Between Midtown and Downtown Memphis lies a neighborhood called Crosstown, and Emily Harris Halpern serves as Assistant Director of Crosstown Arts, the organization that facilitated the renovation of the historic (and vacant since 1993!) Sears Crosstown Building into Crosstown Concourse — a totally new model of urban development for Memphis. The iconic million-square-foot building is now a mixed-use vertical indoor village with residential units, performance and art spaces, shopping, dining and healthcare. The opening day celebration is scheduled for August 19th, 2017, although, tenants already began moving in this past winter.
As a component of the Crosstown project, Crosstown Arts has developed as a contemporary arts organization providing resources and support for a wide variety of creative people, working to make Memphis a better place to live and to improve the quality of life for the creative community and the community at large. Emily works with and for artists on a daily basis — creating opportunities for exhibitions and projects, coordinating programs to inspire growth and developing resources for artists to connect with one another as well as the world around them. She loves being a part of the fabric of a dynamic and productive community, and we are glad to let you into her world. Here’s Emily Harris Halpern, today’s FACE of Memphis.
Are you a native Memphian?
I grew up in Memphis, but I share a deep love and connection with Memphis and two other places — New Orleans and New York. I was born in New Orleans and returned there for five years for college and beyond, then I moved to New York for about four years before returning to Memphis in 2009.
What was your early career like?
My career in the arts began with an internship at David Lusk after my first year at Tulane, where I began a massive archiving project for the estate of late Memphis artist Ted Faiers — one of the most memorable projects I have ever been a part of! This led me to summer internships at galleries and publishing in New York, then part-time roles at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and a small contemporary art gallery in New Orleans while getting my undergraduate degree in art history. Later, while at graduate school in New York, I worked at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, and, after moving back to Memphis in 2009, I became Director of Communications at the Dixon. After three years there, I made the transition to Crosstown Arts. So far, my experiences have connected me with an incredibly rich variety of venues, roles, organizational goals, creative and cultural content and talented people. Throughout all of my roles, the constant has been cultivation of platforms or vehicles for artists’ connections to audiences. Their success impacts more in our communities than I ever imagined.
What is your favorite part of Crosstown as a neighborhood?
The contrasts of old and new; the beauty and, quite frankly, the not-so-beautiful things. I love the blend of time periods and progress and the variety of people who live and own businesses in the neighborhood.
What is a typical work day like for you?
My husband and I trade off taking the kids to school, and when stars align, I try to take an hour for myself before heading to the office. A vital part of my daily life includes coordinating and planning for almost every detail that I can imagine, both personally and for my family and as part of my job. I keep a lot of things moving at once and have learned through the years that I have to embrace the duality of being both extremely prepared and incredibly flexible and open to change at the same time.
My day is filled with talking with staff about almost everything under the sun — meetings with artists about current and future projects, planning out schedules and coordinating calendars and communications for exhibitions and programs (we will soon manage around 20 venues!) and structuring project plans and contracts for future events and new programs.
For breaks, I take short walks around the neighborhood and make phone calls to friends and family. I bring my lunch or eat Fuel Café to go. After work, I pick up the kids from school, and we cook dinner at home, take walks in our East Memphis neighborhood or hang out with friends.
What are you most looking forward to for Crosstown Arts and Crosstown the neighborhood in the next year or so?
Increased opportunities for growth, social connections and resources for neighborhood residents and business owners, as well as the community overall. This is a whole new level of public space and potential walkability in neighborhoods that Memphis desperately needs more of. On a lighter note, more restaurants!
As for Crosstown Arts, I’m probably most excited about our expanded exhibition spaces and the multi-disciplinary artist residency program where we will be bringing in a number of artists from around the country to live and work at Crosstown Concourse, starting in the fall of 2017.
Do you have a mentor or role model?
Growing up, I became completely enthralled with the women in my family. Now, those memories and their stories have become a form of motivational mythology — my own little library of role models. My great aunt in Chicago, at 90, is still a working graphic designer, while another great aunt ran a farm in Kentucky on her own. My great-grandmother Hilda was a master of textiles and quilting. Her daughter Ann was a pharmacist and owner of a soda counter in Louisiana. My own mother is a powerhouse of productivity, yet remains the most selfless, generous and hilarious human being I’ve ever encountered. All of these women managed successful careers, cultivated their own individual talents, raised beautiful families and exuded wit and grace — seemingly without skipping a beat. I’m also indebted to my teachers at St. Mary’s for their motivation and support.
What are your hobbies and how do you unwind?
I love cooking, caring for plants, hiking, biking, working on projects or reading with my kids.
What inspires you?
The natural world. Artists and designers working in Memphis and around the world. Traveling to experience new and different perspectives and seeing other environments.
Finish this sentence: If I had a superpower, it would be…
What are your guilty pleasures?
Terribly wonderful foods — fried chicken, Doritos or Fritos and dips of all varieties.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Do the hardest thing first.
What are three lighthearted things you can’t live without?
LaCroix, Glossier skincare and when a theme party comes my way, I’m totally on.
Thank you, Emily! To learn more about Emily’s work at Crosstown Arts, visit crosstownarts.org.
Thanks to Micki Martin for the fabulous photos of Emily!
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