Tuesday, March 13, 2012

1969 Poplar

Memphis was abuzz in the mid-1980s when word got out that Amy Carter, daughter of President Jimmy Carter, was in town enrolled at the Memphis Academy of Arts, today known as the Memphis College of Art, located in Overton Park, just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. One day during that brief period of abuzz I happened to be in line at the old Davis-Kidd bookstore in the Laurelwood Shopping Center. In front of me was a woman around my age with long, and I thought rather scraggly, blonde hair who looked a bit odd—and familiar. I took a good look at her and thought she might be, could be, the president’s daughter. I wanted to make sure, but didn’t know how. To intrude on her anonymity as she stood in line seemed rude and, even more so, pathetic. Why should I care if she were Amy Carter? Was my life so dull that I needed contact with--let's face it--a complete stranger to jazz it up? (Evidently.) As she stepped to the cash register, I took what was surely my last chance to ascertain her identity before she walked out of the store and out of my life, to the pitifully slight degree that she had walked into my life in the first place, forever. I managed to sneak a peek at the credit card she held out to the sales clerk. Sure enough, the name on the card was Amy Carter.

Such was my brush with presidential fame, and my brush, no pun intended, with the Memphis Academy of Arts, which never figured into my life during my residence in Memphis. (It did later, however; I’ll explain at the end.) And why should it have? I was no artist, and I knew hardly anybody who was an artist. To the extent that I thought of the college at all, I thought it was odd that it should be in such a place as Memphis, which, despite its two art galleries, I never regarded as a center of high culture.

Rust Hall, Memphis College of Art
Douglas W. Cupples has made me think otherwise. Dr. Cupples is an instructor in the Department of History at the University of Memphis, and he has written an illuminating article on the history of art education in the city. Published in 2008 in the West Tennessee Historical Society Papers, the article, whose main title is “From Atelier to the MFA (Then on to the Altelier),” makes the case that modern Memphis was not quite the “Southern backwater” and “decaying Mississippi River town” that Time magazine consigned it to be in the days immediately following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King. Quite the contrary. Memphis could boast of a “strong cultural history and a devoted core of support for the arts,” avers Dr. Cupples. I had to read on; could that be true?

The answer is . . . well, you must be able to guess what the answer is. Dr. Cupples lists the numerous art programs and institutions that existed in the city around the time of Dr. King’s assassination: there was the Brooks Gallery; there was the New York Metropolitan Opera, which made yearly visits to the Bluff City (Memphis was one of only six cities in the hinterland so honored); there were the music and theater departments at Memphis State University, departments that had produced no fewer than three divas and were the first to stage an off-Broadway production of the Broadway sensation Hair; there was the Memphis Symphony Orchestra; there was the novelist-turned-historian Shelby Foote, who was writing his brilliant Civil War trilogy in the study of his Memphis home; and there was of course the Memphis Academy of Arts.

The Memphis Academy of Arts began in 1936 with a defection from an already existing art school in Memphis, the James Lee Memorial Academy, which was located in two houses on the block of Adams Avenue preserved today as Victorian Village. The James Lee Memorial Academy was overseen by one Florence Makin McIntyre—more on her in a few moments—and offered classes in all of the traditional fine arts as well as providing performance space for three theaters.

But not all was well at the Lee Academy, as some instructors found the “rigid classicism” of Ms. McIntyre, who had studied at the Art Institute in Chicago, too intolerable. Two in particular—a popular husband-and-wife team named George and Harriet Oberteuffer—left the academy, bringing several students with them, and started the Mid-South School of Fine Arts. When the older Lee Academy shut its doors in the early 1940s, its buildings, which several years before had been deeded to the city, were offered by the mayor to the rebellious Mid-South School, which by then had changed its name to the Memphis Academy of Arts. 

Memphis was home to several women who played active roles in the arts, either as artists or as founders and administrators of art academies. Most significant was Florence Makin McIntyre (1875–1963), whom we’ve already met as the force behind the James Lee Memorial Academy and who, in Dr. Cupples’s estimation, was “the foundation of the city’s great leap forward” in the realm of the arts. After studying art in Chicago and living for a few years in Philadelphia, Ms. McIntyre returned to her native city to help establish, in 1914, the Memphis Art Association of the Nineteenth Century Club. Two years later, she became the first director of the new Brooks Gallery.

There are several other persons and academies that figure into the history of art education in Memphis--most notably the late Ted Rust, who directed the Memphis Academy of Arts for twenty-six years--but I’ll leave the reader to learn about those himself by reading Dr. Cupples’s article, which presents a side of Memphis that was unknown to me before and that I am grateful for knowing now.

1969 Poplar Avenue
To return to the Memphis College of Art. For years, my old guitar teacher, Gay Ricardo Fusco, and his wife Georgia lived in a Spanish-style apartment building at 1969 Poplar Avenue, just across the street from Overton Park and the art college. Mr. Fusco died in 1984, but Georgia continued to live in the apartment, and for many years I harbored a fantasy to one day return to Memphis and live at that very same address. Alas, sometime around 2000, the college purchased the apartment building to use as a dormitory for its students. For me, knowing now that I would never live in the Fuscos’ old apartment, that was sad news to learn.

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