ArtsMemphis is expanding arts access where it counts

Veteran arts funder ArtsMemphis has launched a grant program to bring the arts to underserved communities. The long-term goal is to spur the kind of deep arts engagement that can benefit neighborhoods and families.

Even though the organization has been around for 50 years supporting arts education and outreach, ArtsMemphis was continuing to hear its grantees report problems with developing successful programming in underserved communities. Problems like poor attendance and poor communication with neighborhood groups plagued the grant recipients.

Underserved populations often lack access to arts programs because of geographic isolation, or limited access to quality arts resources and programs due to economic conditions. The lack of working capital in underserved communities has profound real-world consequences: artistic risk-taking is curtailed, artists work less frequently with schools and individuals abandon low-paying careers in the arts.

The fact is, most arts philanthropy is not engaged in addressing inequities that trouble communities, and is not meeting the needs of our most marginalized populations. ArtsMemphis is ready to change that reality in Memphis. 

After hearing that feedback from grantees and receiving a suggestion to focus on a more neighborhood-based approach from a "major anonymous donor," the organization decided to make a big play. The first step in the strategy was to hire Linda P. Steele last January as Chief Engagement and Outreach Officer. Her task was to develop and execute the organization's efforts to bring the arts community to people, particularly in underserved areas.

For Steele, her new job is all about answering one question: How can the arts advance the priorities of the community and the residents of our underserved neighborhoods?

Steele, who relocated to Memphis from New York City for the position, spent the past 12 years as an arts administrator and consultant in NYC, Chicago and Cleveland. The Cleveland native is a graduate of Amherst College, Harvard University and the Arts Leadership Institute at Teachers College of Columbia University.

With the donor funds that Steele described as "transformative" and support from ArtsMemphis, Steele began to work with the renowned consulting firm Bridgespan Group to complete neighborhood research on needs, arts access and gaps. That research became the foundation for a new strategy--the Community Engagement Fellowship Program--launched last spring.

Through the program, ArtsMemphis awarded 24 grants to arts groups that wished to expand arts access in Orange Mound and South Memphis/Soulsville. Program participants attended courses and workshops with such topics as vision, audience development, marketing, fundraising and evaluation.

"I wanted this to be less transaction, more transformation, so we asked them to submit their idea, their concept, their plan, first and then invited them," Steele said. "We said, 'This is what we'd like to fund,' and gave them guidelines to develop a full proposal and a budget with that. So it's a little bit more organic. So looking at the meat, the soul, the heart, the project and moving towards what it would take to actually fund this, as opposed to looking at money and just coming up with stuff to meet that price tag."

Grantees were also acquainted with the two neighborhoods with town halls with residents and neighborhood leaders, as well as walking tours.

"Many times our arts organizations understand how to communicate with traditional ticket buyers, subscribers, audiences, volunteers, but (not) nontraditional audiences and residents of these underserved communities where they are not quite sure about their communication and marketing strategies," Steele said.

The first guest speaker the organizations heard from was George N’Namdi, a creative placemaker from Detroit. N’Namdi turned a blighted warehouse in the city into a performing arts center, including an art gallery and performing arts center.

"We brought him here to be our very first speaker and to help our artists with vision who saw the possibilities rather than blight and poverty and crime," Steele said. "And as we embarked upon going into Soulsville and South Memphis and Orange Mound, looking for opportunities for the arts to advance community and social change, here's someone who did that."

ArtsMemphis also hired Community Engagement Associate Tamara Williamson to assist with the initiative. Williamson worked closely with Steele in first executing the Fellows program, and now she supervises the newly awarded grants and cultivates relationships with their community partners. 
The Ornamental Metal Museum's mobile forge at the Orange Mound in May event.
"I grew up in Memphis and I heard a lot of stereotypes about Orange Mound. I didn't know much about the neighborhood before I came to work at ArtsMemphis. This process has resulted in a mind-shift change for me. Orange Mound is more than a crime statistic; it's a neighborhood filled with passionate people and an interesting history," said Williamson.

The work launching in Soulsville and Orange Mound could be a useful template for future work in other neighborhoods.

At the end of the fellowship classes, fellows submitted a community engagement plan that served as a letter of intent for the Engagement Transforms Communities grant, as well as a document that could be submitted for funding outside of ArtsMemphis. In September, ArtsMemphis awarded Engagement Transforms Communities Grants to five projects in either Orange Mound or South Memphis (including Soulsville). Recipients included Ballet Memphis, Blues City Cultural Center, New Ballet Ensemble, PRIZM Ensemble, Soulsville Foundation, Theatre Memphis, Visible Community Music School and Women's Theatre Festival of Memphis. Three of the projects will be based in Orange Mound and two in South Memphis/Soulsville.

Upon hearing about the grant award, Lecolion Washington of PRIZM Ensemble said, "As artists, this kind of training is not commonly received, but it is vital to the success of our programs. Thank you for helping bridge the gaps for us."

"PRIZM Ensemble gave a violin scholarship to a girl at Orange Mound Outreach Ministries. Change moves slowly, but I can see that even getting everyone in the same room sparks a lot of great ideas and conversations," added Williamson about the grant recipient.
The organization hopes to ensure equity in arts access by improving the effectiveness and deepening the impact of arts organizations by targeting more inner-city neighborhoods, including expanding future efforts to North Memphis, Frayser, Whitehaven and Hickory Hill. Steele said they started with just two neighborhoods for capacity reasons: financial and human.

Steele said the organization would be very "high-touch" with this project, doing things like assigning board members and volunteers to each of the projects to help with budgeting, and requiring a timeline before projects are initialized.

In the next few months, ArtsMemphis plans to hold a major event to unveil the details of the five projects to grantees, donors and the general public.

"We hope to continue to prove that we are thought leaders and executers of this work here in Memphis, so we can continue to receive support and then continue to help and coach and guide and support other arts organizations to this kind of work and serve as a model for other grant makers and foundations in place-based philanthropy as well," Steele said.

Read more articles by Elle Perry.

A native of Memphis, Elle Perry serves as coordinator of the Teen Appeal, the Scripps Howard city-wide high school newspaper program. 
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