Previously the partnership manager for Ballet Memphis, in January 2015, Lauren Kennedy took the helm of the UrbanArt Commission as executive director. The mission of the almost 20-year-old independent Memphis nonprofit is to enhance the cultural vibrancy of communities through the development of public art. The organization facilitates partnerships with the public and private sector through the creation of public art projects, does public art community outreach and engagement, and offers services and professional development for artists.
Besides working within the world of art in her professional career, Lauren has been running a one-room art gallery inside her home in Midtown Memphis since 2012. She named the gallery space Southfork, after the ranch of the hit 1980s TV show “Dallas.” Artists from Memphis and everywhere else have exhibited in the space, which is open by appointment only outside of the scheduled shows.
Welcome today’s FACE of Memphis, Lauren Kennedy!
Have you always called Memphis home?
No, but I’ve loved Memphis since I was a kid and would come here to stay with my aunt and uncle every summer. I always got so excited about driving across the Mississippi River, and it still just doesn’t get old. This city has a kind of magic that ultimately drew me back for college and then again in 2012, when I started working for Ballet Memphis.
How did your previous jobs prepare you for heading up the UrbanArt Commission?
I’m still not sure that I am prepared for this role (Ha ha!), but so much of my professional focus has been managing partnerships and various stakeholders. I enjoy connecting different people and organizations through worthwhile projects, and that is an integral part of this gig at UrbanArt. Public art and shared experiences driven by the arts are passions of mine that I have thought about and worked on, both professionally and personally, prior to taking this job. This is an incredible opportunity for me, and I am very grateful to have a chance to push art in public spaces in Memphis.
What are some basic words of wisdom you can offer based on your professional experience?
Pay attention to what is happening around you, both in the office and outside it. Make connections, even if they seem tenuous. Everybody grows more that way.
Why is the UrbanArt Commission important to Memphis?
I’m sure there are plenty of people who have heard me say this already, but I really do believe that public art does exactly what the Grizzlies are doing for our city. We are both creating positive, shared experiences that place Memphis in a larger, national dialogue. I just listened to a TED talk with Theaster Gates about the artist-led redevelopment projects he has championed in Chicago, and he said, “I believe that beauty is a basic service.” Well, we are working to create beautiful, thoughtful spaces accessible to everybody throughout Memphis because everyone should have that. And we want people outside of Memphis to understand that our city has more to offer than Elvis and barbecue, even though those things are both great and delicious.
When did your interest in art begin?
My interest in art began somewhere in that awkward middle-school phase. I would go to bookstores with my dad and pour over the cheesy coffee table books. And then it got serious when I had one of those incredible teachers in high school who made me pretty much fall head over heels for art history. Been an art nerd ever since.
What are your favorite pieces of public art in Memphis?
Greely Myatt’s Quiltsurround piece downtown at City Hall is really great. I am looking forward to Sherri Warner Hunter installing a new project at Fletcher Creek Park soon that I think is going to be pretty special. And I really love driving up and down Summer Avenue looking at all of the old, hand-painted signs. That’s some good stuff.
What inspired you to have a home art gallery?
Getting to spend time at Material over the years, the great Hamlett Dobbins’ former gallery space on Broad Avenue; late night whiskey conversations with my dear friends Joel Parsons and Steven McMahon about their space Beige, and what we would like to see in Memphis but can’t always find—it just all fell into place in this lovely way, and Memphis has received Southfork really well. It feels important to create an exchange between the Memphis art community and other cities by working with artists in Dallas, New York and elsewhere. Plus, it makes me sincerely happy to have people come to my home to talk about art, play records and spend time together.
What is your favorite Memphis dessert (dish and restaurant)?
Strawberry cake at The Beauty Shop. Good grief.
What do you do in your spare time that is not art-related?
Eat pizza, read and watch dumb TV
What three lighthearted things could you not live without?
Pizza, books and dumb TV
Thank you to Lauren for championing the arts in Memphis. And thank you to Micki Martin for today’s great photos.
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