LInda Steele

Linda Steele ’85. Major: political science

“I love Memphis dearly, but it has a lot of problems,” says Katyana Dandridge ’18 when asked about her Tennessee hometown, which has the highest poverty rate of any major U.S. city. “The people in Memphis have big hearts, but so much of this city’s history is situated in deeply rooted inequalities that love alone cannot conquer.”

If love isn’t enough to bolster economic opportunities for Memphians, why not use art? That’s the idea behind ArtUp, a startup that invests in creative talent in particularly disadvantaged areas of the city. “The work is really about leveling the playing field so that artists and creatives from all backgrounds can achieve economic success and become creative small business owners and creative entrepreneurs,” says founder and CEO Linda Steele ’85.

Since 2017, ArtUp has supported nearly 50 fellows, including muralist Khara Woods, hip-hop teacher Rufus Smith and chef Elijah Townsend, who has established a meal delivery service. With the organization’s support, a former liquor store is now Orange Mound Gallery, showcasing the work of local artists. The startup has two new partnerships, with real estate developer Artspace and Rutgers’ Center for Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development. “I consider [ArtUp] a lab, because if it can be successful in an area like Memphis,” says Steele, “then it can work in other places nationally and even globally.”

Innovation, creativity, arts coupled with entrepreneurship can really provide economic development for these communities.

Steele’s 20-year career as an arts administrator began in her native Cleveland, where she focused on increasing and diversifying theater audiences. “And then I was lured away by Chicago Urban Gateways, which is an arts education organization where I had the chance to really develop my fundraising skills,” she says, after which she courted visitors, members and donors of color for the Art Institute of Chicago. From there she relocated to New York, working with the arts-access organization Cool Culture and helping to found Mozarts and Einsteins, the first arts-based preschool in Park Slope, Brooklyn. She moved down South in 2014 to work in grantmaking and community engagement for ArtsMemphis. Since then, she has launched the Artivism podcast to interview those “at the intersection of art and social activism.” Her work has garnered two National Endowment for the Arts grants and the inaugural Robert E. Gard Award from Americans for the Arts.

Steele has stayed involved with Amherst as well, not only as reunion chair, class secretary and now president of the class of 1985 but also as a Wade Fellow, Pathways mentor and invited speaker. It was at a 2016 Multicultural Resource Center event that Steele connected with Dandridge, eventually offering her an internship at ArtsMemphis and then ArtUp.

The startup’s other Amherst intern is Anisa Lacey ’21. Last year, among other duties, she helped develop a pricing strategy for LuElla Marshall’s Art Cans project, through which students and professional artists combat blight by painting and decorating new trash receptacles for the city. She says Steele’s mentorship has “broadened my perspective and allowed me to envision myself as a fellow business leader.”

“The ArtUp internship,” Lacey adds, “has allowed me to realize the potential of Memphis.” It’s her hometown, too.

Duke is the assistant editor of Amherst magazine.

Photo courtesy of Linda Steele ’85