Memphis Business Journal - by John Klyce - In the spring of 2020, COVID-19 was spreading rampantly, businesses were being battered, and people were hunkering down in their homes, uncertain of what would come next. But under no circumstances did Sabrina Norwood want the Young Actors Guild’s high school seniors to miss their final performance.
Already, many of them were losing their proms and graduation ceremonies. To also miss out on their last production with the local nonprofit, which they’d spent years with and grown close to, could be devastating.
“You can disappoint a lot of people,” said Norwood, executive director of the Young Actors Guild. “But children, that’s hard for them to bounce back from.”
So, she and Chrysti Chandler — its founder and artistic director — acted quickly. They hired a videographer, who filmed the students, and helped them create a video performance called "Broadway at Home," which could be livestreamed.
“We like to make sure we honor the work we do, the children we serve, and the families we serve,” Norwood said. “To be able to have that show, it was amazing.”
The Young Actors Guild’s efforts gave its departing students a send-off during an immensely challenging time; and it was a send-off given with help from ArtsMemphis, the city’s primary arts promoter and funder.
During the pandemic, financial aid from ArtsMemphis has been key for the Young Actors Guild, which provides a variety of arts exposure, classes, and performance opportunities to inner city youth.
Funds awarded to the guild by ArtsMemphis helped to pay for the videographer, a temporary shift to virtual learning, masks and other safety supplies, and staff compensation. Though the Young Actors Guild did cut back some workers' hours, it didn’t have to lay anyone off.
The Young Actors Guild isn’t the only organization that’s been supported by ArtsMemphis recently, either. Amid a virus that’s ravaged the bank accounts of both individual artists and local arts groups, ArtsMemphis has looked to prop them up.
For example, early in the pandemic, it partnered with Music Export Memphis to launch the Artist Emergency Fund, which gave money to artists who had lost work because of the pandemic. In 2020, it dispersed $487,000 in emergency funding to more than 640 local artists.
“It was just unbelievable,” said Elizabeth Rouse, ArtsMemphis’ president and CEO. “Looking back, it’s so hard to even imagine those early days, when all of a sudden, overnight, people lost what they thought was going to be a few weeks of work, and that became years.”
As Rouse also noted, however, COVID-19’s impacts on arts groups hasn't dissipated, and the virus has left them with significant challenges. According to ArtsMemphis’ website, revenue at Memphis arts organizations remains down 70% in 2022 — largely due to decreases in ticket sales and class enrollment — while staffing remains down 18%, and artists engagements within arts organizations are down 49%.
Stats like these are in part why ArtsMemphis, in collaboration with Music Export Memphis and the Memphis Music Initiative, has created an Arts Recovery Fund with about $1.8 million.
“We’re seeing a huge need for funding, for say, individual artists to tune their instruments, and have tools to get back to touring, playing, and promoting their work,’ Rouse said. “There’s this whole new need that’s about rebuilding. And the same goes for organizations.”
ArtsMemphis started raising money for the fund about a year ago, and reached $1.8 million in this spring. The fundraising effort was bolstered by the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis, which offered a challenge grant from its Mid-South COVID Regional Response Fund. It also received a $450,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts; a $250,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation; and contributions from a variety of other supporters — including AutoZone, FedEx, the First Horizon Foundation, the Belz Foundation, and the Hyde Foundation.
“We went to some of our most loyal art supporters, and had a number of companies and local foundations step up, above what they were doing for ArtsMemphis on a regular basis,” Rouse said.
Already, about $845,000 of the fund has been distributed. For example, around $145,000 has served as another round of funds for individual artists, bringing the Emergency Artist Fund’s total amount of awards dispersed at about $630,000, and its number of recipients at 782. And the $250,000 from the Kresge Foundation has been committed to the Black Arts Fund, a holistic and capacity-building initiative for Black and Brown-led organizations with annual revenue under $500,000.
The groups now have just over $1 million left in the recovery fund, which will be distributed over the next year. They’re still working through exactly where funds will go, but $640,000 has been allocated for arts organizations, while the other $375,000 is set to be given to individual artists.
According to Rouse, one emphasis will be on getting funding to organizations that historically haven’t had access to it. She also wants the funds to help groups build new business models, and adapt to a changing world.
The habits and wants of many have changed during the pandemic, she believes, and this could present an opportunity.
“There’s this whole new opportunity to rethink how arts organizations engage audiences, and what the need and desires of audiences are,” she said. “And it’s kind of exciting, because in a lot of ways, the arts have become more accessible than they were. A lot of the recovery funds will be about helping them …navigate what we keep saying is a structural transformation within the field.”
One organization looking to continue increasing its accessibility is the Young Actors Guild, which has found a new home in Orange Mound — a 4,000-square-foot former fire station donated to it by the City of Memphis. The Young Actors Guild has renovated the space’s interior, where its students can now train and perform.
The interior renovation cost $200,000, and it’s in the process of renovating the exterior — with help from groups like ArtsMemphis — which is slated to cost $170,000, and be complete in December. Called the Harriet Performing Arts Center, the facility is named after Harriet Tubman.
“Harriet Tubman was an abolitionist who led slaves to freedom,” Norwood said. “And so our job at the Harriet is to lead student to freedom through the arts."