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    New ArtsMemphis outreach head plans to make inroads to communities

    Michael Lollar
    Linda Steele grew up in the city that eventually became home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and, since January, has been living in the city that bills itself as “the birthplace of rock and roll.”
    Steele describes herself as more a spectator than a partisan when Cleveland, Ohio, campaigned for the hall of fame. “I know that Clevelanders who were behind the push were saying there was a disc jockey there who coined the term ‘rock and roll.’ I was more of a spectator in the whole thing and kind of curious about where it was going to land.”
    That was almost 20 years ago. Since then Steele has been learning to be less a spectator and more a partisan for music of all kinds along with the arts in general. It landed her in Memphis in January as head of outreach and engagement for ArtsMemphis, where Steele is in charge of building audiences and raising money to support the arts across the city.
    A major goal of the job will be to increase the level of diversity involved in ArtsMemphis and its goal to “create a vibrant cultural community for everyone.” Steele hit the ground running, planning a fellowship program that will involve 24 arts organizations. “It will allow them to learn about collaboration and partnerships and how to execute their programs and learn the various skills one needs to successfully execute those programs in their communities,” says Steele.
    In short, it is basically “marketing 101,” she says.
    Steele also is collaborating with organizations outside of Memphis for ideas and inspiration, including George N’Namdi, founder of the N’Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in Detroit, which helped turn a formerly blighted area into a thriving arts district. N’Namdi was in Memphis last week, and with Steele, appeared at LeMoyne-Owen College and Crosstown Arts, and visited Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
    It is a familiar role for Steele, who began to develop her skills as an undergraduate at Amherst College in Massachusetts where she majored in political science. In high school, she had been involved in student government and wanted to become more active in college. “Amherst was small enough for me to be able to run for something. I was all about introducing myself to people so that I could do what I wanted to do, which was to participate. It helped me build skills in terms of marketing and promotions ... I never lost an election.”
    One of her elected offices was on the student allocations committee, which heard presentations by every campus group asking for operating funds for the school year. When one student’s group received less funding than he had hoped, he began to follow her on campus, complaining and demanding a rehearing. Steele said she felt as if she were being stalked, and when it was resolved her zest for politics faded. “After that experience, there was no desire to go onto another level of politics.”
    She then moved to Harvard for a master’s degree in education and focused her attention on her love of the arts. She had studied piano and music theory as a child, while her brother studied guitar and violin. She loved to draw and sketch. And in high school she was involved in theater set design, dance and choreography.
    The first job on her resume is as development manager for Urban Gateways: Center for Arts Education in Chicago, where she led fundraising efforts that more than doubled contributions by major donors. The job led to the Art Institute of Chicago, where she was in charge of community relations and served on a marketing and audience development committee.
    The Art Institute’s director of administration in the museum education department, David Stark, said Steele was “tremendously successful” in leading an advisory committee of African-American community leaders who helped diversify the institute’s audience by developing programming targeted at African Americans and increasing fundraising to help support the effort. “She really made her mark and raised the bar in terms of the potential for that position. We’re still benefiting from it.”
    One of Steele’s former co-workers at the Art Institute, Emilie De Angelis, now director of capital campaign gifts for the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, said Steele “thinks very holistically about demographics, socioeconomics and making inroads into communities.” She said they often used event programming to tailor productions and, along with productions appealing to African-American and Latino audiences, included accommodations, like large subtitles, to appeal to sight and hearing-impaired patrons.
    After the Art Institute, Steele was chosen in 2006 as one of 25 emerging arts leaders who took part in a yearlong Arts Leadership Institute sponsored by JP Morgan Chase & Co. and the Business Council of New York. It led to six years as an independent marketing and fundraising consultant.
    But Steele said she also loved reaching out to young students. “I figured that to those that are given, much is expected,” she said. She taught summer and after-school classes on art and art appreciation in Brooklyn, then, with investors, helped open an exclusive New York preschool for 2 to 5-year-olds that includes major exposure to the arts.
    The school’s music teacher and assistant director, former recording artist and former school board member Evita Belmonte, said part of Steele’s passion for education stems from budget restraints that have cut arts and music programs in the public schools. She said Steele is a huge believer in “equity in education” for students of all ages and in every part of the city and that she loves to interact with them. “She has patience and a joyful receptivity to their questions and to their curiosity. That’s a gift.”
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