Amelia Thompson comes home to Memphis arts scene with new role at Ballet Memphis

A graduate of White Station High, Amelia Thompson was like many young people looking to leave home and forge a path for herself. That path has brought her back to Memphis and her new role as development associate for Ballet Memphis.

After graduating from the University of Notre Dame, she left South Bend, Ind. and landed a job in fundraising development at St. Albans School, an all-boys preparatory school in the nation’s capital. 

“I absolutely loved it. I love being in that environment. It’s very old world intellectual D.C.,” said Thompson.

After four years of cutting her teeth at a nonprofit, Thompson, 30, switched gears by taking on a role at Macy’s corporate office as a buyer.

“As I was thinking of transitioning out of D.C., New York was always on the horizon," she said.

The Big Apple was an abrupt change of pace, both professionally and in lifestyle.

In her new role as development associate, Amelia Thompson works on the administrative side to generate and secure funding for the annual operating budget and capital campaign.

At work, she collaborated with big vendors, like Calvin Klein, and small shops to build an inventory for the retailer’s stores and online site. This was done by evaluating trends, socioeconomic conditions and even factors such as the weather.

“It was a job with some creative components but it is a strictly bottom line business. It was like being in business school. But It was a great experience and I learned so much.”

With a background of financials at Macy’s coupled with her fundraising work at St. Albans, Thompsons’ skills set the stage her for what lied ahead.

But living in the big city had its drawbacks too. Working for a big brand retailer was stressful, and navigating day-to-day life comes with its own set of difficulties. Thompson said that after three years, she was "burned out" from New York. 

She began to think it was time to slow down, make a return to the world of nonprofits and possibly come home.

“I never, ever thought in a million years I would leave the East Coast, leave New York or come back south to Memphis.”

“There hasn’t been a single moment where I’ve regretted my decision to move back to Memphis. I feel like I am where I’m supposed to be.”

Following several trips back home to visit family, Thompson noticed a re-energized Memphis. People, locally and nationally, were recognizing the positive changes the Bluff City was making.

“I moved home because I wanted to spend more time with family. But I also moved home because I saw something on the horizon and wanted to be a part of it.”

Upon her return, Thompson picked up where she left off in D.C. She took a job in the development office at Rhodes College as the assistant director to annual giving.

“It was a nice way to get my feet back into fundraising. It was a great palate cleanser, in a way, coming from an environment where the most important thing you do is try to sell shirts and pants for the best margin.”

After a year and a half at Rhodes, the urge to pursue an opportunity with one of the arts organizations in town began to grow.

“Memphis is such a deeply rooted arts-focused city. I grew up going to concerts at the New Daisy and art galleries with my parents," Thompson said. 

Through a friend and mentor on the board of Ballet Memphis, she had the chance to talk to its founder, Dorothy Gunther Pugh, founding artistic director & CEO. Hoping to pick her brain, she was unaware there was a slot the company wanted to fill. With the knowledge that the organization understands the transformative nature of dance, in addition to the way it embraces the city and community, there was solid interest.

“I am a huge patron of dance and the arts. When I lived in New York, I got to see ABT, Alvin Ailey and Dance Group of Harlem in the heart of the artistic world.”

Once she spoke with Pugh, things quickly fell into place. They had lunch on a Tuesday and by the next Monday an offer had been made.

“With the new building, new presence in Midtown and new needs, my experience in fundraising and in a corporate environment like Macy’s was a nice tie-in to where they want to take things," Thompson said.

Ballet Memphis' new building in Overton Square is scheduled to be ready for the public by the end of August.

“Ballet Memphis has hired a young woman of great depth, perception, and promise with Amelia Thompson," said Pugh. "Our institution has demonstrated for over thirty years its ability to identify truly fine, emerging talent. I am grateful for the spirit and heart she brings that is a hallmark of our best leaders and artists."

As development associate, Thompson works on the administrative side of Ballet Memphis with the director of development, Carolyn McCormick. Together, they labor to generate and secure funding for the day-to-day goals of the annual fund. Ballet shoes alone cost $30,000 annually. The pair also teams with strategic partners on completing a $31 million capital campaign.

With a grand opening of their new building in Midtown set for late August, a big move is in store for the 30-year-old dance company.

“The opportunities to mold not just the cultural landscape of the city but the actual physical landscape of Overton Square is historic. Generations of Memphians have memories of what this place means so to be there elevates the responsibility to do great work," Thompsons said.

Looking down the main hall of the new Ballet Memphis building from the lobby, the long balcony upstairs will offer a great view into the studios.

Thompson said her greatest influence has been family and especially her 88-year-old grandmother. Her grandmother's involvement in volunteer work has been the inspiration for Thompson’s own participation in Girls, Inc.

Working with Girls, Inc. is a big part of her life, and it’s a family affair. She and her cousins go once a week to sit with the girls, help with their homework and just be a positive presence.

“Everyone says ‘The volunteer work enriches me more than those that I help’ and it is so true and gives me such perspective," she added.

Finding satisfaction in her current career, where does Thompson see her herself in five years? Right here in Memphis, riding the Ballet Memphis wave and seeing where it takes her.

“There hasn’t been a single moment where I’ve regretted my decision to move back to Memphis. I feel like I am where I’m supposed to be.”

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.