As the place Aretha Franklin, Issac Hayes and Al Green called home and one of the formative sites for blues and rock’n’roll, Memphis, Tennessee has history and culture in its veins. It’s no wonder then that the city has an inspiring music, theater and arts scene, comprised of local and international creatives; all of whom are often focused on and galvanized by community. The worthwhile and landmark sites like the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum and Stax Museum of American Soul Music speak to how music shaped the city and vice versa, but state-of-the-art and under-the-radar galleries, venues and institutions offer a glimpse at how the municipality cultivates rich, salient contemporary artists today. Below, these cultural hubs and more speak to the soul of Memphis: a city rooted in grassroots, integrity and creativity.
Memphis Listening Lab
The Memphis Listening Lab is a free vinyl library and archive, built around the 60,000 record collection (which also includes rare 45s from local Memphis musicians) of radio historian, Ardent Records co-founder and music promoter, John King. The public service space allows anyone to come in, browse the collection and listen to records amongst an array of mid-century seating, turntables and an impressive EgglestonWorks audio system. The sophisticated space—which looks like a cross between a library and recording studio—also offers a podcast studio and music-editing software free to the public. Between their expansive collection and record swapping or record release events, it’s easy to spend hours here—and get a true pulse for the Memphis music scene by the Lab’s head archivist, Jim Cole.
Right across from the Listening Lab in the Crosstown Concourse is the Green Room, an intimate, acoustically-treated and vintage-inspired music performing space. Thoughtfully designed to create an environment that elevates an artist’s work as well as the audience’s listening experience, the elegant venue hosts small shows by acclaimed and emerging musicians who often perform unique sets, featuring new collaborations made specifically for the Green Room.
Crosstown Arts Galleries
Two sprawling exhibition spaces that amount to 7,000 square feet make up Crosstown Arts Galleries, a dual art gallery with two missions: to bring international and contemporary art to Memphis and to offer local artists a premiere place to show their work. With the extensive space—that is sometimes used for separate shows or as a conjoining one—the galleries’ yearly rosters act as a site for a diverse range of works, from painting to sculpture, scientific art and more.
Located in Orange Mound—the first neighborhood in America to be built by and for Black people—is art gallery and multi-use space TONE. Led by Victoria Jones, the gallery’s programming highlights Black, Memphis-based artists in addition to building infrastructure and community to sustain the creative community of the city. Their roster of emerging and established artists promise thought-provoking and visceral exhibitions.
Founded by a group of film students at the University of Memphis in 1998, Indie Memphis began as a gathering in coffee shops to screen student work. Now, under the direction of Kimel Fryer, it’s a hub for international and acclaimed shorts, documentaries and feature movies. Beyond their annual film festival, the organization screens films year round and offers grants, fellowships and forums for Memphis directors and filmmakers. Under Fryer’s careful curation, the programming aims to uplift Black creatives while also showcasing works that speak to the city’s demographics and interests.
Urevbu Contemporary is a Black-owned art gallery in the South Main Arts District where exhibitions often explore the African diaspora, transgress boundaries and critically engage in cultural discourse. Their emerging and mid-career artists create innovative shows that question justice, collective narratives, memory and other significant themes.
The only non-profit institution dedicated to the art and design of metalworks in the US, the Metal Museum is a unique exploration of the artistry in blacksmithing. From architectural works to archival objects and their program to educate and create opportunities for emerging metal artists, Metal Studio, the museum meditates on sculpture, design, function and history through fascinating displays of the medium.
Hero image courtesy of Metal Museum