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The Funders: Financing the arts more important than ever this year

Financing the arts more important than ever this year by Jocelyn Murphy | December 20, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.
Bryan and Bernice Hembree are shown here partnering with students from Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food for their Meals for Musicians program. The students were able to execute their capstone projects in collaboration with the Meals for Musicians program, which was also supported by the Northwest Arkansas Council’s Bridge Fund. (Courtesy Photo/Meredith Mashburn Photography)

As much as we here at What's Up! prefer to stay focused on the arts and the creative minds who bring them to us, another inescapable result of the coronavirus pandemic has been a newly acute awareness of the monetary support it requires to maintain such a robust arts community.

Northwest Arkansas rose to the occasion in more ways than can be chronicled here. But the fight isn't over. In the face of pandemic fatigue, holiday stress and the anxiety of the CARES Act's impending expiration, the fervent mobilization to support our artists and arts organizations has waned correspondingly.

As D. Riley Nicholson, the new executive director for the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, points out, a lot of positivity has, thankfully, occurred this year. But the future is no less dire. "I guess the elevator pitch is that we're not going anywhere and we're doing well, but the situation is very difficult, and we need support," he asserts.

So, in the spirit of (only a fraction) of "The Funders" that have helped the creative sector stay afloat this year, here are some of those positive crusades worth sharing, followed by ways you can help them keep up the good work.

SoNA Plays For Fans And Funds

While the musicians of SoNA have, of course, been unable to perform as much as they had hoped, the shift to the digital sphere and a great deal of flexibility have opened some interesting doors, Nicholson reveals.

A new collaborative performance with Ballet Arkansas (now available on SoNA's digital channels), a distanced concert in the Momentary's Fermentation Hall (also online), some outdoor shows during good weather and some creatively edited virtual performances are among the ways SoNA has soldiered on during its 2020-21 Reimagined Season. And each of these events was a chance to pay musicians for their time.

While looking to support their musicians in any way possible, the staff decided to also focus on how the symphony could best serve the community during this fraught time, Nicholson reveals. That is why all the ensemble's new content has remained free. And that makes Nicholson all the more grateful, he says, for the support from new and returning donors and grant-funders as the symphony's third primary revenue stream -- ticket sales -- has been nonexistent.

"Our goal is engagement," he says. "What else can this content provide? How can we serve the community still? How can we grow our digital following and increase our communications?"

Those happen to also be the ways the community can give back to SoNA, Nicholson adds. Donations would, of course, be the biggest way arts lovers can show their support, but participating in the content created is also an important way to encourage the musicians as well as demonstrate continued interest.

"I feel like our industry has really been working overtime to shift things digitally, to find safe ways to have performances," he posits. "Even though maybe they're not as cool as going to a big concert, there's a lot available out there. It just maybe takes a little effort and a little out-of-the-box thinking."

Donate at sonamusic.org.

Hembrees Put Money Where Roots Are

Just off the Fayetteville downtown square, another organization was also percolating on some out-of-the-box -- or, rather, out-of-the-building -- thinking this fall. Following the heartbreaking decision to cancel the 11th annual Roots Festival for 2020, Bernice and Bryan Hembree -- two of the festival's three co-founders and folk duo Smokey and the Mirror -- were looking for something better than playing to a computer screen.

With the addition of the Outdoor Recreation Area downtown, the Hembrees saw a chance to bring live music back to the Roots HQ by taking the tunes outside. "Roots HQ on the Avenue" was born in early September.

Two concerts -- one each in September and November -- provided hiring opportunities for musicians, but more, Bryan Hembree points out, they served as a pilot for 2021.

Though "Roots HQ on the Avenue" didn't roll around until the fall, the Hembrees have been busy since April with their Meals for Musicians program, along with third Roots co-founder Jerrmy Gawthrop.

"We started with the idea that musicians might not be comfortable asking for help with food from the traditional food pantry pathways," Bryan Hembree told What's Up! in May -- six weeks into Meals for Musicians. "We felt that musicians would be willing to ask another musician for help. We wanted to provide a safe and easy way for musicians to get help.

"We plan to keep doing this until there is no longer need. In this current landscape, that may be a very long time," he concluded in the May interview.

"It's kind of sobering when you go back and visit those moments," he says now. Some 19,324 servings of food later -- 1,597 care packages delivered on a weekly basis for more than nine months to 130 unique musician households as of the Dec. 11 delivery -- the need is still as palpable as ever, and he stands by his promise from earlier this year.

"It's about assisting the artist community in a way that we can," he says. "We are able to serve about 60 households on a weekly basis through the Meals program. We feel good about that. We couldn't create 60 gigs in a week if we wanted to! So we were able to lean on our food expertise and history of what we do with the food side of our organization to make that happen."

As the pandemic's effects on the gig economy linger, Roots staff have widened the net of partners that have helped make the meals possible. Restaurants, protein companies, in-kind donations of food, individual donations of even $5 and recent sponsorships like that of Adventure Subaru have all ensured the program's continuation into the new year.

Turning his eye to the organization's needs in order to continue delivering Meals for Musicians into 2021, Hembree says: "People rallied early in the pandemic around the music community and said, 'We want to help,' and it was tremendous. But that need is going to persist. And we're going to work as hard as we can to help provide a place where folks can help the music community through this weekly meals program. People have been so generous in 2020, and we expect and hope they'll be generous in 2021."

Donate at fayettevilleroots.org/donate.

Bridge Fund Builds Path To Future

In this edition, we've already shared two initiatives that grew directly out of CACHE's work with the arts community this year -- House of Songs' tech outreach and the OZCast variety show. But it may be impossible to overstate the organization's impact on the Northwest Arkansas arts economy.

