Area native Mark Dinstuhl says he can go to Nashville, walk down the street, and run into at least two people who went to his Memphis high school.
"One of the big problems here is that so many young, creative people say there's no reason to stay in Memphis. My family is here, but there's nothing for me," he says.
Last week, two local entities came together to try and change that thinking. The Memphis College of Art and MPACT Memphis teamed up to host the second "Creative Conversations: Ideas That Work" event. A program through Americans for the Arts, Creative Conversations began in 2004 as local gatherings of emerging leaders across the nation. Last year, there were 43 Creative Conversations around the country. The one at MCA was the only one in the state of Tennessee.
"We hope to build Memphis into a city of choice," says MPACT executive director Gwyn Fisher. "One thing that attracts talent is a culture of creativity and entrepreneurialism, and we have that here. It didn't die with Elvis or Stax."
The idea for hosting a Creative Conversation began with MCA president Jeffrey Nesin. At the time, advertising firm Archer Malmo was helping MCA rebrand.
"MCA is not just about art makers; it's about taking creative minds and sending them out into the community," says Jenny Sharpe, senior account executive at Archer Malmo and a former MPACT chair. "In this economy, we need creative thinkers now more than ever."
The free event was open to both students and community members, but most of the 200 or so participants were between the ages of 18 and 40.
"Last year, the comment we heard over and over was that creativity is not just art. It's being a business person and a chef and running four restaurants that are all different. Or it's being a tech guy who invents thingamajiggies," Fisher says. "I think the participants reached the realization that Memphis is bursting with creativity."
In its first year in Memphis, the Creative Conversation was largely a panel discussion. This year, after presentations from Helen Johnson, co-founder of Chattanooga's CreateHere project, and Live From Memphis' Christopher Reyes, the attendees split into small groups to discuss basically whatever they wanted.
"A lot of people in the audience wanted to talk a bit about the subjects they were working on," Sharpe says of last year's event. "People got so excited. We thought we would help the conversation actually happen."
They picked leaders they thought could inspire the small groups: LaunchMemphis' Eric Mathews, Margot McNeeley with Project Green Fork, and Memphis Art Park founder John Kirkscey.
Group leaders were given questions to ask, such as "What creative experiences are we lacking in Memphis?" and "How can artists help the city's poor and marginalized in new and better ways?" But the entrepreneurs, MPACT members, students, artists, professors, activists, and community members had wide latitude. In Dinstuhl's group, they discussed what Memphis would look like if it were a person. Another group discussed what Shelby County could do with the vacant lots it owns.
"We hope the ultimate outcome is either new solutions to community issues or a better way of doing something we're already doing," Fisher says. "We want to actively connect people with groups and causes."
Kim Williams, vice president for college advancement at MCA, says the event is also about creating a more vibrant and innovative community.
Dinstuhl is a software developer, but recently launched his own venture, Mark's Menus, a website where diners rate and discuss menu items at different restaurants.
"Being a software developer is heavily grounded in science," he says. "Not everyone understands the creativity that goes along with that. When some people think of creativity, they think of visual arts, music, movies, writing."
Like many of his peers, Dinstuhl moved away from Memphis to Austin, Texas, for several years before coming back home. But he says he sees hope among the forward-thinking group at Creative Conversations.
"It's almost like we got sick of the brain drain that's been happening with young Memphians," he says. "I'm glad I went. I feel smarter by proxy now."