In her nearly 10 years with ArtsMemphis, Elizabeth Rouse has seen the workings of the organization from the ground up — all the way up. Next month, she celebrates her one-year anniversary as the group’s president and CEO. Today, we catch up with this arts advocate and cheerleader for Memphis, who’s also a dynamic voice in our city’s nonprofit scene.
Tell me about how you got to where you are today. Where did you grow up, and what led you into a career in nonprofits?
I grew up in Mobile, AL, and all of my family is still there. That will always be home, although now Memphis is home, too. In college, I had the opportunity to do an internship at the United Way of Southwest Alabama one summer, and that was my entry into understanding that I could actually have a career in development. My whole life, much to the credit of my family, I’ve volunteered and been involved in community efforts. But that internship and experience in college and right after college, that’s when I decided I was going to try to get a job at a nonprofit and make that a career.
How did you find your way into the arts field in Memphis?
I moved to Memphis in 2006, when (former ArtsMemphis CEO) Susan Schadt hired me for the development commission at a really exciting time of new fundraising initiatives. Around that time, we were about to embark on a whole rebrand. So I’ve had, in the last almost 10 years, the opportunity to do almost every job within the organization — mostly on the fundraising side, but also in the last couple of years on the grant-making and operations side of things. So there are very few positions in ArtsMemphis that I haven’t held. I officially became CEO in January 2015.
I really got to where I am because of people, and I got to where I am at ArtsMemphis because of people who invested time in getting to know me and teaching me, everybody from Susan and the team at ArtsMemphis to board members and arts leaders. I think Memphis is a place where you can – and people say this all the time – you can really move here and jump in and get involved and make a difference. And I feel like I have really been able to experience that, and I’m thankful for that.
In your 10 years with ArtsMemphis, tell us how you’ve seen the organization and the city’s arts scene change.
When I first began, ArtsMemphis was the Greater Memphis Arts Council. This organization has changed in many ways since 2006. And that was much in part to Susan’s leadership and to the rebrand and the naming of ArtsMemphis. It’s certainly become a much more accessible organization, and I think the brand is in a different place today than when I first moved here. But the mission remains the same of supporting the arts community.
The arts scene has changed a lot in the last 10 years. I tell people, think about what’s happening down on the river and South Main. It’s really exciting news for the Artspace project on South Main, which will offer affordable living and work space for artists. So many sections of the city are just blossoming and thriving, and the arts are really at the center of that, whether it be Downtown or Crosstown or Overton Square or Broad Avenue. And then other things outside of the arts that are so exciting, with Shelby Farms and Overton Park – the great thing is, the arts are part of those spaces, too, whether it be public art or performance space. There’s a real spirit of working together. And it is much less of a competitive spirit and much more “we’re all in this together,” and it’s all about Memphis, how the arts community can work with other organizations in Memphis to make it better.
What are your biggest goals for ArtsMemphis?
That ArtsMemphis may be an accessible, supportive organization of the arts sector and that we will represent Memphis and respond to the needs of Memphis and to the interests of Memphians for the long term. And, really, ArtsMemphis is now 53 years old and was founded on the basis of providing a long-term support system for the arts. I hope that I can and we all can together strengthen the organization, so it is here to be a long-term, constant supporter of the arts community.
What message do you wish you could broadcast to the entire city about Memphis’ arts community?
Memphis is known around the world for the artists who have come from Memphis and for our music, and the great thing that I think we need to broadcast to the entire city and continue to broadcast outside of Memphis is that the arts community is alive and well and thriving, and artists and creative people are on every corner. Just as much as the arts have been part of our city’s history, they’re part of our future.
What great needs or opportunities exist that you’d like to see fulfilled?
Certainly, there’s a continued need for supporting organizations that have been around for decades and continue to be a major part of the Memphis arts community. There’s also a need for continuing to diversify and to have an arts sector that is representative of our entire city. I think there are opportunities to diversify in everything from funding to staff to board members to audiences. And I think Memphis arts organizations and we at ArtsMemphis have a lot to do to make sure the arts are not only accessible, but relevant to our city.
Talk about the differences between Mobile, AL, where you grew up, and Memphis.
They’re actually very similar, and I think that’s why I’ve loved Memphis so much. I’m really serious when I say that as much as I’m a champion for Memphis, I’m also a champion for Mobile, and it will always be home. The similarities have to do with the people. Both cities have wonderful, welcoming people and that Southern hospitality. One of the things I miss the most about Mobile is being on the coast, close to the Gulf and all that great seafood. But really, the two cities are similar in many ways, or at least the ways that are important to me.
What’s your current favorite local restaurant? (If you’re like us, this can change on a weekly basis, but we’re talking right now.)
This is the hardest question you have in the whole list! I’m going to say that today it’s Interim Restaurant, because they’re our neighbors at ArtsMemphis, and they are such great supporters of ArtsMemphis, and I feel like you can’t go wrong. Whether you’re there for lunch or sitting at the bar for dinner, it’s always consistent.
If you could spend a day walking in someone else’s shoes, whose would they be and why?
I would love to walk in the shoes of some of the businesspeople and volunteers who started the Memphis Arts Council in 1963. To really understand firsthand what their vision was and what some of the challenges were in the early years. And to be inspired by the people and organizations today that are still such a major part of Memphis.
Where is the number one place in the world you’d like to travel?
This is also a hard question. I spent some time in college in Rome, Italy, and I really want to go back to Italy and spend more time traveling all around. I just loved the beauty and culture – and the food and wine, too.
If you were given a day off from all your regular responsibilities, how would you spend it?
I would probably drink coffee outside, take a walk and have lunch with friends. Right now, I’d like to spend the afternoon shopping for art and things for a new house that I have a lot of work to do on, and then eat dinner at a fabulous restaurant in Memphis.
What’s your best piece of advice for others?
Take advantage of accessible leaders and businesspeople and mentors in Memphis.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Starbucks Sumatra coffee, Moroccanoil hair products and regular walks.
A huge thank you to Elizabeth Rouse for taking time to talk to us for this article! Also thanks to Emily Robbins for the great photography.