Connecting Through Arts

Arts for Lawrence Leaders Talk Programming and Partnerships

Writer / Matt Keating
Photographer / Robby Berry

Arts for LawrenceArts for Lawrence (AFL) has received a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), as part of a recently announced $57,750,000 in funding from the NEA American Rescue Plan. 

Judy Byron, executive director for Arts for Lawrence, is very excited about the grant, and has big plans to use the money to enhance the arts organization. The grant will support job creation, facility management, health and safety supplies, and promotion of events.

Additionally, Arts for Lawrence’s Program Manager Jay Hemphill was promoted to artistic director. 

Byron says that in total, 567 organizations were selected to receive funding to help the arts and cultural sector recover from the pandemic. 

“The pandemic has been especially hard for the arts sector, and in particular, performing arts venues,” Byron says. “The Theater at the Fort closed in August of 2019 for renovations. Arts for Lawrence prepared for this financial impact on earned revenue, but was not prepared to be closed for another 16 months because of the pandemic. We reopened to the public with the grand opening of the Fort Ben Cultural Campus in June 2021, and gradually introduced indoor stage performances in the fall.”

Byron notes that audiences are not coming back quickly, and adds that AFL is grateful for those who support them while they get back on their feet.  

Arts for Lawrence“The NEA grant will do just that,” she says. “With the extra support for staffing, we were able to offer Jay the promotion to artistic director, a well-earned move to top leadership for AFL. Jay has a great vision for the organization’s future programming. With the opening of the Fort Ben Cultural Campus, Arts for Lawrence oversees more programming spaces. We not only offer performances on the stage of the newly renovated theater, but have a theater addition with a puppet stage and activity room, a Visual Arts Center with a gallery and classrooms, and the plaza is equipped for outdoor events with the completion of the amphitheater coming this spring.”

AFL was on a fast growth trajectory due to the community’s demand for more arts programming.

“The pandemic, however, stalled our ability for earned income,” Byron says. “Because we believe everyone should have access to the arts, we want to keep our programming accessible with affordable ticket prices and free festivals.” 

Support from the NEA will help AFL pay artistic partners, while keeping program costs affordable and free to the community.

“Arts for Lawrence, of course, has developed a reopening plan that includes safety policies and procedures to keep our patrons and artists safe from the spread of COVID-19,” Byron says. “Unfortunately, these policies often come with limited seating at performances, which has an impact on our ticket revenue. The show must go on, and the NEA American Rescue Plan grants will help Arts for Lawrence and others move forward with quality arts and cultural events.”

The grant from the NEA will go directly to staff salaries, payment for performers, and other artistic partners.  

“This support keeps Arts for Lawrence on the same growth trajectory as before the pandemic,” Byron says. “It also allows our audiences to join us slowly and safely.”

Even though doors were closed to audiences, AFL leaders were busy during the pandemic.  

“We redesigned programs for virtual format and developed socially distanced outdoor events,” Byron says. “Since construction work was considered essential, the creation of the Fort Ben Cultural Campus kept us plenty busy leading up to the grand opening.”

Byron adds that AFL is generously supported by the City of Lawrence, which keeps overhead costs low.

Arts for Lawrence“We could hunker down and wait out the pandemic but we had this beautifully remodeled theater with no shows on the stage,” Byron says. “It was sad to see it sit idle. We offered the stage free of charge to performers for rehearsals, or to film virtual programs. It was our way of helping others in our sector continue on in these strange times.” 

Byron is excited about the work Hemphill has planned. With more than three decades of performing arts experience on stage, on television and with touring companies, Hemphill showed exemplary leadership skills and developed high-quality arts programming during challenging times, according to Byron. 

Hemphill joined AFL in December of 2020. 

“My first position was program manager,” Hemphill says. “In this position my job was to book and create programming to an organization that had more or less been closed for the better part of two years, due to the pandemic and the restoration of the theater through the Strengthening Indianapolis Through Arts and Cultural Innovation grant from the Lilly Endowment.” 

As AFL’s artistic director, Hemphill hopes to create new partnerships with other performing and visual arts organizations, while continuing to strengthen and grow existing partnerships. 

“Taking inspiration from AFL’s early years, the development of a robust arts education program, in both visual and performing arts, is another area where Arts for Lawrence can expand,” Hemphill says. “Lastly, I would like to see Arts for Lawrence produce their own theater productions – one or two annually. We have already begun work on our first in-house production of Hank Greene’s “Benjamin Harrison Chased a Goat,” an original play by Arts for Lawrence.”

Hemphill says he is humbled by the promotion. 

“Judy Byron and the board of directors of Arts for Lawrence have given me an amazing opportunity,” he says. “I am excited by what the future holds for Arts for Lawrence, and I’m so grateful that I get to help shape that future.” 

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