The Year in Art 

It was a big year for the arts in Memphis, with high and low points to spare.

The Cannon Center opens; symphony returns to downtown.

The Cannon Center for the Performing Arts, the centerpiece of the Cook Convention Center's $92 million renovation, opened in January 2003 with the 50th-anniversary performance of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. It was something of a triumphal return for the symphony, which had been without a proper home for the better part of six years. The renovation began with the demolition of Ellis Auditorium in 1996. The center was originally scheduled for completion in '99 but was plagued with delays and cost overruns.

The Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau has since estimated that, in addition to cost overruns, Memphis lost between $30 million and $40 million in tourist-related business during the convention center's extended renovation.

The Cannon Center's 2,100-seat state-of-the-art auditorium is a multi-use facility that can accommodate both musical and theatrical performances.

Changes force the Memphis Arts Council to reinvent its educational programs.

The Greater Memphis Arts Council (GMAC) took a number of hits in 2003. In June, the skeleton crew manning GMAC's Center for Arts Education (CAE) handed in their collective resignations, including GMAC's vice president in charge of education, Amelia Barton. Barton's name had long been synonymous with arts education in Memphis, and her departure started a firestorm of speculation.

GMAC continued to send mixed signals about its popular educational programs. Arts council president Susan Schadt insisted that, in spite of the cuts and the loss of personnel, the CAE would continue to offer the same kinds of quality programs that had earned it a national reputation for excellence. On the other hand, board president Tommy Farnsworth III insisted that many of the organization's programs were financially untenable and compared the CAE to "The Blob."

The CAE's Summer Institute, an annual event that brought teachers and teaching artists together, was canceled, and contracts with teaching artists were voided. This riled teachers and led a number of teaching artists to end their relationship with GMAC.

The CAE had faced large budget and staff cuts in 2002, and 2003 promised to be worse. The truly odd thing about all of this was GMAC's unwillingness to inform the public about their budget woes. While they did send press releases to various news outlets, Schadt did not want to be interviewed. When asked why, Schadt said, "We actually didn't, and still don't, want to alienate our elected officials. We know they are having some hard decisions to make. I know the county is trying to be as fiscally responsible as they can, and we want to try to work with them as much as we can. Is it painful for everyone involved? Absolutely. I'm sure it pains Mayor Wharton to have to cut arts. He specifically said that to us."

This diplomatic approach resulted in more than $300,000 in budget cuts. While Mayor Wharton may have felt GMAC's pain, he clearly didn't feel a great deal of pressure to act otherwise.

The CAE was not scrapped, though programs were put into "suspended animation." Ticket subsidies for school groups actually increased. Barton was ultimately replaced by Memphian Peggy Seessel, an education specialist, who, given time, might be able to revitalize the incredible shrinking CAE.

Only time will tell. One way or the other GMAC, a fund-raising body vital to the health of many Memphis arts organizations, lost a bit of credibility during this ugly ordeal. Letters to the editor poured in to both the Flyer and The Commercial Appeal, and teachers lobbied to have GMAC removed from their workplace giving program.

The Power House gets serious.

Early press concerning Delta Axis' conversion of the Power House, an antiquated steam plant on G.E. Patterson in the South Main Arts District, compared the gallery-to-be to the Guggenheim expansion in Bilbao, Spain. The comparisons were rather silly given the fact that the space lacks the Guggenheim pedigree. It's tiny, not an expressionist-inspired titanium monstrosity designed by world-renowned experimental architect Frank Gehry, and, of course, it's not in Spain. But all that aside, it's still a stunning space and one of the most significant downtown renovations to date.

Over the past year, Power House curator Peter Fleissig has brought a number of world-class artists to Memphis. The gallery closed out its first season with the powerful photography show "American Night" by Paul Graham.

Theaters ditch top dogs.

In a surprise move, Theatre Memphis chose not to renew the contract of its relatively new executive producer, Ted Strickland. Strickland had been hired on the strength of his managerial skills to stop Theatre Memphis' downward slide that started in the 1990s under the guidance of Sherwood Lohrey and escalated under Michael Fortner. Strickland was successful in stopping the slide and the quality of performances increased dramatically during his tenure, but apparently that wasn't good enough for the board.

According to board president Dan Conaway, Strickland was just not visible enough.

Theatre Memphis continues to look for an executive producer who can become a vital and visible member of the greater Memphis arts community.

Germantown Community Theatre likewise cut loose Leigh Walden, their executive producer since 2000. Walden quickly was replaced by Cori Stevenson, a recent MFA in directing from the University of Memphis with secondary emphasis in arts management.

Scratching the surface.

That's just a taste. There was plenty more. Merchants in the South Main Arts District had a run-in with the law for giving away wine and beer during the popular monthly trolley tours. To some degree, that situation has been corrected. A handful of new artist-run galleries have opened all around town. The UrbanArt Commission continues to unveil new works of public art (some wonderful, some less so). The Memphis film community's reputation continues to grow. Craig Brewer is poised to begin shooting his new film, Hustle and Flow (this time with a Hollywood budget), Morgan Jon Fox's Blue Citrus Hearts continues to perform well at festivals around the country, and 9-year-old Memphis actress Hailey Anne Nelson has stepped into the spotlight with a role in Tim Burton's most recent film, Big Fish. n


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