By Peggy Burch, Daily Memphian | Published May 18, 2021
Nonprofit arts organizations hunkered down after the pandemic preyed on their budgets last year. Elizabeth Rouse, president and CEO at ArtsMemphis, delivered some grim numbers from a poll of 50 of those groups as 2020 ended.
“They collectively report a $20 million loss in 2020 compared to the year prior,” she said. “From a jobs perspective, about 44% of their workforce experienced layoffs or furlough. That’s 560 positions.”
Though many organizations received Paycheck Protection Program funds and most of the full-time positions have since returned, she said, many contract workers are still on hold.
Individual artists and arts workers had a total income loss of about $9 million, Rouse said, and about 650 of them received money from an emergency fund of $500,000 created by ArtsMemphis and Music Export Memphis.
So when First Horizon Foundation announced $450,000 in ArtsFirst grants to 18 arts organizations this spring, the money likely seemed more like an essential budget piece than a bonus to the recipients.
“We’ve been working with ArtsMemphis a long time, and we’ve had a formal partnership the last 10 years, to help us vet the arts groups in our community,” said Bo Allen, regional president for First Horizon and an ArtsMemphis board member.
First Horizon has given $4 million to 43 arts groups in that decade, he said; the collaboration with ArtsMemphis helps the bank navigate the process. “They can really help us understand which groups are doing what, which groups are fiscally sound, which are more diverse.”
Collage Dance Collective, which opened its sleek and spacious new $11 million studio on Broad Avenue in Binghampton mid-pandemic, received a $150,000 grant for its capital campaign from First Horizon.
The classical ballet company, focused on increasing diversity on professional stages, has raised about $9.5 million toward the cost of its new building, which incorporated design alterations because of COVID-19.
“We were mid-construction when the pandemic hit and made changes to the design to make it safer,” said Marcellus Harper, Collage executive director. The building has a sophisticated air filtration system with ionizers, and common areas are touchless.
It’s also 10 times the size of the company’s previous studio in Binghampton, which “packed 225 kids into 2,000 square feet,” Harper said. Collage classes have been back in person since October.
“Social distancing is much more feasible, and we have outdoor spaces. There’s no way we could have gone back if we hadn’t been moving,” Harper said.
“We have really tried to turn this poison into medicine,” he said of adapting to the pandemic.
ArtsMemphis itself distributes between $2.5 and $3 million a year to about 70 organizations and, last year, to 137 artists. It also adopted a role during the COVID pandemic as a “convener and connector” of arts sector players.
Harper credited ArtsMemphis with softening the COVID blow. “They connected us to experts and health professionals early on. They provided a platform to do a lot of peer learning. They’ve been aggressively fundraising to ensure they can infuse more funds in the arts sector, and to really drive home to the broader community how severely impacted the arts community has been.”
Harper, who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, is a devotee of ballet and dance rather than a performer.
“I’m a huge fan, thanks to some very special people who introduced me to dance in high school. I thought when I was able to see it, there are a lot of people who look like me and come from places where I come from who aren’t experiencing this.”
At ArtsMemphis, Rouse says, making grants to organizations led by and serving people of color has been a priority the last five years. Now about 41% of grantees are led by a person of color, and ArtsMemphis is “supporting a higher percentage of their budgets than we have in the past.”
One of this year’s First Horizon grants went to Tone, the organization formerly known as The Collective, for its Juneteenth gala.
The June 19 celebration — observing the date in 1865 when enslaved people in Texas were notified of their freedom by Union soldiers — falls on a Saturday this year. Tone will hold its festival, which is free and open to the public, across the street from the organization’s gallery space at 2234 Lamar.
“There are so few opportunities for us to celebrate the perseverance of Black folks, we’ve got to lift up Juneteenth,” said Tone executive director Victoria Jones. “It’s as important as July Fourth in our terms.”
Other First Horizon Foundation ArtsFirst grant recipients were Arrow Creative, Ballet Memphis, Carpenter Art Garden, Creative Aging Memphis, Crosstown Arts, Dixon Gallery & Gardens, Germantown Performing Arts Center, Hattiloo Theatre, Levitt Shell, New Ballet Ensemble & School, Opera Memphis, Orpheum Theatre Group, Soulsville Foundation, Tennessee Shakespeare Company, Theatre Memphis and UrbanArt Commission.
This article originally appeared in The Daily Memphian, May 18, 2021