Clang, clang, clang went the trolley. Ding, ding, ding went the bell. And Mayor W.W. Herenton stepped out onto space and said, "Let there be an official arts district in Memphis. And, lo, the storm clouds parted and there was an official arts district in the South Main Historic District of downtown Memphis.
And it was good. Well, it was pretty good. Okay, let's face it, there were and still are some problems. While some critics have posited that rents in South Main, an area which features some of Memphis' most distinctive architecture, are far too high to allow for any real density of artists' studios -- and they are -- that is not really the problem. This is, after all, a commercial arts district and that means it is galleries, arts-friendly retail, restaurants, coffee shops, and the like, not artists' studios, that must flourish in order for the district to ultimately be successful.
As of now there are nine fine-art galleries in the area, a couple of photography studios, two stained-glass companies, a couple of eateries, a frou-frou gift shop, a scad of hip loft apartments, and a number of rather diverse businesses. And while these may sound like all the necessary ingredients for a successful arts district, there is one major element missing: pedestrian traffic. It is, as any gallery owner in the country can tell you, the single most important ingredient in an arts district's success. Last year, shortly after Mayor Herenton made South Main Memphis' official arts district, gallery owner and coffee shop entrepreneur Ephraim Urevbu spearheaded a movement to create an annual arts festival called SOMA (South Main Arts Association) in order to attract a crowd of people who are interested in art but who might not otherwise venture into that particular corner of downtown without some enticement. Now entering its second year and boasting a schedule that includes a variety of musical acts as well as an impressive slate of both visual and performing artists, SOMA hopes to do exactly that.
Jay Etkin, who operates his eponymous gallery in South Main, is no stranger to street festivals and their effects on area businesses. Prior to moving his business downtown he operated the Cooper Street Gallery in the Cooper-Young area which hosts the colossal Cooper-Young Festival. "During the first five years [of the Cooper-Young Festival] I'd have a lot of people come into the gallery and I sold some things. And some of the people who came in became good regular customers," Etkin says. "But during the last few years [because of the festival's emphasis on street vending], nobody came in except for vendors looking for a place to use the bathroom." Etkin even had to rent out the sidewalk space in front of his gallery, as he says, to "keep the door from being blocked by some purveyor of junk furniture." But he refuses to make any real comparisons between the Cooper-Young Festival and SOMA. "They are two different things," he says. "[SOMA] is about the artists. It's a chance to see artists like Jan Hankins and Chuck Zimmer painting live. It's also a way to get people down here who might be interested in coming downtown. Businesses that might be interested in coming downtown. We have residential and you see people biking around and skateboarding more and more, but we are still selling the idea that this is a viable place to open a business. I would also like to see more contemporary art venues. This would be the perfect place for a satellite branch of the Brooks Museum."
In addition to displaying works by its regular stable of artists, the Jay Etkin Gallery will join up with Indie Memphis, the organization behind the annual Indie Memphis Film Festival, to screen a number of films by Memphis filmmakers. Elsewhere on the street there will be performances by the Metal Velvet Dance Company and Our Own Voice Theatre Company. There will be live demonstrations of stage combat and musical acts that range from world beat to down-home blues. Poets will air their collected works and puppeteers will demonstrate how they build their marionettes. And for thrill-seekers, members of TheatreWorks' improv group, Freak Engine, will perform Wheel of Bacchus Mousetraps, which is essentially like playing "Marco Polo" on dry land, barefoot, and surrounded by mousetraps.
"The thing that impresses me most about this event," says Kysha Urevbu, co-chair of this year's festival, "is how the arts community really came together to make it happen. We are right on the trolley line, we have beautiful buildings, we are right next to the Beale Street entertainment district, close to the ball park. People who come down here just say, 'Wow!' That's the word, 'wow.'"