ArtsMemphis launches ‘Arts Week’ in a community changed, perhaps forever, by pandemic

Published in The Daily Memphian, December 2, 2020 | Chris Herrington

“Someday soon we all will be together/If the fates allow/Until then, we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”

Judy Garland debuted “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in the 1944 film “Meet Me in St. Louis.” So devoted am I to director Vincente Minnelli’s movie musical that I had no idea until a couple of years ago that there are versions (looking at you, Sinatra) that swap “muddle through somehow” with something about hanging “a shining star upon the highest bough,” among other changes.

The banal cheerfulness of that lyric rewrite is a downgrade in any year, but this December, especially, it’s Garland who sings our song.

Separation, longing, hope, muddling through. Welcome to 2020. 

It applies to pretty much every facet of public life in Our COVID Year, but most definitely to the arts. 

“It was one of the first sectors to be immediately impacted in March and it will be one of the last to be fully in operation,” says Elizabeth Rouse, CEO and president of ArtsMemphis, which is the city’s and county’s largest arts funder, granting $2.5 to $3 million annually to local organizations and individual artists. 

This week, with Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris making it official, ArtsMemphis is declaring it “Arts Week,” a bid to raise awareness — and, yes, funds — for a hurting portion of the civic economy and essential work to any city’s sense of self. 

While the impact of COVID makes this a particularly urgent moment for the survival, much less success, of the city’s creative community, ArtsMemphis also plans to make Arts Week an annual event. 

“One day, I anticipate it will be celebrated with lots of in-person events and all kinds of art experiences,” says Rouse. 

That won’t quite be the case this year, but Rouse says approximately 50 ArtsMemphis grantees will be participating in some way, mostly via their various social media channels. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music and the Orpheum will carry the Arts Week message on their marquees, of “investing in the arts today for a powerful return in the future.” Stax Music Academy students will offer daily digital testimonials. The week will culminate on Sunday when the Mighty Lights on the Hernando de Soto Bridge will honor the arts community. 

We all will be together.

Where do we gather as Memphians? Sure, we get together at restaurants and bars and street festivals. At basketball and football games. The handwringing over these things, and what’s happened to them, is constant, fierce and very much warranted. 

But we also gather for touring Broadway shows at a nearly 100-year-old Downtown theater and for free concerts at a bandshell rich in rock and blues history. For performances from the multiple theater and dance troupes made up of Memphians. For opera belters, soul shouters, blues growlers, pop crooners, hip-hoppers, garage rockers and folk/country storytellers, in front of stages from Beale to the ’burbs.

Artists are driven to create art. We are all driven to engage with it, in whatever form and to whatever degree it grabs us. This engagement is often solitary, and that is essential too. But we want — no, need — to experience these things together as well. 

All of those things have had a rough year. Some have fully shuttered, at least temporarily. Some have limped along in reduced form. For many, necessity has been mother to reinventions that may inform the future but aren’t fully satisfying in the present. And every one has taken a hit where it hurts most. 

Based on a September survey of 47 local arts nonprofits, ArtsMemphis estimates a pandemic-connected loss of $20 million in income for the Memphis and Shelby County arts community. It also found that organizations in the study had laid off or furloughed about 20% of their employees during COVID.

“That’s a result of canceled seasons, canceled events and potentially changes in other philanthropic giving as a whole, and that was as of September,” Rouse says. 

Rouse notes that in ArtsMemphis’ most recent “Arts and Economic Prosperity Study,” the nonprofit arts sector employed the equivalent of 6,000 full-time positions in Shelby County. 

In the 2020 fiscal year, ArtsMemphis allocated about $2.8 million to hundreds of artists and more than 50 arts organizations.

That included $145,000 to an Artist Emergency Fund in partnership with Music Export Memphis. Overall, that fund has distributed close to $500,000 in direct aid of up to $1,000 each to more than 640 working artists and arts sector workers, with money raised through City of Memphis CARES Act funds, the Kresge Foundation, the Assisi Foundation, the Hyde Family Foundation and other donors and fundraising efforts. 

“Luckily, the City of Memphis has had some CARES dollars that went directly to support some individual artists. There have been some arts organizations that have received CARES money through the National Endowment for the Arts and other arts commissions,” Rouse said.

“But it’s still a drop in the bucket compared to the need. I think the pandemic has really kind of put front and center how many people’s primary source of income is through their art form.” 

According to Elizabeth Cawein, executive director of Music Export Memphis, their portion of that emergency relief fund is not currently granting. The organization’s board requires a balance of at least $5,000 in the fund to open up grant applications.

“As we go forward, I have a feeling that we’ll get additional disbursements of funds,” Cawein says. For now, Music Export Memphis is focused on raising money for the 2021 general support fund, which helps musicians tour and promotes Memphis music beyond the city. 

Early next year, MEM is adding a new program to help bridge the gap from the pandemic to a post-pandemic environment: A merchandise fund. 

“We think it’s pandemic-proof,” Cawein says. “You can still sell your T-shirts and vinyl, even if you’re not on tour, and it will be a great asset when touring does ramp back up.” The grants require the use of local vendors. 

During “Arts Week,” ArtsMemphis is encouraging all forms of help to the local arts community: Donations to ArtsMemphis, direct donations to arts organizations, ticket purchases, etc. 

