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Impact Memphis: Elizabeth Rouse

Memphis Business Journal, by  

“The arts are forever changed,” says Rouse, president and CEO of ArtsMemphis. 

Picture the life of an artist. Are you envisioning a solitary studio, a creative type who looks like they could probably use a sandwich, someone working with great intensity to bring to life a vision that may or may not lead to a payday? Yes, working in the arts is a labor of love, and yes, the pandemic was tough on the arts industry. But alongside tough circumstances are signs of hope.

Artists of all kinds have collaborated to elevate both themselves and their communities in difficult times. In Memphis, the creative scene has benefited from the leadership of ArtsMemphis president and CEO Elizabeth Rouse, whose steady hand has kept the cash flowing and maintained the course of Memphis’ arts scene.

It’s still a tough journey ahead for those working professionally in the arts. An ArtsMemphis survey regarding organizations’ 2020 financial health revealed troubling numbers. Respondents noted a 64 percent reduction in artists’ income compared to pre-pandemic, and a 27 percent reduction in the total number of people making a full-time living in the arts. Institutions reported a 53 percent decrease in staff positions. And from data collected in August 2021, a broad scope of organizations reported that they’d collectively lost $24 million in revenue compared to pre-pandemic times. ArtsMemphis needed to be agile when it came to managing grants and resources.

“Dozens of organizations have evolved throughout the pandemic. Memphis Symphony Orchestra continued operating. Opera Memphis innovated its programming. Memphis Slim House became a food distribution site, and Carpenter Art Garden is now a vaccination site. It’s amazing: You see organizations stepping up to play a greater role in the communities they serve, and that’s a big part of how we’re going to pull through this.” — Elizabeth Rouse

“The arts are forever changed,” says Rouse, currently in her 15th year at ArtsMemphis. “Looking forward, it’s going to be a mix of how things were done before and some of the innovations that people have had to employ, like virtual versus live shows. But because of all this uncertainty, ArtsMemphis’ role of being the connector for much of the arts community has really had to be elevated over the past two years.”

Like the organizations she supports, Rouse has adapted ArtsMemphis’ work to suit a constantly changing landscape. The early days of the pandemic were focused on distributing the commitments already made to the arts sector while juggling mass event cancellations and rapidly dwindling revenue. Rouse also made significant changes to the grants process.

“We really streamlined our grant application and reporting process to make it as easy as possible," she says. “We now offer one-on-one check-ins and conversations with grantees every few weeks. We’ve also brought together leaders from around the arts community over Zoom so they could discuss strategies that had worked for them, and how they were handling other issues.”

Rouse was able to maintain a strong level of support over their last fiscal year, distributing $2.2 million to 64 different organizations and hundreds of individual artists. Contributions from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis got many through the summer and fall of 2020.

This year, a significant round of January funding and a First Horizon Foundation-sponsored $450,000 grant through the ArtsFirst program provided a major boost. “We’ve just distributed over a million dollars over the last month in unrestricted support,” says Rouse. “We’re hoping that can bring back staff, resume programs, and cover other immediate cash needs."

But with plenty of unknowns still to come, ArtsMemphis is homing in on building a platform for individual artists. The relaunch of the Artist Emergency Fund in late September, in partnership with Music Export Memphis, will see $150,000 in relief funding. Artists can apply for $750 grants to be used however they see fit, whether it’s for rent, groceries, or childcare. “This will extend through 2022 and even into 2023," says Rouse. "We’ve seen that relief funding is happening now and in the future, but external funds won’t last forever. So our main focus now will be to help artists and organizations work back to their regular levels of earned income.”

For relief funding to be effective, it needs to be spent well. And that’s only possible if all the players are pulling in the same direction. To that end, it looks like Memphis is going to be okay; Rouse has been impressed by how the entire arts ecosystem — from creators, to donors, to patrons — has worked together to provide support.

“Dozens of organizations have evolved throughout the pandemic. Memphis Symphony Orchestra continued operating. Opera Memphis innovated its programming. Memphis Slim House became a food distribution site, and Carpenter Art Garden is now a vaccination site. It’s amazing: You see organizations stepping up to play a greater role in the communities they serve, and that’s a big part of how we’re going to pull through this.”

Posted by Josie Ballin at 13:21
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