The process to find the best reuses of Memphis College of Art’s Rust Hall and Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, two landmark buildings in Overton Park that will be vacated in coming years, appears to have turned up 10 intriguing possibilities out of 40 submissions.

Just how viable they are will be determined in the next phase that will evaluate each of the proposals to separate those that are meritorious ideas but lean more toward wishful thinking from those that are accompanied with an actionable financial and fundraising plans for the significant renovations needed in both places.

Undoubtedly, proposals will get extra points if the applicants have a track record of successful financial planning and operational management.  Other factors will likely be about experience in thoughtfully handing adaptive reuse projects, the ability to handle high-profile projects with  deep public interest, and to provide a use that is compatible with the overall environment of Overton Park and its history as home to facilities with public purposes.

As has become customary with these kinds of projects, City of Memphis is hoping there will be no need for government funding, and that would be remarkable, considering the costs associated with deferred maintenance in both buildings and the lack of city funding to address it for many years.  

Whatever incentive the City of Memphis might be required to give to produce the highest and best use of these buildings, it’s a bargain.

Two Buildings, Two Opportunities

It’s been a slow process so far to develop the list of prospects, but with two buildings unexpectedly needing plans for the future, it’s hard to criticize the pace.  That said, the plan is to select proposals for each building by early 2020, and the next step is for the 10 finalists to submit more detailed proposals by end of the year.

The last graduation of the Memphis College of Art, a unique and often underappreciated civic asset for a city our size, will take place in May, 2020, after 62 proud years in Overton Park  in the award-winning Rust Hall design by celebrated Memphis Roy Harrover. 

The closing is a sad day in the history of Memphis, and the end of the College of Art’s role in feeding the creative energy of the city. 

Meanwhile, the Museum of Art, whose original building – inspired by the Morgan Library in New York City and Villa Giulia in Rome – opened in Overton Park in 1913 when Memphis was a star of the Progressive Era.  That building was designed by James Gamble Rogers, the New York architect who was also architect for the Shelby County Courthouse.  Expansions to the museum were added in 1955, 1973, and 1987, and the building has serious problems, including leaks, insulation, mechanical equipment, and life safety systems.

The museum, the oldest and largest in Tennessee with about 10,000 works of art, will move downtown in 2023 to the northwest corner of Union and Front and replace the present City of Memphis Division of Fire Services headquarters.  The museum will make much better use of what is arguably the riverfront’s most dramatic site.

If there was any doubt that the new museum would live up to its location, it was removed when the internationally known Swiss architectural firm Herzog & de Meuron was chosen to design the $105 million facility that will be one-fourth larger – 112,00 square feet – than the existing museum.  The design is expected to be unveiled early next year.

The Finalists

The City of Memphis will choose from among the 10 finalists to decide the future of the College of Art and Museum of Art buildings in Overton Park.  There are some interesting options:

*  A creative arts incubator with educational programming and studio space, Arrow Creative (Rust Hall).

* Expansion of the Metal Museum (Rust Hall).

*  A cultural arts campus for performing arts, decorative arts, and diverse emerging artists, Jay Etkin (Brooks Museum)

 * An entrepreneurship incubator, S&R Holdings of Philadelphia (Rust Hall).

 * A hotel and contemporary arts center, RWS Company LLC (Rust Hall).

*  Creative workspace for businesses, artists, and creative entrepreneurs, Scott LTD of Philadelphia (Rust Hall).

*  Public high school for the arts, Hattiloo Theater, Shelby County Schools (Brooks Museum).

*  Community gathering place and events center, Haizlip Studio (Brooks Museum).

*  Overton Parks Visitor’s Center, Overton Park Conservancy (Rust Hall or Brooks Museum).

*  A learning animation studio focused on augmented reality environment, Athena Global Advisory (Rust Hall or Brooks Museum).

Leveraging A Valuable Asset

Of particular interest to us is the Metal Museum’s expansion into Rust Hall.  While we are certain that the other proposals have merit, the opportunity to maximize an existing and underleveraged museum, one of only two national ones in Memphis, with a reputation and national standing is an especially exciting one.

With a better location that Rust Hall can provide, it can triple its present attendance, triple exhibition space, have dedicated classrooms to educate 3,800 students of all ages, triple the square footage of the metalworking facilities, and enlarge the Museum Store and its Gallery.  Meanwhile, the Metal Museum would turn its present location into an artist-in-residence program for artists of all ages and stages in their careers. 

Largely under the radar, the 40-year-old Metal Museum has undergone a decade of strengthening its financial position.  Most impressively of all, more than half of the operating budget is provided by earned income. 

Its proposal is based on a $45 million capital campaign with $21 million for the renovation of Rust Hall (there is an estimated $3 million in deferred maintenance), $4 million for renovating its Bluff Campus buildings which date to the 1930s, and $20 million for an endowment to ensure funding for Rust Hall maintenance.

Building on Tradition

Overton Park has been associated with the arts for more than a century and the opportunity to activate Rust Hall for an artistic use would perpetuate that tradition. 

The Metal Museum opened in 1979 four years after the National Ornamental and Miscellaneous Metals Association proposed a national museum for the collection, exhibition, and preservation of ornamental metalwork. 

In selecting Memphis for the national museum, it set in motion a distinctive facility for Memphis, and which over the years has fulfilled the confidence placed in it. 

In 2017, the museum represented more than 40 artists in exhibitions, displayed more than 600 objects, and borrowed artwork from more than 30 private collectors and from more than 10 museums and galleries. 

Just as the Brooks Museum of Art is building a new facility downtown in order to have the higher profile and visibility to attract more visitors, the Metal Museum is attempting to do the same.  We wish them luck.


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