Soulsville USA, the neighborhood that spawned Stax Records, is the target of an ambitious revitalization plan building on the community's musical heritage and a decade of community investment from public and private sources. A $678,195 grant from Chicago-based ArtPlace will give the plan a significant jump-start.
The project includes transforming an historically significant building — the former home of bluesman Memphis Slim (John Len Chatman) — in the neighborhood surrounding LeMoyne-Owen College into "Memphis Slim's Collaboratory," a new arts center that will feature artist collaborations, music/studio training, and video-casting of neighborhood oral histories.
Community LIFT, an economic and community development intermediary organization, is driving the first phase of this revitalization plan in partnership with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra (MSO). The MSO plans to hold classical, pops and Opus One concerts in the neighborhood to attract new crowds to Soulsville USA, and will establish a regular presence there through its many community-based programs. The efforts are part of the Memphis Music Magnet (MMM), an arts-based approach to neighborhood revitalization that grew out of The University of Memphis Division of City and Regional Planning. The MMM is being developed and implemented in collaboration with the arts community, nonprofits, education organizations, government agencies, and private businesses.
ArtPlace is a new national collaboration of 11 major national and regional foundations, six of the nation's largest banks, and eight federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts. Its mission is to accelerate creative "place-making" across the U.S. ArtPlace has raised almost $50 million to work alongside federal and local governments to transform communities with strategic investments in the arts.
"Across the country, cities and towns are using the arts to help shape their social, physical, and economic characters," said NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman. "
The arts are a part of everyday life, and I am thrilled to see yet another example of an arts organization working with city, state, and federal offices to help strengthen and revitalize their communities through the arts," Landesman said.. "It is wonderful that ArtPlace and its funders have recognized this work and invested in it so generously."
The South Memphis community, now known as Soulsville USA, has seen a great deal of transition over the last 50 years. It has a long history that includes historical accomplishments in education, music, business, and community activism, but it has also witnessed a decline into one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. One of the final blows to the neighborhood came in the mid-1970s with the forced closure of Stax Records. With this defeat, Soulsville USA lost its voice, streets went quiet. People left to seek new places with energy, activity and life.
Revitalization began in the first years of this century with significant public and private investments. College Park, a mixed-income HOPE VI community replaced the LeMoyne Gardens public housing complex. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music, along with the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School, brought music back to the former site of Stax Records. The LeMoyne-Owen College CDC implemented an aggressive plan for community redevelopment and engagement. In addition, organizations such as LeMoyne-Owen College, the Firehouse Community Arts Center, and the South Memphis Alliance provide a foundation for further growth.
"This grant facilitates a Community LIFT and Memphis Symphony partnership that allows us to accelerate the implementation of elements of the Memphis Music Magnet plan to build on all the musical heritage and cultural assets of the Soulsville neighborhood," said Eric Robertson, executive director of Community LIFT. "It will make it possible for us to foster more vibrancy in the area, increase recognition of what the neighborhood has contributed to our city, and ultimately fuel a lasting renaissance."
MSO's interim executive director, Arthur N. Seessel III, said the project lies at the heart of the MSO's current mission.
"Our goal for several years has been to move beyond music hall performance and education," Seessel said. "Our aim is to enable musicians to artistically engage the wider community with a service-oriented approach fueled by meaningful partnerships throughout the city and the Mid-South. This project fits that purpose perfectly."
"This is an exciting step toward connecting creativity to community development in a real way," said Dr. Charles Santo, an Associate Professor of City and Regional Planning at the University of Memphis. His students have worked with multiple stakeholders to develop the Memphis Music Magnet concept.
"The project builds on the unique culture and heritage of Memphis in a neighborhood that, in many ways, represents the heart of Memphis. When you talk to musicians and artists who chose to make Memphis their home you realize that their passion for this city is palpable, and that it can be transformative. We want to build a community around those artists that is supportive and nurturing. And we want to harness that passion and focus it — to unleash it toward community change," said Santo.
"The concept is about creating a neighborhood with place-based physical amenities that support music and art, while using those creative endeavors as tools for community engagement and empowerment," Santo added. "It's about creating a neighborhood where music and art tell stories, activate spaces, reclaim vacant buildings, create interaction, and connect neighbors new and old."
The Memphis grant is one of 47 supporting creative initiatives in 33 communities nationwide. ArtPlace received almost 2200 letters of inquiry from organizations seeking a portion of the $15.4 million available for grants in this cycle. Inquiries came from 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands. The 47 projects selected each take a unique and locally-focused approach to creative place-making, from the creation of a Jazz and Heritage Center in New Orleans' historic Tremé neighborhood to generate vibrancy and economic growth for the local community to ARTSIPELAGO, a comprehensive revitalization strategy that combines a number of unconnected arts and cultural initiatives in Eastport, Maine for greater effect.
"These projects all exemplify the best in creative place-making," explained ArtPlace's Carol Coletta. "They demonstrates a deep understanding of how smart investments in art, design and culture as part of a larger portfolio of revitalization strategies can change the trajectory of communities and increase economic opportunities for people."
In September, ArtPlace will release a new set of metrics to measure changes over time in the people, activity and real estate value in the communities where ArtPlace has invested with its grants.
Participating foundations include Bloomberg Philanthropies, The Ford Foundation, The James Irvine Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The McKnight Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation, The Robina Foundation, The William Penn Foundation and an anonymous donor.
In addition to the NEA, federal partners are the departments of Housing and Urban Development, Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Education and Transportation, along with leadership from the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Domestic Policy Council. ArtPlace is also supported by a $12 million loan fund capitalized by six major financial institutions and managed by the Nonprofit Finance Fund. Participating institutions are Bank of America, Citi, Deutsche Bank, Chase, MetLife and Morgan Stanley.
(A complete list of this year's ArtPlace awards can be found at artplaceamerica.org.)