Memphis Rehearsal Complex — or "MRC" — bustles when visual artists, jewelry makers, musicians, dancers, tattoo artists and others gather at the monthly Memphis Artists Showcase.
A belly dancer in a swirling blue dress performed while a young woman displayed jewelry she made. An artist painted a red face on the wall while another artist applied paint to a young woman's body. Dancers in checkered leotards warmed up as they waited for their turn to go on stage with a couple of hip-hop artists.
Many of the performers hone their talents in one of the 24 rental rooms at MRC. Sounds of various music styles blend in the hallways. An aesthetician rents space in a studio on the first floor, and some tattoo artists work upstairs.
The two-story brick building at 296 Monroe wasn't always so lively.
"Imagine this room being completely empty, everything painted gray, rats running around," said Robert Coletta, 28. That's what Memphis Rehearsal Complex looked like when he and fellow property manager Brandon Knight, 28, decided to give it a face-lift. The building, which Coletta believes to be 80 years old,had hit the skids.
"The place was completely trashed," Coletta said. "There was literally trash on the floors everywhere in the building. The building stank."
Tenants weren't paying rent, he said. "When we took over management, we cleaned house."
Coletta and Knight also knew the musical history of the building. "A lot of bands in this town are mutual friends of ours and roomed here in the past," Coletta said, and the building has been called the Memphis Rehearsal Complex for years.
The cavernous room housing the Memphis Artists Showcase now is referred to as "The Venue." It once housed a club called The Riot. "This venue was very well known in the metal and punk scene," Coletta said. "They packed this place out wall to wall. You couldn't even walk in here. They used to crowd surf, go nuts."
Coletta and Knight never imagined they would become involved with an old building near AutoZone Park. A few years ago, the two were sitting around a swimming pool in Cordova on a hot August day. They didn't know each other. Coletta, who was an electrician, said to a friend, "I can't find my place here." His friend pointed to Knight and said, "That guy is about to go to music business school in Hollywood, California."
Coletta walked over to Knight and asked if he could go with him. "He looked at me like I was crazy and said, 'Yeah, I guess,'" Coletta said. "So I literally put every single item that I owned except for my clothes on Craigslist. I had a house at the time. I had two cars. Filed bankruptcy. Got rid of it all."
Knight, who was working in heating and air-conditioning, also was dissatisfied with the way his life was going. "I was looking for something different to do," he said. "I was just online after work one day eating Chinese food. I opened my fortune cookie and it said, 'You cannot live life until you live the life you love.'"
He was looking for business schools online and found the Musicians Institute in Hollywood. "I signed up and sold everything I had. I was living on my friend's couch when I met him (Coletta). I've always been interested in music. I don't play any instruments. I play a little harmonica."
They finished their courses at the institute; Coletta concentrated on artist management, Knight on music publishing.
They moved back to Memphis where they eventually opened a recording studio at the rundown MRC. They wanted to help fellow musicians "develop their careers, helping with their publishing and copyrights," Coletta said.
Knight came up with the idea to overhaul the building. "We felt Memphis needed it," he said. "There were so many different types of people contacting us for space, photographers, different types of artists. We figured we'd try to remodel the whole thing and make it more becoming for people to come showcase their arts."
"We did it ourselves and with help of others who saw the potential in the building," Coletta said. "This has taken a lot of work from a lot of different people over a large amount of time."
Jad Davis, 22, was one of those people. A fashion designer and pop artist/singer, "I came on to be a part of the team because I believed in where they were going," Davis said. "An artistic community. Something for Memphis to call their own and something to separate them from everything else. I think that the artists need something like this. We offer a home for multiple mediums."
It took about two years to get MRC in shape. "That's all on a zero budget with a bunch of broke artists and affiliates," Coletta said. "Donations, sponsorships from friends and a lot of manual labor."
They began by getting rid of former tenants. "We basically locked out anybody who wasn't paying rent," Coletta said.
Then they got busy. "We had to grind the floors, pulled up the carpet, painted everything. We did rewiring. We did plumbing, heating and air."
"Me and three other models would come in and alternate and strip the floor," Davis said.
"We had an elevator that wasn't working," Coletta said. "We got that working. Bands cannot load their gear up and down the stairs."
They covered the gray with yellows, oranges, greens and gold. "The idea behind that was, 'This is a creative environment, so we need to create energy,'" Coletta said.
The Memphis Artists Showcase, which is free to performers and spectators, began this year. "This is basically an opportunity for artists who work in their genre to familiarize themselves with artists who work in other genres and to think out of the box if necessary, to collaborate if possible," Coletta said. The formula works, says Alonzo Muzic, who, along with Rashad Jones, runs Space Station Studios at MRC. "We've been here around six months. We love it because you get to network a lot. You've got other artists in the building. It varies from all genres of music. He does R&B. I do hip-hop."
Also, he said, "You can get to do a lot of different stuff all in one spot. You get people who come in who probably do fliers, T-shirts. Basically, what you've got is one-stop shopping where everybody is networking inside the building."
That was the plan, Coletta said. "It's taken some time to get to that point, but it's gotten to that point. And that's what's got me very comfortable with the idea that I know we're not going to do anything but progress from this point forward."