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    Chris Peck: The arts can be the right tonic

    Chris Peck - The Commercial Appeal -

    A divisive presidential campaign is about to end. Many of us will need something soothing to heal the wounds and cool the tempers. Could that tonic be a concert, a play or a dance?

    Yes, say leaders of the Greater Memphis arts community.

    Their message before 500 people at the recent Leadership Memphis Multicultural Breakfast wasn't political.

    Rather, it was human, and creative.

    "The arts can lift us above easy, daily routines,'' said Barbara Hyde, chairwoman of the Leadership Memphis board of directors and the host of a remarkable morning discussion of how the arts can do what politics cannot. "The arts can point us toward something shared, rather than keep us divided.''

    And she is so right.

    At a concert, or when contemplating a dancer or watching a play, we cannot help but share the emotion and intimacy of the moment. We don't automatically think about whether we are sitting next to someone who voted for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney.

    In Memphis, the arts always have bound us together.

    Memphis music plays in all of our ears. Blockbuster art events, from the now-departed Wonders series to the Quilts of Gee's Bend exhibition at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art to those childhood treks to the Pink Palace, the arts have been the knot that often ties a diverse community together.

    And it happens every week.

    Like that day in October when Yo-Yo Ma, the virtuoso cellist, played before an enthralled Memphis Symphony Orchestra audience as 13-year-old Highland Oaks Middle School student TJ Benson danced a modified hip-hop number to the strains of the strings.

    Or the evening Ballet Memphis performed its River Project series a few nights ago with a multiracial professional troupe whose work New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay recently praised as "one of the most beguiling new American Ballets of our day.''

    This weekend will be the 15th Indie Memphis Film Festival. Hundreds of young people, black and white, from city and suburbs, will gather at theaters and other venues to share their views and reviews of some of the best new films of our time.

    Kids, in particular, need the arts. The ability of the arts to broaden us, to open channels to ideas and cultures that aren't part of our everyday lives is a prime reason the arts must be part of early childhood.

    This is why ArtsMemphis recently announced an expansion of its arts education and outreach program into some of the most challenged neighborhoods in this city.

    At a meeting with arts leaders a few weeks back, ArtsMemphis executive director Susan Schadt explained that her organization, clearly the most significant arts funding organization in the Mid-South, will commit hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups that devise ways to take their art into neighborhoods where kids aren't often exposed to it.

    "Basically, we're taking arts to the streets because we think it can help Memphis,'' said Schadt. "We believe strongly that art can bring change to communities for the better.''

    Already, more than two dozen arts groups have been given ArtsMemphis grants to take their work to some unlikely venues: the Tennessee Shakespeare Company has held classes at Kirby High School; Theatre Memphis has offered its "peacemakers training program'' in the Binghamton neighborhood; inner-city girls have visited the Temple Israel Museum to learn more about Jewish children's struggles throughout history.

    ArtsMemphis and all variety of arts groups cannot do this alone. They will need additional support from private patrons and corporate sponsors to keep taking the arts to the streets of Memphis.

    But the results will be there for this city in the form of more inspired children and a more creative future.