The talk of downtown Memphis for the past 10 years has been the “South Main Arts District.” We’ve heard it over and over and it’s now a part of the cosmopolitan Memphian vocabulary. Like with many redevelopments, we sometimes forget the history of the place or how the new buildings came about. According to historic-memphis.com, “The South Main Historic Arts District is an area that is returning from the dead - from old, dark, deserted, and boarded up buildings. The 1910-1920s were the boom era for this neighborhood. The grand Union Station and Central Station were in the vicinity and the area catered to the busy railroad passengers and employees. There were numerous hotels, bars, restaurants, and small businesses. That all ended with the decline of the railroads in the 1960s and it marked the end of South Main. All these buildings soon became warehouses, or stood empty. It remained a dead zone until after 1982 when South Main was designated a Historic District. In the early 1990s, the comeback began. Today there are restaurants, upscale apartments, galleries, artist's lofts and more buildings being renovated.”
So, how do we go from booming to declining to renaissance? Memphis artist and business owner Ephraim Urevbu can answer that question very well. He is responsible for leading the charge on transforming South Main into an arts district. When Ephraim graduated from the University of Memphis School of Fine Arts in 1992, he had his eyes set on downtown Memphis. He first purchased gallery space on Beale Street in 1991. In 1998, he moved his gallery to South Main where he helped to create the South Main Arts District. His dedication to the arts and to creating an intentional space for artists lead to this renaissance that we are all excited about today. His gallery, the Art Village Gallery, is still in full operation after 20 years and leading the push for the South Main Arts District.
What is the Art Village Gallery?
The Art Village Gallery is a gallery that caters to artwork from Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. Its mission is to educate and connect the Mid-South community with exotic works of art from talented, but unknown artists living in developing countries. The Art Village Gallery is a fine art gallery and event space located in downtown Memphis on South Main Street. The gallery was a pioneer in establishing the South Main Arts District. Art Village Gallery has 4,000 square feet of event space on two floors. The gallery specializes in exhibitions, events, and services, such as interior design consultations as well as corporate and private art leasing.
What follows is an interview conducted by Marco Pavé, an artist, musician, writer, and local arts advocate and a Memphis native writing for the Artspace project in Memphis, the South Main Artspace Lofts.
Marco had the great opportunity to have a conversation with the arts pioneer himself, Ephraim Urevbu, to get his incredible insight on the history and the future of South Main.
Marco Pavé: I know you have been a staple in the South Main Arts District, but can you tell me how you got started with art?
Ephraim Urevbu: I have been involved in art in some form or fashion my entire life. In 1992, I graduated from the University of Memphis with a Master’s degree in fine arts. That gave me all the training and education on how to transform a place. In 1991, I bought my first gallery space on Beale Street. In 1998, we moved to Main Street and there I founded the South Main Arts District.
Marco: What’s the goal/vision of Art Village Gallery?
Ephraim: The goal and vision of Art Village Gallery is to first and foremost provide a platform to connect Memphis to international art and artists. Our goal on a local level is to provide space for local black artists who are not always included in the local Memphis art scene. We provide workshops and mentorships for our artists. Our vision is to continue to make South Main a thriving arts district and transform the abandoned properties into art related space, not only for visual artists but also for music, dance, film,and more.
Marco: What do you envision South Main becoming in the next five years?
Ephraim: Again, our vision is to continue to push the growth of the district by lobbying local government to push the landowners to provide space for artists. Currently we have 15,000 square feet of space in South Main that is dedicated to art. So in the next five years I expect to see tons of growth, especially population wise, as the area becomes more attractive.
Marco: What’s your experience with housing as an artist?
Ephraim: It’s been tough for artists, there are many artists around the country that are leading the push of a city’s “cool” factor and eventually all get pushed out and can’t afford to live in these spaces once the people with “real” jobs come to move in. I, however, have been fortunate to have owned and operated my own space since 1991, and I have lived in my studio since 1998.
Marco: What would you like to see Artspace do for artists once it is all done?
Ephraim: Before construction starts, I want Artspace to think about the health and well being of the artists. Make sure there is cross ventilation that is top of the line so chemicals and fumes don’t build up in the space. Beyond the construction, I would like for Artspace to provide a public gallery for artists that is managed and ran by the artists from the community. This will give these artists some much needed business experience. I have always wanted to create and sustain an arts economy; Artspace could be the perfect catalysts for this if it can provide the proper training that artists need to become business savvy.
Marco: Are there any diversity issues in the Memphis art scene that Artspace should work hard to avoid?
Ephraim: Yes, when I first moved to South Main someone threw a rock into my window to scare me away and let me know that they did not want me here. I persevered and stayed and I was able to create the South Main Arts Association, and started the very first trolley night idea. I was dedicated to providing a space for black artists. With my dedication, I was able to open a restaurant called Zanzibar in 1999. It was internationally known and it was featured on Home and Garden Television and in the New York Times and Chicago Tribune. Zanzibar was the catalyst to get more black people and people of color to the district. Without these pushes and this amazing coverage, South Main would not be what it is today. Artspace has to be dedicated to diversity and having a space to help young artists grow and build their careers. Memphis is 65 percent black. There is no way that Artspace should not be representative of that.