Memphis’ Black Arts Community Thriving in the New Year

Collage Dance Collective

Memphis, a city best known for leading social justice and memorializing the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis the day after he gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, is on a mission to promote its Black arts community. From Memphis Black Restaurant Week to a dance collective that operates the largest Black ballet school in the South, Memphis is home to a few organizations that are expanding the landscape of Black talent. The National Civll Rights Museum and the historic Beale Street, home to the best in blues, are just two mainstay attractions, but there’s much more.

Here, we caught up with Rachel Knox, program officer for Thriving Arts and Culture at the Hyde Family Foundation in Memphis, to talk more about the city’s arts offerings. What do you want people to know about Memphis’ artistic community that might not be known

Rachel Knox: Memphis has a thriving arts ecosystem that’s culturally rich for a City of our size. The City boasts over 70 cultural institutions of various sizes including numerous theatres, dance companies, museum and galleries, and music-based organizations. The cultural sector also employee over 6.000 individual and if the non-profit arts sector was taken as a whole, the sector would be the second largest employer in the City.

Additionally, Memphis’ creative community are true culture advocates and activist a legacy that still permeates the City’s history. In our Black arts sector, we boast one of the nation’s few freestanding Black Repertory Theatres, Hatiloo Theater, and one of the Midsouth’s only Black dance companies through Collage Dance Collective. Both Hattiloo and Collage have gained international attention for the excellence of the art forms. Hattiloo recently performed Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill at the request of the Italian Ministry of Culture, and Collage will present in French Guiana later this year.

Memphis is a place where you can fill a need if you see it. People will support you and help you realize your vision. Tell me about the McCleave Fellowship that can be obtained through Opera Memphis. 

Rachel Knox: The McCleave Fellowship has turned the operatic world on its head, and the operatic sector has referred to Opera Memphis as the model of civic engagement. The Fellowship tackles the systemic racial bias in opera by offering opportunities for opera singers, conductors, and directors of color to take a leading role within the company. Opera Memphis was selected by Opera America to host the 2019 World Opera Forum because of the company’s practice to create a more racially and ethnically diverse field. The Fellows assistant-direct one production. Last year, Dennis Whitehead-Darling, an African American man, was selected as the first Fellow. This year the company has selected Bethania Baray, a Latinx woman as the Fellow; she will direct Mozart’s “Bastien and Bastienne” in April 2020. Are there any challenges that these Black institutions face when it comes to keeping them alive and thriving? 

Rachel Knox: Around the country, many Black-led (and brown-led) organizations tend to be undercapitalized and underfunded despite the groundbreaking work happening within those organizations. Many organizations have to work twice as hard to ensure that their work is recognized largely in the community. A lack of capital also means difficulties in promoting their art to broader audiences thus building a recognizable brand.

In Memphis, our Black institutions still struggle with similar issues. We definitely need more capital going to Black-led organizations.  However, we also have institutions, including the Hyde Foundation working to disrupt this long-term inequity. For example, Memphis Music Initiative, a Black-led intermediary, invests in youth through transformative music engagement while creating equitable opportunities for black and brown youth in Memphis. MMI works with Black and brown led organizations to provide capacity building to those non-profit agencies while also providing six-figure grants to help with rapid growth needed to sustain the organizations long-term. ArtsMemphis, our longstanding United Arts Fund, changed the way the company allocated grant dollars by shifting funds from larger legacy institutions with more resources to the smaller grassroots organizations, many led by people of color. Finally, the Hyde Family Foundation has changed our funding model and increased grant making to cultural organizations led by people of color by 40% far surpassing the national average of 4%.

While all of these shifts certainly create a more equitable arts ecosystem, additional resources are needed to close the gap and help sustain organizations long-term. What are some short to long-term goals for maintaining and creating Black talent in Memphis? 

Rachel Knox: Short-term goals include providing space for artists to promote their craft and to receive compensation for their work. Places like the CLTV (pronounced Collective) meet this need for visual artists through their gallery exhibitions and artists’ spaces.

One of the most significant barriers to any artist’s career is the idea of using their craft for “exposure.” A great deal of education, as well as advocacy is needed to kill the starving artist trope.

Long-term we want Black artists to make a living here in Memphis. As far as creating new Black talent in Memphis, that’s already happening. I would put money on the fact that there isn’t another community as collaborative and uplifting as Memphis’ artists community. People work together continually. Moreover, those artists make space for the up and comers in our community. If we can provide more opportunities for artists, we will continue to see this talent flourish in Memphis.