“A donor might choose us as a vehicle to support the arts,” Rouse says. “Or they might choose to buy a ticket to a virtual Hattiloo performance, or they might go to the Malco Drive-In for a virtual “Nutcracker” performance from New Ballet Ensemble, or visit the new exhibit at the Brooks (“Power and Absence: Women in Europe, 1500-1680”), which opens on Friday. We’re encouraging Memphians to support in many different ways.”

Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.

Artists and art organizations have found their own ways to navigate the pandemic. The Orpheum has had to postpone its Broadway season multiple times, but turned its stage into a mini-golf course. Playhouse on the Square pulled the plug on a planned return this fall once local cases began to spike again, but has drawn plaudits for its innovative online work. The Levitt Shell canceled its spring and summer concert series, but streamed encore performances of favorite past concerts and did intimate backstage livestreams with performers who would have commanded the main stage in better times. Arts organizations and individual musicians have taken to Facebook Live, Instagram and local broadcast entities such as WKNO to bring their work into people’s homes. 

“As we’ve been bringing together arts organizations to navigate 2020, we really have just been so impressed and inspired by the work of artists and arts groups in our city and how they’re responding to the times,” Rouse says. 

For the next two Thursdays, New Ballet Ensemble will broadcast a performance of its popular “Nut ReMix” at Malco’s Summer Drive-In, where, earlier this fall, Indie Memphis relocated much of its annual film festival, and where it will, later in the winter, host live screenings from the Sundance Film Festival.

“Indie Memphis, basically on March 15th, started planning for how they were going to take their November festival virtual. And they did it,” says Rouse. “They had fun in-person events at the drive-in and Shelby Farms and they had a hugely successful film festival.”

The day after New Ballet’s “Nut ReMix” first screens at the drive-in, Ballet Memphis will broadcast a filmed version of its “Nutcracker,” shot at the Mallory-Neely House in Victorian Village and at the Ballet Memphis headquarters on Overton Square, with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra performing the score. It will be available via WKNO and free on any digital device throughout the holiday season. 

The Stax Music Academy will follow with a WKNO concert later this month. It was supposed to have happened a couple of months ago, at the Crosstown Theater at Crosstown Concourse. That plan, like so many others these days, had to change.

“Because its the 20th anniversary, we had all of these plans for a big concert back in October. There are no live performances. In order to really celebrate, we decided to do a live performance at WKNO and broadcast that,” says academy executive director Pat Mitchell-Worley, whose organization is in the final edits of the hour-long program this week. It will broadcast on WKNO on Dec. 22. 

At Stax, normal weekday instruction has gone virtual, while weekend rehearsals have resumed with upgraded air filters and cleaning and COVID testing. They’ve had the benefit of some CARES assistance and payroll protection funding, but money isn’t the only stress of the pandemic. 

“We’ve been moving forward fortunately, but it’s been a lot more work and it’s been tough for the kids,” Mitchell said. “Within our program, we already had mental health as an initiative in our youth development program.” 

When Opera Memphis’ season was disrupted by COVID in the spring, the company quickly pivoted to dual approaches: Small-scale mobile live events via its “Sing2Me” initiative and recorded performances of varying lengths via either social media or WKNO.

“They were one of the first ones to figure out something that would enable them to keep their musicians and artists engaged and keep delivering content,” Rouse says. “They got a flatbed truck and went around to neighborhoods doing mini-performances.” 

“We were lucky in that eight years of doing 30 Days of Opera, we had a lot of experience in doing quick and dirty and nimble,” says Opera Memphis general director Ned Canty, referring to the series of free, outdoor performances. 

The organization’s “Sing2Me” program has continued, with a neighborhood Christmas performance this past weekend in Central Gardens. They’ll be caroling at Crosstown Concourse on Wednesday.

“Our main thing has been keeping artists working and giving people something to connect over,” Canty says. “I think if we had not had, early on, some amazing experiences with it, we may have done a few and then moved on. But the connection has been great. You can hire the trailer. But you can also get one singer with a boombox and do opera karaoke, John Cusack style.” 

Someday soon we all will be together, if the fates — or, OK, the vaccines — allow, but while we may yearn to see our dancers, singers, actors and musicians on stages rather than on our screens, many adjustments of this rather pregnant moment are likely to linger. 

“Early on in the pandemic, I was on a webinar and I’m not sure who to credit this to, but someone on the call said for many arts organizations … the new normal might be similar to the sports world, where every arts event is created both for an in-person and virtual or TV kind of experience. To me that’s a hopeful, energizing piece to all of this,” Rouse says. “Groups have had no choice but to create content that people could experience at home. And so, I think, in the new world it will be both.” 

Rouse sees a future where ArtsMemphis helps artists and arts organizations navigate this looming normal of both traditional and non-traditional models. But we all have to get there first. 

“What we’re doing right now, and what we hope Arts Week will play a big role in, is really focusing on Memphians supporting the arts through the end of the year but also into 2021 so that we can continue to help the arts sector not just survive, but really plan for the future and be prepared to return in full.”

photo: Helen Hassinger, a soprano for Opera Memphis, performs for members of the Red Acres neighborhood in March 2020. Opera Memphis toured different neighborhoods of Memphis performing for people who are quarantining in their homes taking precaution against the spread of COVID-19. (Houston Cofield/Special to The Daily Memphian file)

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