnet (the vacant grocery store space we have repurposed as a performance and cultural venue). For that afternoon, as we hoped, the music acted as a magnet – connecting neighborhood residents with one another, drawing new visitors, and bringing old faces back to the neighborhood that they left long ago. Each time visitors leave Soulsville safe and satisfied, barriers will fall away until there is a pervasive sense that Soulsville is safe and engaging, even beyond the MSO residency. The early success of our events has led other cultural organizations (beyond the MSO) to express interest in holding events at our facility in the Soulsville community. The Magnet was host to a master class held by George Clinton (in association with the Stax Music Academy and the Berklee City Music Network) and may soon bring in visitors to see performances by the opera, the ballet, and others.

Our work represents a highly visible concerted effort toward change in Soulsville. And the existence of a concerted effort has led allied civic and community development organization to take notice of the neighborhood as a market for appropriate interventions: The Urban Art Commission, in partnership with other organizations, has started conversations with South Memphis artists about developing public art in the neighborhood; Livable Memphis has supported our events with “guerilla” wayfinding sings; a coalition of local organizations, including Livable Memphis, the Memphis Regional Design Center, and the Mayors Innovation Delivery Team, are planning a “build a better block” tactical urbanism event to take place in the Soulsville neighborhood in the spring. Memphis is one of five cities to host a Bloomberg Philanthropies Innovation Delivery Team. This team has direct ties to the Mayor’s office and is focusing on fostering neighborhood level economic development opportunities in a targeted set of geographic areas in the city, which includes Soulsville. The inclusion of Soulsville as a focus area for the Innovation Team does give us a certain access to political capital, but it is also true that Soulsville was chosen as a target area in part because of the potential that our concerted efforts illustrate.

CAUSIE: As a partner of Community LIFT in the ArtPlace grant, I would agree the Memphis Music Magnet has gained real political traction. Local public officials regularly attend our events in Soulsville USA, and we are collecting very positive feedback from policy makers about the project and its impact.

As an individual organization, however, I would say that political traction for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra is much less certain. This begins with the very nature of public support for the arts in Memphis, where need is great and resources are limited. While the community readily recognizes the MSO as its own orchestra, and public officials nod their appreciation, the MSO receives no funding from the City of Memphis or Shelby County. So at the very local level, it is difficult to determine the impact of official approval when tangible outcomes cannot be measured.

Fortunately the MSO does receive annual operating support from the Tennessee Arts Commission, a public agency led by Anne Pope. The Tennessee Arts Commission is resourced by the sale of specialty license plates across the state. The program was started by US Representative Steve Cohen when he was a state senator, and thanks to the Tennessee legislature, the fund remains dedicated to arts organizations serving Tennesseans. Through the Memphis Music Magnet, the MSO is advocating loudly and effectively for the arts in Tennessee, and we are sure the project is making a lasting impression on the state representatives and senators who live in the Memphis area. Our advocacy also extends to Governor Bill Haslam, Representative Cohen, and US Senators Lama

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