Never Say Never

Students design Art Park despite cool reception from the mayor’s office.

published in the Memphis Flyer

Memphis Art Park proponent John Kirkscey has been talking up the idea of converting a stretch of Front Street into a public art park for more than three years. Now, a group of University of Memphis architecture students are giving new life to Kirkscey's plans.

If he can convince Mayor A C Wharton to back him, Kirkscey hopes to transform the Cossitt Library into a community arts center, replace the library's neighboring parking garage with an underground garage and rooftop art park, and revamp the Front Street fire station into a visual arts center.

Last fall, a U of M architecture class led by the department's assistant director, Michael Chisamore, created designs for the fire station to include a gallery and studio spaces, a cafe, and an event venue.    "I wanted something pretty amazing for the fire station," Kirkscey said. "Michael and I were so pleased with the results from that class that we're doing it again this spring." This semester, Kirkscey is working with five U of M graduate students to design an outdoor art market and a performing arts center in the Cossitt Library.

Because the fire station and library are currently in use, the city would have to agree to relocate those operations. Kirkscey said it's possible to incorporate the Cossitt Library into plans for the community arts center. Costs for the park are estimated at $20 million to $38 million, some of which would come from private funds.

In a letter written to Kirkscey on March 2nd, Wharton calls the art park idea "commendable," but he mentions budgetary concerns and reservations about selling the public-domain properties "without an extensive process to determine the highest and best use" for those sites.

Kirkscey said he has no intentions of purchasing the land. Instead, he'd prefer the art park to be maintained by the city.

Wharton is working with the Center City Commission on a formal public survey of future uses for the parking garage property But Kirkscey and the U of M architecture students aren't giving up on their ideas.

At the beginning of each class, Kirkscey presented his idea for the park and students have been free to pursue the assignment as they see fit. "I've been blown away so far. I couldn't be happier with what they've come up with," Kirkscey said. Chisamore is equally enthusiastic. "By all accounts, John believes in this city and the students have responded," he said. "The idea of creating artistic collaboration space downtown that can connect to so many existing strengths is provocative." In his business plan for the Memphis Art Park, Kirkscey writes that the park is "created for emerging artists ... designed by emerging artists." By providing a space where the arts are allowed to flourish, Kirkscey said he hopes his park plan can help shape Memphis into a thriving arts city.

"Looking at what both classes have done so far, it makes you have faith in the younger generation," Kirkscey said. "It's not about throwing amenities their way. It's putting your faith in them, trusting them, having them get involved. That's what this is all about: turning to that grass-roots level. You want something that's unique to Memphis, and the people who are best at that are the ones actually living here, the people who know and love our city."