Memphis Citizens Call for End to New Art Museum, Claiming That It Takes Land Away from Property Owners

A legal battle over whether the city of Memphis, Tennessee, has the right to build a museum on a strip of riverfront land known as the promenade may soon come to an end, according to Commercial Appeal.

An organization called Friends for Our Riverfront, along with a group of Memphis citizens referred to in legal documents as “the heirs” who trace their lineage to the city’s founders, are calling for the construction of the Brooks Museum of Art to be permanently shut down. They claim the promenade, though managed by the city, belongs to the citizens of Memphis. According to the heirs, building on the site would violate the Memphians’ property rights.

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A page titled “Legal Issues” on the Friends for Our Riverfront website says, “When the owners of the land where Memphis now sits laid out tracts to be sold for homes and businesses, they set aside the land along the riverfront as a public common space for all to use and enjoy.” It likens the development of the promenade to the city government taking the land by eminent domain.

In August, the organization filed a lawsuit in the Shelby County Chancery Court against the both the city and the Brooks Museum, according to Fox 13. The complaint includes a temporary restraining order, a temporary injunction, and a permanent injunction. 

In the past, the land was home to a “dilapidated fire station” and a parking garage, both of which were torn down when the city broke ground for the new 122,000-square-foot museum in June. Friends for Our Riverfront claims those buildings also violated the easement, and that their demolition “created the first opportunity in over 70 years for the Heirs to legally enforce the easement without causing the removal of structures.”

A spokesperson for the museum did not respond to a request for comment.

Supporters of the project liken the museum, which will include free public spaces, to a public park. In a statement to Fox 13 Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s executive director Zoe Kahr called the project “a transformative moment, not only for the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, but for all of Memphis” that would “redefine the visual arts in the Mid-South for generations.” The city’s mayor, Jim Strickland, said the proposed museum would be a “tourist magnet” and compared it to Crystal Bridges, a museum of American art in Bentonville, Arkansas, that in 2020 had over 350,000 visitors.

Whether construction will continue is left to the Shelby County chancellor Melanie Taylor Jefferson, who, according to Commercial Appeal, has not indicated when she will make her final decision.

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