The Real Thing? 

E-mail spurs heated debate among local art groups.

Maybe art is an abstract painting with a $1,000 price tag. Maybe art is a quilt made from fabric scraps. The debate, however, discussed briefly in the past month via e-mails, could help spawn some new partnerships.

After the South Main Arts Festival last month, South Main Association president Katrina Shelton sent out a press release about the historic district's first trolley tour since the legislature granted them the right to serve alcohol at their events. In it, she mentioned how "many attendees said that it felt like the first 'real' arts festival they'd seen in Memphis."

Wendy Sumner Winter, director of the Midtown Artist Market, said she saw in the release a good opportunity to start a dialogue. "It had that word 'real': the first real arts festival with 'real' in quotes. I know quite a few artists who have had encounters with people who say craft isn't art. There's an attitude if it's utilitarian, it isn't art," she said. "The art that is traditionally made by women and minorities is called 'craft.' I'm fine with it being called 'craft.' I'm not fine with it not being art."

In her own e-mail, Winter said she thought the South Main Festival was a wonderful and valuable part of the Memphis arts community, but said, "While South Main's focus on 'real' art may seem to them to be legitimate, I have seen it often to be far too limiting, alienating and somewhat arrogant."

What followed were a few e-mails lobbed back and forth, with people discussing both the merits of the complaint and the person who complained.

Shelton said she never thought her press release would generate so much discussion but understands why it did. "I think because it's such a sensitive subject. What's art? What's not art? What's a historic art district? It became emotional."

Both Shelton and Winter are hoping more action will come from the discussion. Shelton said that South Main was already thinking about partnering with other art entities in the city, such as the UrbanArt Commission, and the e-mails have spurred them on.

And Winter said she would love to see some sort of gallery association come out of the discussion. "In Memphis, you have to work together to get people interested in art. This balkanization is not in anyone's best interest," she said. "The restaurant association [is] a successful group. There's in-fighting, but they make it work. I think we could do it." n



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