Proposal for a Downtown Memphis 'art park' and arts center gets a hearing

By Thomas Bailey Jr.
published in the Commercial Appeal

One man's three-year effort to build support for transforming the Downtown riverfront with a public arts center and art park has slowly gotten the attention of Memphis leaders.

John Kirkscey got an hour with Mayor A C Wharton last Friday and is to meet with University of Memphis president Shirley Raines this Friday.

Many are intrigued by the idea, but money is the rub. Construction cost estimates provided to Kirkscey by Montgomery Martin Contractors are $20 million to $38 million.

Kirkscey's vision is to:

-- Convert most of the historic and modern space of the Cossitt Library into a public arts center ? an incubator for emerging artists ? for music, film, performing arts and dance, and tweak the library's mission on the bottom floor to be an art library;

-- Create views of the Mississippi River by demolishing the neighboring, three-story parking garage, replacing it with an underground garage, and building on its roof an art park and a strikingly designed arts museum. The art park would have a permanent art market;

-- Convert the fire station at Front and Union into a visual arts center with space for galleries, exhibitions and events, as well as a cafe, offices and public plaza.

The 39-year-old Cooper-Young resident's day job is running a start-up company that sells an investment strategy for market indexes, investing in "the freest economies in the world," he said.

An art dabbler and lover, Kirkscey said the idea for Memphis Art Park struck him about five years ago when he returned home to Memphis and immersed himself in local history.

"Inspired by Robert Church's Church Park and Auditorium, Memphis Art Park would create a self-sustainable community arts center and public art park in Downtown Memphis on the Front Street Promenade," states the introduction to his business plan.

As it exists now with a fire station, garage and underused library buildings, Kirkscey sees the Front Street Promenade section from Union to Monroe as a dead zone.

Bringing art and art facilities to the riverfront would give emerging artists inspiration as well as exposure to tourists and more Memphians, Kirkscey said.

An arts center and park would also be a far better use of the city's choicest property than a parking garage and fire station, he said.

Susan Schadt, president and CEO of ArtsMemphis, declined comment about the plan until she saw Kirkscey's latest business plan for how the operations would sustain themselves.

Richard Ranta, dean of the University of Memphis College of Communication and Fine Arts, participated in last week's meeting with Wharton.

"I do like it," he said of the proposal. "Whether it's doable is another question.

"It should be done. I don't think there's any question that use of that corner right now for that ugly old garage is not a great one."

The U of M architecture program has supported Kirkscey by having architecture students create renderings for adapting the fire station.

The art park could provide campus-like green space for the new Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law, which moved in 2009 next door into the renovated old U.S. Customs House, Courthouse and Post Office.

"All the unit heads here would be excited about the possibility of using that space," Ranta said.

Wharton liked the idea, too, Ranta said, but "he raised the kind of questions, the do-ability of it."

The future of the Promenade has been a point of conflict for years between the Riverfront Development Corporation, which wants more vitality on the riverfront, and Friends of Our Riverfront, a citizens organization which wants to preserve the open space.

Kirkscey said he hopes both sides see his proposal as a happy medium.

He's an entrepreneur; his Memphis Art Park business card identifies him as "developer."

While he has spent his own money promoting the idea, he said any possible compensation he may receive if the project progresses might be as a consultant.

Some potential users of the space include the Memphis & Shelby County Film Commission, Memphis Music Foundation and University of Memphis, Kirkscey said.

"My goal is to hand it off to organizations; I'm not looking to run it," he said.

But he feels it's time for others to support the plan. "I feel I've taken it as far as I can take it," he said.

For more information about the plan, go to Kirkscey's website at memphisartpark.org