For more than eighty years, the Sears Tower has dominated the skyline in the Crosstown area of Memphis. Once a bustling center of commerce and community, its doors closed and the building has been empty for nearly two decades. However, one UT Knoxville alumnus is hoping to breathe new—and artistic—life into the iconic building and the city surrounding it.
A little more than a year ago, Christopher Miner (’95, A&S) and Todd Richardson, a University of Memphis art history professor, co-founded the nonprofit group Crosstown Arts, which is completing a study about the feasibility of renovating and repurposing the 1.4 million-square-foot Sears building to become a kind of urban village to serve as a gathering place for Memphis artists.
“It is a unique opportunity to help tailor what happens in this building,” says Miner.
A few years ago, the Sears building had been pre-developed by another group for a project that never came to fruition. Crosstown Arts took that work into account and then hired a team of local development professionals to work on their feasibility study.
“We’ve finished the first year and took the study to the owners of the building, and they’re supportive of the direction we’re headed,” says Miner.
As co-director, Miner is working on designing the arts programming aspect. In addition to an artist residency program, he hopes to have extensive gallery space for local artists as well as space to curate shows from around the world.
High on Miner’s list is establishing graduate-level art-making facilities. Artists could pay a monthly fee, based on income, to use facilities ranging from dark rooms to wood shops and sculpting studios.
The development concept includes a residential component to the building as well as potential education space for a charter school or a school for the performing arts.
“Memphis has a very cool art scene, and helping to further support the artist community here is what we are all about,” says Miner.
The disconnect between artists and the general public is one of the issues at the core of Crosstown’s work. Miner and his colleagues recently met with a nonprofit group that was interested in auctioning off pieces of art to raise money for their work, but didn’t know where to get connected to local artists.
“They wanted to know where they could go to find artists who wanted to donate their work for this cause,” he says. “We want to make it easier for people to have access to each other and each other’s work.”
Until their plans for the Sears building are complete, Miner and Crosstown Arts are doing events, like the recent MemFeast, to continue supporting the arts community in unique ways for Memphis. The fund-raising dinner hosted 150 people from the community who listened to eight artists’ project proposals and then voted for their favorite idea. The event garnered $5,000 for one artist to aid in the creation of a public sculpture and prompted another guest to donate $3,000 on his own to one of the other presenting artists.
As an artist himself, Miner credits UT Professor Baldwin Lee as a big factor in his success.
“There’s no question that he has been the single most influential person in my creative life,” Miner says. “I still live by his example daily—the way he worked and his commitment to process.”
The Sears building project is a different type of artwork for Miner, but he realizes that helping to bring the artist community to life will take the same commitment to process that he learned during his days at UT.
—Cassandra J. Sproles