More than money: How ArtsMemphis is transforming art advocacy

For ArtsMemphis and newly installed President Elizabeth Rouse, supporting the local arts requires more than cutting checks. Looking beyond the usual grantmaking role, the organization is re-writing the book for typical arts funds by being a mentor and advocate in all corners of the community.

The ArtsMemphis office appropriately has the elegant appeal of a modern art gallery; it’s the kind of sophistication only clean white walls and simple lines can create. But despite the high-brow decor, the space is as warm as a friend’s living room. This week, the nonprofit opened its doors to invite community leaders in for a casual lunch to discuss the “state of the arts” in Memphis.

The stated objective of the gathering was to share information about the organization’s initiatives and solicit feedback from stakeholders in the arts community. But the event also unofficially served as an introduction to new President and CEO, Elizabeth Rouse, who took the reins from long-time leader Susan Schadt officially on January 1 this year.

But Rouse is not a new face in the building. She joined ArtsMemphis in 2006 and has since served as the organization’s Chief Development Officer and, most recently, the Chief Operating Officer. Standing in front of her lunch guests Wednesday, she spoke about the organization with the kind of ease and passion that nearly a decade of experience can engender.

ArtsMemphis' mission is to raise funds to ensure excellence in the arts and to build a vibrant cultural community for everyone. This most commonly manifests as grants they provide to local arts organizations. During their last fiscal year, ArtsMemphis awarded $3.3 million through 175 grants to 56 organizations and 6 artists. They are a vital resource to some of the city’s largest—and most popular—cultural assets because they often provide general operating support. All funding decisions for ArtsMemphis are made by a grant panel comprised of board members and community volunteers, and money is awarded to groups large and small, like the IRIS Orchestra, the Metal Museum or Theatre Memphis. They also, only since 2013, have begun granting funds to individual artists.

Last year, ArtsMemphis launched the ArtsAccelerator grant program, Memphis’ first ever and only fund designed to ignite new projects and support artists at a critical juncture in their development. Five artists received grants of $3,000 each. Now in its second year, the program has been expanded to include group exhibitions.
Tennessee Shakespear Company
The organization also funds innovation and development within the local arts. For example, Rouse explains, ArtsMemphis helped provide the resources needed for Ballet Memphis to develop their recent River Project: Moving Currents. Funding innovation and helping push artists to create new works keeps audiences engaged, drives attendance, and keeps the landscape rich.

“Enhancements grants create a long-term future for the arts here,” Rouse said.

Beyond Grantmaking
But Rouse intends to keep pushing the organization beyond the expected role of grantmaker. The organization goes further than simply funding local art, they also work as a champion for the arts, overall.

“We have a dual role of fundraiser, but then also advocate and promoter. We started as really being a grant maker, so it was all about transactions and providing grants to groups. And although we still do that, we are playing so much more of a role as a mentor and connector and promoter of the arts sector in general,” Rouse says.

This work is wrapped up in their vision to empower communities through the arts and to create access to under-served populations who rarely make it to the Orpheum or the Playhouse for a show.

Rouse described a desire to be “on the ground” in local neighborhoods for extended periods, to develop an understanding of the community’s needs, and of their assets. “We are looking to decide how the arts might be used in the overall community lift of a neighborhood.”

They don’t just fund groups; they help guide them through the often tricky process of running a successful, sustainable arts organization.

“As our board and senior staff are going through the process of identifying our top five priorities for the next five years, obviously a priority will continue to be funding arts organizations. But we haven’t—in our budgets or communications—emphasized the huge role we play in mentoring or advising arts organizations. And so it happens in a couple ways. It’s a lot of one on one meetings, especially with newer or smaller organizations,” she said.

ArtsMemphis continued 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.
After-school practice at Stax Music Academy
“The work Linda [Steele] is leading through the Community Engagement Initiative, that’s really where the organizational capacity building is happening. Again, it’s us being that resource. Who do you talk to if you need help with marketing? Who do you talk to if you’re having issues filling seats? If we don’t have the expert on staff, then we know the expert and can connect organizations.”

In 2014, ArtsMemphis launched the Community Engagement Initiative with the goal of building the capacity of arts organizations to manage collaborative arts programs, identifying and leveraging existing assets to address the most pressing issues in that community. ArtsMemphis’ work in two target neighborhoods–Soulsville/SouthMemphis and Orange Mound, has seen its emergence as a national and local thought leader on the power of art to transform communities.

Linda Steele, who took the job of Chief Engagement and Outreach Officer last year, is tasked with leading the effort, developing and executing the organization's work to bring the arts community to people, particularly in underserved areas.

The Soulsville neighborhood is a key example of the power arts can have in a single community. The once abandoned Stax  Records has become the crown jewel of the community, and was at the center of the revitalization in the area. Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Stax Music Academy, Soulsville Foundation, and Soulsville Charter are all thriving arts and culture institutions active in the neighborhood.

Rouse believes ArtsMemphis is well-equipped to deliver on their plans in the coming years. The organization thrives each year thanks to the generous support of individuals, corporations, foundations and government. And their support is robust. “We are unique in our endowment. We have one of the top endowments…the foundation support that Memphis has that comes through ArtsMemphis is quite significant compared to other cities.”
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Anna Mullins.

Anna is a local writer, editor and non-profit administrator. She serves as Managing Editor for High Ground and as the Director of Communications and Marketing for the New Memphis Institute. Share feedback and story ideas with her here.