Memphis’s art scene is enriched by the complexities of cultural diversity. Historically and currently it has a rich economic mix of people of color (the majority of the Memphis population), rich density of Latinx individuals, an aging baby boomer population, and a growing pool of talented and eager millennials. It likewise faces adversity due to blight, racial inequality, and poor K-12 education.

The arts and culture sector is an undervalued contributor to the development of neighborhoods. In creating a more sustainable arts ecosystem, the importance of art-inclusive financial sources is essential to the trajectory of arts based careers, the overall arts ecosystem, and cities’ economic development. Industry sectors cannot exist only on one financial source or infusion of capital (i.e. foundation monies), but instead need a sustainable source (i.e. the development of jobs and investors) that provides resources to aide in the growth and support of a sector—herein, the “creative class.”

Johnathan Robert Payne’s performance “Meet Me Where I’m At” (2015), attended by Young Arts Patrons members. Photo by Elle Perry.

Several community organizations are working to create innovative solutions that improve access to capital related to Memphis’s creative class.

Young Arts Patrons—A Crowd of Young Angels

While the existence of foundations and federal grants exists for larger projects and more established arts organizations, the need for an alternative capital model to reach emerging creatives and innovative projects is essential. Understanding that the millennial population is uniquely positioned to create and sense these creative disruptions, Young Arts Patrons (YAP) activated under-40 philanthropists as one solution to arts-based economic development strategy. This group of individuals consisting of artists, patrons, and philanthropists collectively pool social and financial capital to support the local arts ecosystem through new opportunities, ideas, and networks. Treating young philanthropists as angel investors into art careers and new programs offers an alternative funding source for the arts ecosystem.

Young Arts Patrons’ most noteworthy program is The Young Collectors Contemporary Art Fair. The art fair focuses on the positive impact of educating and growing the art-collecting population as a source of capital for emerging visual artists to support their growth, creativity, and survival in the arts community. The artist-focused fair provides a platform for emerging artists to gain exposure and experience for growth to bigger art fairs with bigger private collectors. The art fair also contributes to the city’s bottom line as a method to promote tourism, developments, community identity and vitality, and overall quality of life.

Artists and patrons view a work by Memphis artist Lawrence Matthews selected for the 2016 Young Collectors Contemporary Art Fair. Artwork was sold to a first time art collector at the fair. Photo by Lauren Turner.

Memphis Music Initiative—Job Creation

The Memphis Music Initiative (MMI) is a community-initiated, developed, and implemented strategy that uses high quality music engagement activities to drive student, youth, and community outcomes. The initiative was designed to sustain existing intracurricular music education, as well as develop music-based youth development. While the mission of MMI focuses on youth development, the organization’s model employs local musicians as a part of the city’s cultural and economic economy. In its second year, MMI currently employs 33 musicians to support and strengthen existing in-school music education. In year 3, that will grow to 40 positions. The positions include a full school year stipend and a health stipend.

Memphis Music Initiative artists teaches a group of students. Photo courtesy of Memphis Music Initiative via Facebook.

Darren Isom, Executive Director of Memphis Music Initiative, said, “These are professionals that are also very well trained artists interested in youth development. Unless they had something stable to hold them in the city, they would leave. By creating jobs, they are able to continue to learn and grow in youth development if they choose, and also have something stable to provide a financial anchor to allow them to create. … You don’t build a group of professionals by starving them financially or limiting their creativity. Ultimately the city suffers and the arts sector suffers.”

Memphis Slim Collaboratory and River City Capital Investment Corp.—Slim’s Front Loan

Historically, parameters and guidelines offered by traditional financial institutions systemically excluded musicians. River City Capital Investment Corp. created a loan program in 2016 to fill the void in the financial systems through the availability of financial services in distressed communities. River City Capital recognized that the creation of music was a business and essential to the development of the Soulsville, USA neighborhood. A model for urban revitalization with an intentional strategy to attract musicians to the neighborhood, Slim’s Front Loan product incentivized musicians that lived in the Soulsville, USA neighborhood of Memphis by offering them lower interest rate loan products. The loan program applicants aren’t start-up musicians, but just as with Young Collectors Contemporary, it is intended for emerging musicians who need the financial capital to grow. The loan program offers a maximum amount of $5,000 over an 18- to 24-month term for touring, merchandising, recording, and promotional events. Interest from the loan products are used to sustain the program for musicians and ideally continue to attract musicians to the Soulsville, USA neighborhood.

These disruptive organizations arrived in Memphis to fill the gaps in the arts ecosystem and offer solutions to cultural inequity issues related to artists’ access to capital. Operated by nonprofit leaders, artists, and thought leaders, these programs assist in creating interventions to the current processes (or lack thereof) that systemically exclude underserved artists and creatives’ access to capital.