The Big Picture

June 29th, 2017

Here’s the thing about public and private partnerships created to enhance life in the city – both public and private have to believe in the partnership.

According to their website, partners of the UrbanArt Commission have included the following:

City of Memphis

American Institute of Architects | AIA Memphis



A2H – Engineers · Architects · Planners

Ballet Memphis

Bartlett Performing Arts Center

Binghampton Development Corporation

Boyle Investment Group

Broad Avenue Arts District

Caritas Village

Christian Brothers University

Collierville Library

Cooper Young Community Association

Crosstown Arts


Dave Wells Community Center

Dixon Gallery and Gardens

Downtown Memphis Commission

First Tennessee Foundation

Glenview Neighborhood Association

Greater Memphis Chamber

Greenleaf Learning Farm

Hope and Healing Center

Katie Sexton Community Center

Lakeland City Hall

LeMoyne-Owen College

Lester Community Center

Levitt Shell

Livable Memphis

Loeb Properties

Mayor’s Innovation Delivery Team

Memphis and Shelby County Airport Authority / Memphis International Airport

MATA | Memphis Area Transit Authority

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

Memphis Business Journal

Memphis College of Art

Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau

Memphis Council for International Visitors

Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis Public Libraries & Information Center

Memphis Regional Design Center

Metal Museum

Methodist Le Bonheur Hospital

Metropolitan Bank

MIFA I Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association

North Frayser Community Center

Orange Mound Community Center

Overton Park Conservancy

PARKing Day

Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region

Project Green Fork

Public Art Archive

Rhodes College

Riverfront Development Corporation

Self+Tucker Architects

Shelby County Attorney’s Office

Shelby County Commission

Shelby County Government

Shelby County Mayor’s Office

Shelby County Schools

Shelby Farms Park Conservancy

Soulsville, Inc.

South Memphis Alliance

Tennessee Arts Commission

Tennesseans for the Arts

United Housing

University of Memphis

WHEREweLIVEmidsouth.org | WHEREtoGIVEmidsouth.org

Whitehaven Community Center

Now, it seems, the very first one of those is iffy. The very city all the rest are trying to enhance may leave public art out to dry for the sake of a perceived political point or two.

I wish I could say that’s an original concept, but we see it all the time.

As published in The Memphis Daily News, June 30, 2017, and in The Memphis News, July 1-7, 2017

Art Is A Framework


Artistic talent runs in the family like spilled India ink on paper, although it ran away from me. Briefly majoring in art, I learned that my talent lay in appreciation not execution, and there is much to appreciate in our city.

And wouldn’t you know it, our city doesn’t appreciate it.

Whether you are inspired or provoked, challenged or reinforced, shocked or soothed, amused or appalled or awed, public art is all around us in 80 or so projects – large, small and growing – all new and all ours since the city started the Percent For Art Program in 2002 to help fund the UrbanArt Commission. That art metaphorically hangs in the landscapes that belong to all of us beneath the iconic oak canopy that is our shared roof, and stands in the big yard of our parks and public spaces where all are invited.

And yet so many of us fail to see the wonder and worth of what’s all around us in Memphis, leaving that to folks from somewhere else. That creative class everybody seems to court, the Millennials everybody’s talking about, and the cool other cities claim are all growing here, all framed in the true original Memphis is, all seen with new eyes.

And yet our City Council is considering reducing funding of the UrbanArt Commission or eliminating it altogether, either turning public art over to the already underfunded parks division – or stripping our metaphoric public gallery bare. Because, they say, not enough local and minority artists get the commissions – although some 66% of those commissions are local, 24% minority and 28% women. Evidently, zero participation by anybody is preferable to working on increasing those numbers.

We should be honored that so many artists from so many places see so much in our canvas. While always looking locally into a deep and diverse pool of talent and supporting it, we should see the irony of limiting commission choices. Would any of our artists refuse an out-of-town commission because they’re not from around there? Would we be the world’s most mentioned city in songs if only local songwriters could be so inspired? Does the fame of, say, our own William Eggleston or Carroll Cloar depend on what’s been collected and shown locally? 

It should be noted that public art is in every one of the Council districts, commissioned by folks in that district. UrbanArt doesn’t award the work; a neighborhood committee where the work will go does, and UrbanArt coordinates and facilitates their decision.

It should further be noted that while annual public art funding is authorized for up to a million dollars, it’s never been close. Last year’s was in the neighborhood of 350,000 of your tax dollars. For comparison, the Memphis Zoo got ten times more of your tax dollars, and you can’t see any of what that buys without paying admission. 

Art is for everybody. Let’s keep it out there where everybody can see it.

I’m a Memphian, and making a great city is art.


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