CACHE -- Creative Arkansas Community Hub & Exchange -- is a program within the Northwest Arkansas Council, and was founded last year to facilitate "building the system-wide capacity of the region's arts and culture organizations, professional development, convenings, small-scale grants and advocacy." This spring, CACHE launched its first major initiative by providing emergency relief funds to 23 area arts and culture organizations through the Bridge Fund.

"We knew organizations would need resources to transition into new models of programming and operations in this 'new normal,'" explains Kelsey Howard, program director. "This grant program not only provided much needed emergency funding to the grantees, it also opened up an opportunity for our team to virtually meet one-on-one and have phone conversations with every organization that applied."

These conversations enabled the CACHE team to learn about each organization's unique perspective on the pandemic and have since developed into relationships and collaboration, Howard shares, as the Bridge Fund lives up to its name.

Funded by the Walton Family Foundation, CACHE awarded $500,000 to those 23 chosen organizations in the spring -- up to $20,000 per applicant. In another pleasantly unexpected bright moment in such a wearisome year, CACHE was given an additional $250,000 in the fall for a second round of grants to organizations affected by covid.

"There have been dramatic changes within the arts and culture sector due to covid-19, and CACHE stands with the arts and culture nonprofits in confidence and in awe of their nimbleness, ingenuity and commitment to serve the community," Howard concludes.

Find out more at nwacouncil.org/cache.

Walton Arts Center Shares Its Support

When What's Up! last checked in with Scott Galbraith, Walton Arts Center vice president of programming and executive producer, he admitted he was equal parts delighted and humbled by the outpouring of support the performing arts venue had seen from the community to that point.

"It's just such a huge vote of confidence, not just for Walton Arts Center or the Walmart AMP, but for the performing arts," PR Director Jennifer Wilson picks up the gratitude now, some months later. "If there's one thing I've learned during this time, it's the value of art in our lives. When the suspension happened and everything shut down and everyone went home, the first thing people turned to was some form of art -- be it music, be it performances online, be it whatever, you turned to some type of art as an escape, as a way to process."

To that end, the very first thing the WAC team did after making the decision to suspend programming, Wilson explains, was look to the community to see what immediate needs the organization could fill. With a full year of revenue gone -- the last half of the 2020 season and the first half of the 2021 season -- the first concerns were finding a way to make up as much of that shortfall as possible in service of three goals: keep the majority of full-time staff employed; keep facilities operational; and still provide some programming, albeit different, for the community.

The Ghost Light Recovery Fund was established in July and has allowed the Fayetteville venue and the outdoor Arkansas Music Pavilion in Rogers to remain operational. The name refers to the theater tradition of leaving a single light -- a ghost light -- burning when a stage is dark to light the way for the next show.

WAC met its $1 million goal in October and has since set a new goal through the extended suspension of $1.2 million.

"We really took that as people putting trust in and investing in our organization, so we've been really, really conscious about what we do during this time with that money to honor that donation," Wilson says of the humbling milestone.

WAC has turned that money around to put directly back into the community through free and low-cost programming and by hiring local musicians wherever possible.

"Since April, starting with our Hearts to Homes [webisodes], we've had 85 performance opportunities, and we've hired 76 local artists to fill those spots," Wilson outlines. "Some of those have been regional artists, but the majority have been local."

When the opportunity came up to partner with the Fayetteville pop-up bar Holidaze, WAC staff members were thrilled to offer their space for the charitable endeavor: Proceeds from the bar support four local nonprofits, in addition to the Ghost Light Fund, and the pop-up is employing 20 hospitality workers during the holiday season.

"We just want," Wilson says, her voice breaking with emotion, "to have that community again where we can sit and process and enjoy and just leave our cares behind, and do that in a full theater or a full amphitheater. ... That's why we do what we do. And it's something that we really miss. We just want to be able to host the community again for shows, because that's what we love."

Donate at waltonartscenter.org/ghostlight.

“My predecessor and the board have really put us in a strong position [for] difficult times,” D. Riley Nicholson, the new executive director of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, acknowledges gratefully. But “that doesn’t minimize the difficulty of this.” SoNA has organized out-of-the-box job opportunities for its musicians wherever possible — like a distanced concert performed in the Momentary’s Fermentation Hall black box theater and streamed online.

(Courtesy Photo)
“My predecessor and the board have really put us in a strong position [for] difficult times,” D. Riley Nicholson, the new executive director of the Symphony of Northwest Arkansas, acknowledges gratefully. But “that doesn’t minimize the difficulty of this.” SoNA has organized out-of-the-box job opportunities for its musicians wherever possible — like a distanced concert performed in the Momentary’s Fermentation Hall black box theater and streamed online. (Courtesy Photo)
Through individual donations, generous gifts and the proceeds from ticket sales to limited attendance events, the Walton Arts Center surpassed the original $1 million goal for its Ghost Light Recovery Fund. The total now sits at $1,074,000 toward the new goal of $1.2 million, which will support keeping full-time staff employed, keeping facilities operational, and enabling the organization to still provide some low-cost programming. Proceeds from the second annual Holidaze pop-up bar — which occupies space inside and outside WAC — have gone into the Ghost Light Fund.

(Courtesy Photo)
Through individual donations, generous gifts and the proceeds from ticket sales to limited attendance events, the Walton Arts Center surpassed the original $1 million goal for its Ghost Light Recovery Fund. The total now sits at $1,074,000 toward the new goal of $1.2 million, which will support keeping full-time staff employed, keeping facilities operational, and enabling the organization to still provide some low-cost programming. Proceeds from the second annual Holidaze pop-up bar — which occupies space inside and outside WAC — have gone into the Ghost Light Fund. (Courtesy Photo)
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