Victoria Jones on owning and investing as pledges of Black autonomy and hope

The CLTV, a Memphis arts organization, is planning housing that will generate revenue.
Interview with CLTV director Victoria Jones by Tricia Heuring.

Victoria Jones is executive director of the CLTV, which opened the CMPLX in 2019.

Photo by Catherine Elizabeth Patton.

portrait of Victoria Jones, director of the nonprofit CLTV

“We had a resident come to the gallery one day,” said Victoria Jones, “with tears in her eyes saying, ‘I’m so proud of y’all. Keep pushing. And I’m going to tell you this, you’re in Orange Mound now. You opened the doors here, you can’t go anywhere.’ With that responsibility of sustainability placed on our shoulders, we can’t wait for the system to amazingly change overnight for us.”

Victoria Jones is executive director of the CLTV, “the Collective,” a nonprofit arts organization that provides a platform and resources for Black artists in Memphis, Tennessee. After four years in pop-up and other temporary spaces, the CLTV opened its first brick-and-mortar space in 2019, a co-working and gallery space called the CMPLX, in the Orange Mound neighborhood. More than a space, the CMPLX is a practice in systems change through autonomy. Inspired by the rich history of Orange Mound, Jones is manifesting an art space story that includes ownership, empowerment, and lasting legacy.

Tell me about Orange Mound, where your work is centered. What is important to know about this place?

Orange Mound is the oldest neighborhood in the United States founded not just for Black people but by Black people. Newly freed enslaved Africans built the homes that exist here, built the businesses that still stand, and really carved out space for Black folks. It’s got this rich legacy, rich history that people still cling to…especially current residents. The city has not invested in this neighborhood, has not honored this space the way it should. But the people who live here continue to celebrate it. This neighborhood is said to have the highest level of civic engagement and civic pride in the entire city. Despite backs being turned on this neighborhood, the folks that live here still find ways to commune. Pull up to Melrose High School, the historic high school in Orange Mound, on Wednesday at four in the afternoon. You’ll see peewee football leagues, folks playing in the park, on the basketball court, sitting in their front yards on milk crates. Folks still building and living in this community.

Did this legacy inspire the establishment of the CLTV’s new space, the CMPLX, in Orange Mound?

When it came time for us to figure out our own brick-and mortar, we got tapped by a few other neighborhoods that were being heavily invested in. We were asked to activate different spaces. For example, they would offer discounted rent for two years to get the space activated while they built up apartment complexes. They were honest about the direction it would head, that rent would increase after those first years.

But we had to consider— if we were going to activate a space or neighborhood—where did we want to use our creative energy? Who would we really want it to benefit? Orange Mound made the most sense. We had done some programming at Orange Mound Gallery, which is now right next door to the CMPLX. It felt like home. We found the space where our energy would benefit the folks who look like us and have stories like ours.

Having found a consistent home, and settling into the CMPLX, what does long-term impact in this neighborhood mean to you?

A lot of our recent conversations have been around ownership. We’re still renting, but we’re past the point of that being okay. We’re taking steps towards owning space. I think ownership has been missing for a lot of folks—artists, yes, but most especially for Black folks. It was illegal for us to even own land for so long. We’re playing catch-up in the land ownership conversation. Being out of the conversation takes away our ability to dictate the future of our spaces. We’re not invited to the table because we don’t have to be; no one has to talk to us if everybody is leasing. So we are trying to work with current residents, trying to empower Black artists, and encourage folks who left this neighborhood to move back and purchase property.

Much of the arts funding landscape focuses on programming, but many organizers like you are deeply committed to investment in infrastructure and space. What truths about that are important for funders and philanthropists to understand today?

We had to start from scratch, and not because no one has ever thought to do something like this. It’s not because this is the first generation of artists who had the ability. No, we had to start from scratch because there was no real investment in the organization before us and the one before that. By not truly investing in this organization, what funders are doing is charging the next generation with starting from scratch as well. And if you’re talking about equity and what comes next, this needs to change.

But if I’m being honest, I don’t want to wait on anyone else to decide they’re ready to make a better situation for the folks I care about. Our plan is to grow past grants and funders. It feels odd to have to try to explain myself in grant applications to someone who would be afraid to drive through my neighborhood. That power dynamic doesn’t translate for me. I want to focus on making the money ourselves.

Is there a specific project that focuses on your own agency to make money within the organization? Would you share one of the plans you have for generating revenue?

We’re trying to figure out artist housing that will hopefully be up and running in two years by working with JUICE Orange Mound, a community organization that has deep-rooted connections to folks living here currently. They recently divided Orange Mound up into seven different zones, and designated a zone captain for each one. The captain is responsible for canvassing their seven- or eight-block radius to understand the specific needs there. We are working to buy a home in each of the zones.

Each home would ideally have three or four bedrooms: one for an artist to live in, one for an artist studio, and one for an Airbnb. The living room and outdoor spaces would be committed to community convening space. The idea is to lean on the zone captain to help gauge the need in the zone, and then find an artist resident to live in the house in exchange for providing a service the community needs. For example, we may find out from the zone captain that families need a place for kids to hang out after school. So we’ll find an artist who has experience to engage with the youth intentionally.

The third room in the house would be rentable as an Airbnb, which would lead to revenue. It’s important that just one room is rented, while the rest of the house stays consistent for neighbors. I’m excited about exploring this. If we do it correctly it would support our operational costs, while getting artists inside Black neighborhoods to do really good work.

In the next few years, beyond ownership of space(s), how do you see the CLTV/CMPLX thriving?

We want—need—to set roots for a Black arts and culture mecca. We want to engage as many Black arts and culture organizations as possible to do work in one space and watch it change the community. I want to be able to work next door to people I am already working in the trenches with. I want to see what our synergy leads to. I want to see all of us not adding, but multiplying. I want to be intentional about our shared resources, our plans, how we elevate each other. By concentrating our efforts in one neighborhood, the oldest Black neighborhood in the nation, it will be remarkable. In the next two years, five years, ten years, if we get it right, it will be something to hand off to the next generation.

Tricia Heuring is a curator, arts organizer, and educator. Her curatorial practice is balanced between individualized support for emerging artists and building systemic change in the nonprofit arts sector. She is the co-founder of Public Functionary, a multidisciplinary Minneapolis-based arts and exhibition platform, and works as a consultant with Forecast Public Art.

Public Art Review issue 59From Public Art Review #59, where this article originally appeared as Owning It.