Cuts to the NEA would starve Memphis' minority-serving arts organizations

Memphis arts organizations brace for decreased federal funding that could impact the work they do with underserved and minority populations.

“I don’t know who I would be without music and the piano,” said Sidney Robinson, a junior at Germantown High.

Robinson, a scholarship recipient at the Stax Music Academy, stretches his fingers, straightens his back and plants his feet on the base of the Yamaha piano in the music room the Soulsville facility.

Seconds later, the melody of Prince’s “Purple Rain” cascades from the black and white keys resurrecting the artist as if he were onstage again at Fox Theatre in Atlanta closing out his last concert.

Drive ten minutes from the Stax Music Academy in Soulsville and find a room of 15 girls rehearsing ballet sequences at the New Ballet Ensemble and School. As they align their bodies into first position, their instructor, Katie Smythe, delivers some harsh news.

“If the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) is no longer here, a tenth of our budget wouldn’t exist,” Smythe told the ballerinas. “That means we would have to make some drastic cuts as well. That could be staff losing their jobs and some of you losing your scholarships.”

The ballerinas flutter with discontent. Many of students at the New Ballet Ensemble are people of color, a demographic most vulnerable to federal cuts to arts funding.

Sidney Robinson's scholarship to the Stax Music Academy is supported by the National Endowment for the Arts.

"Removing the Federal institution support of the National Endowment for the Arts, as proposed by the 45th Presidential administration, would be a destructive and destabilizing force not only for arts organizations of color, but also for the youth, families and communities they impact through their work,” said Deron Hall, director of partnerships and research at the Memphis Music Initiative.

President Donald Trump’s federal budget proposal includes cuts to the National Endowment of the Arts, the single largest national funder of nonprofit arts in the U.S. It funds partner agencies such as the National Endowment for the Humanities, Institute of Museum and Library Services and Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In 2016, the NEA made approximately $1.3 million in grants across Tennessee. The Tennessee Arts Commission, the NEA’s state-level sister organization, received $800,000 last year from the NEA for state and local initiatives.

However, Congress may do away with the whole agency. Even the smallest of cuts can leave Memphis organizations hungry. 

If the agency is dissolved, small and large arts organizations that benefit from NEA funding would have to rely on individual donors, and the biggest losers would be students of color.

Stax Music Academy students at a recent performance.

“There is consistent programming happening every week in Memphis in communities such as Orange Mound, North Memphis and Binghampton,” said Elizabeth Rouse, CEO of ArtsMemphis, a nonprofit that raises funding for arts organizations, agencies and individuals in Shelby County. 

Funds continue to support projects like Memphis Slim House in Soulsville, the Africa In April festival and the beloved Memphis Heritage Trail which connects institutions such as Beale Street, the FedEx Forum arena and the National Civil Rights Museum with “underutilized commercial and cultural spaces” such as Mason Temple where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his last speech.

“The programs not only contribute to the city’s economic development but also our youth’s education and development especially in underserved communities and populations,” added Rouse.

About half of the students at New Ballet Ensemble receive a scholarship to participate in the program. At Stax Music Academy, that figure is over 70 percent.

“If NEA were cut just a bit, that would truly hurt our operating budget which includes our scholarship,” said Christy Valentine, director of development at Soulsville Foundation.

The Soulsville Foundation has received consistent support from the NEA through ArtsMemphis and Tennessee Arts Commission. In the last two years, they received $33,000 which is, according to Valentine, “an integral part of our operation.”

Of the New Ballet Ensemble's 300 students, 59 percent are African-American and 40 percent fall below the poverty line.

“It helps us keep the museum open for educational opportunities and field trips for students who come from at-risk and underserved neighborhoods,” said Valentine. “It exposes them to Memphis music history.”

Serving 36 zip codes in Memphis and Mississippi, the Soulsville Music Academy is well known for their annual performances annually held at Overton Square and the Levitt Shell. The afterschool program coupled with public events and performances help kids build confidence, self-esteem, and skills for future workplaces, Valentine said.

Since 2008, New Ballet Ensemble and School has hosted ballet classes at Dunbar Elementary in Orange Mound. In 2016, the program received $15,000 of NEA funding which supported transportation costs and paying staff for tuition-free after-school ballet classes.

Of the 15 girls in the ballet studio, four were introduced to ballet through New Ballet Ensemble program at Dunbar Elementary. All are Black and proud of it.

“When people look at me they automatically think I’m a basketball player, but I’m not. I’m a ballerina,” said Precious, a student at Overton High School. “I’m a black ballerina from Orange Mound with a 4.0 GPA.”

"I don't know who I would be without music and the piano," said Sidney Robinson, a student at the Stax Music Academy.
Felicia Coleman, Precious’ grandmother and an active supporter of New Ballet Ensemble, said that people would regularly attempt to coerce her tall granddaughter into taking up basketball.

“I videotaped her dancing one day and showed it to everyone who would tell me she needed to play basketball. The look on her face and the expression in her body, she’s made to be a dancer,” Coleman said.

All of the students who connected to New Ballet Ensemble through Dunbar Elementary attend dance classes on scholarship.

They credit ballet and Smythe for developing their confidence, skill and poise in an environment where it's difficult to participate in safe spaces that encourage diversity.

Asaya, 16, attends Overton High School. She is a member of ROTC and says ballet helps her with discipline and in assuring in herself that she’s just as good as anyone else despite her color and five-foot-tall stature.

“Ballet is helped me develop the poise and presence I need to be a leader,” said Asaya. “I’m just as much of a leader as those who six feet tall.”

Having youth of color and youth from different socioeconomic backgrounds participate in these arts programs also benefits their counterparts. Mia, another student of color, starts to cry as she thinks about the program without her friends.

“From my experience with attending private schools, I know some people can be closed minded,” said Caroline, a 16-year-old student at New Ballet Ensemble. “Since coming here, I’m glad I can get away from spaces like that and be around people with different experiences and we’re all judgment free.”

According to a study conducted by ArtWorks on arts education and youth development, students who participate in art programs and education are less likely to engage in crime and “delinquent behaviors during adolescence.” The study also shows that each additional year of arts education is met with a 20 percent reduction in the likelihood that a teen would ever be suspended from school.

In a city like Memphis where over 20 percent of youth are categorized as “disconnected youth,” the city should lead the advocacy in saving the NEA.

“People are always talking about how bad crime is in America and Memphis, and if you take away programs like this from young people, then they won’t have anything to do,” said Breanna, a 16-year-old dancer with New Ballet Ensemble.

“They won’t have a choice but to get involved in crime, gangs and drop out of school,”

The list of organizations that could suffocating from the loss of NEA funding is long and stretches from the New Ballet Ensemble and the Stax Music Academy to community center and libraries, the Orange Mound Art Gallery and Hattiloo Theater and its black box theater series.

Organizations across the country and throughout Shelby County are galvanizing grassroots efforts to raise awareness and support for NEA funding. Hall says there are multiple ways for supporters to get involved in advocacy.

“Reach out to members of Congress, understand the budgeting process and post on social media to help rally national and local support to save the NEA using #SavetheNEA,” Hall urged.

The culture of a society and its history can be found in the arts and how it affected history.

“Centuries from now people are going to look back and they are going to know what we did by our art not our equations,” said 15-year-old Thaiss, sitting cross-legged in New Ballet Ensemble’s mirrored studio.

Read more articles by Kirstin Cheers.

Kirstin Cheers is a native South Memphian and freelance journalist. She's written for The Tri-State Defender and is a current contributor for iLoveMemphis blog and Professionally, she's the communications specialist at United Way of the Mid-South, a non-profit that supports agencies serving people living in poverty.