Discussion with Brett Roler by Carl E. Moore
Downtown Memphis Commission plans to install up to 10 pieces of public art in Barboro Alley this fall through a project called The Artery. We’re looking for a variety of elements – murals, sculpture, overhead elements, lighting, projection, kinetic – to be installed between Second and Front Streets by November 17. (Submission applications are due by September 23.)
In the meantime, please learn more about The Artery, view the request for proposals, see photos of the alley, and more at http://www.artery-memphis.com/.
What does the Downtown Memphis Commission do? How did you decide to use art as part of the downtown landscape?
The Downtown Memphis Commission (DMC), formerly known as the Center City Commission, is the organization charged with advancing Memphis and Shelby County by making Downtown Memphis a better place to work, live, learn, invest, and visit. The DMC’s purpose is to advance Downtown for the betterment of all of Memphis and Shelby County. A strong, vibrant Downtown serves as a vital economic engine that ultimately helps all communities throughout the county prosper and grow.
The DMC is the official partnership between local government and the private business community in Downtown’s development. It is important to remember that the DMC is not funded by any city or county taxes and is not a governmental agency. DMC’s two primary metrics for success are 1) an increase in the number of people living, working and playing in Downtown and 2) an increase in Downtown commercial property values. To do this, DMC implements a variety of programs to foster development and investment, and to make Downtown fun, walkable, clean, safe, active and interesting.
How many public art projects have the DMC completed and how many are in progress?
The DMC is relatively new to the public art realm. Remember, we are not an arts-focused organization. We are a Downtown development organization that sees public art as one of the tools that can help us improve quality of life in the neighborhood and support our broader community development efforts.
An example of this approach is the South Main Mosaic, a neighborhood improvement project undertaken by the DMC in 2014. This process featured a traditional call to artists and resulted in eight temporary public art installations installed within the South Main neighborhood. The final pieces included murals and various types of outdoor sculpture and artistic installations. Two years later, we commissioned a collaborative of eight local artists to do a deep dive into The Edge neighborhood, a priority area for our organization. For a small stipend each month, the artists investigated, explored, interviewed and researched the neighborhood to collaboratively come up with public art ideas to enhance The Edge. The ultimate result of that process will be four public art projects to be installed this year ranging from a large sculpture installation, sidewalk etchings, and painted murals on building walls and auto repair garage doors.
Outside the structure of those formal programs, we’ve also worked directly with artists to install anti-blight murals on four vacant buildings in recent years. While our ultimate goal is always to renovate and repurpose vacant buildings, public art can be a useful short-term way to make a positive change in Downtown.
What is the Barboro Alley Project, and how did the DMC come up with the idea?
As it stands now, Barboro Alley is a pretty interesting place. In the section of the alley between Front Street and Second Street you have a variety of building types and find both historic and contemporary architecture. People already use the alley as a pedestrian cut-through between a public parking garage, apartment buildings, and the service entrances of various businesses along Second Street and Union Avenue. We saw an opportunity here to use public art and enhanced lighting as a way of building upon the special character of this public space and transform the alley into a destination. We think high-quality public art and enhanced lighting will improve the overall pedestrian experience and make this alley a more vibrant and enjoyable place to walk.
We’ve named this project The Artery: Barboro Alley, and issued a call to artists interested in submitting a proposal. The DMC hopes to curate a diverse collection of work in the Alley that will include varying types of medium at varying installation costs.
Barboro Alley is nice combination of wall spaces, interesting corners and personal doorways, what kind of artwork or presentations are you expectations from the project?
We’ve tried hard to not hold rigid expectations and set preconceived notions about the types of work we hope to receive. I personally think many of the walls in the alley lend themselves to murals, but other than that we really do want artists to be creative and propose their best ideas. In the call to artists, we listed examples of eligible medium including sculpture, artistic lighting, murals, video projections, and interactive and kinetic pieces. Funding for installations will range from high-end lighting, interactive and technology pieces to simple yet imaginative murals and sculpture.
We want this alley to be a place that locals enjoy walking down and that tourists and visitors find memorable. I think we’ll know we are successful with this project if we see locals and visitors alike using the space more often and snapping photos as they walk down.
What would you like artists to know about the spaces?
I think you should really take some time to visit Barboro Alley and see if inspiration hits. It’s not a place that most Memphians are real familiar with and it’s worth the time to walk through and explore. To that end, we held an alley exploration party on September 1st and invited artists to walk the alley with DMC staff and meet other artists. That pre-submittal alley walk was optional and we still had over 40 artists show up and participate. We think this is a good sign for the level of interest in this project.
What is the long term goal of the DMC as it relates to bringing art to downtown Memphis?
The overall goal of the DMC is to make Downtown Memphis as vibrant and successful as it can be. While our primary focus is to facilitate property redevelopment and commercial investment, public art can play an important role in making Downtown a vibrant and thriving urban place. Public art in Downtown Memphis is not icing on the cake or an unnecessary luxury. Public art is an important building block for creating communities of lasting value. In an immediate way, public art can improve the aesthetics and appearance of Downtown buildings and sites. High-quality public art can also help increase pedestrian activity and improve the quality of the pedestrian experience by adding new landmarks and point of interest Downtown. In a larger sense, adding public art to a neighborhood can further demonstrate that this place is special and that someone cares about it.
Brett Roler is Director of Planning & Development for the Downtown Memphis Commission. firstname.lastname@example.org, (901) 575-0574