Editor's Note: As one year closes, we like to point out some of the people you might want to pay attention to as the next year unfolds. Meet our "People to Watch in 2022" in the following pages.
When Lakeisha Edwards was first contacted by a headhunter about the executive director position at the Northwest Arkansas art organization Art Ventures, she was hesitant. She was working as director of Food Solutions and Partnerships at the Memphis Leadership Foundation, and she wasn't sure she was ready to uproot her life in Tennessee and move to a new state. But, luckily, Art Ventures' president, Sharon Killian, was awfully persuasive, and Edwards says her first glimpse of Northwest Arkansas sealed the deal.
"I fell in love with Fayetteville, instantly," she says. "I came out of the [Bobby Hopper] Tunnel, and I felt like I heard the angels singing. It was crazy. I had never driven past Little Rock -- I had flown over, but I had never had any reason to come to Northwest Arkansas. I stayed at The Graduate Hotel, which is so neat, and got a chance to walk around the [Fayetteville] square at night. This place really has a special charm to it. And then I saw the gallery, and the gallery itself is a work of art, even without one piece on the wall. It's a beautiful home, restored to its original glory. I started meeting some of the artists through their work, and I thought, 'This is amazing.' It's also a great opportunity to take an organization that has been re-branded, relocated, and re-birthed to the next level, and that was exciting for me to really be able to have a hand in that. So that's why I'm here. And that's why I want to stay."
Edwards is a former AmeriCorps member who has had a career in helping steer nonprofits. She says she can pinpoint the moment she realized she wanted to make a life helping others -- she was a freshman, enrolled in the pre-med program at the University of Memphis.
"I grew up in a rural area, and I knew nothing about the levels of poverty that I would see in Memphis," she says. "I'd never seen that in person. I saw a guy that was sleeping in the parking garage, and every night I was talking to my parents, saying, 'Hey, this guy is still here, why won't he go home?' Because at 18, I really was confused. Finally, they just had that hard conversation with me: 'That is where he sleeps; he has no home.' I think at that point, I just didn't realize it was that real, because in a smaller town, you call someone's grandma, or you call the local church, or you call one of your neighbors, and everyone pitches in, and they help. So I thought, 'I've got to do something about this.'"
Her resume shows her commitment -- in addition to her time in AmeriCorps, it includes a 13-year stint in Child Support Services in Memphis, surely one of the most emotionally difficult positions one can hold. Today, though, she's turned her focus to Art Ventures and how she can help make it a community hub that offers art access to everyone.
"I want to see students studying at our tables, I want to see people having lunch on our back patio, I want to see kids in our tree house, I want to see people on the front lawn doing yoga, which we did do in the latter part of the summer," she explains. "I want to see the space utilized by the actual public and not just the elite. A lot of times when people think of art galleries and museums, they think of the elite, they think you have to wear certain clothes, you need to make an appointment, it's going cost to get in. And Art Ventures is none of that -- it's the total opposite, it's open and free to the public, we want to really allow the community to embrace that as its own and find ways to utilize the space."
Art Ventures is constantly expanding its outreach, says Edwards, like sponsoring pop-up shops at its gallery for small businesses that need a boost in the face of the global pandemic. Edwards is in talks now with a domestic violence shelter, hoping to increase access to art for that population. And the organization is constantly widening its K-12 initiatives and education.
"We want to make sure that we are spreading the word and giving the opportunity to have access to art and culture to everyone," she says. "Whether that's a small business owner, whether that's someone that lives in the community, or it could be someone that absolutely never even saw themselves in an art gallery."
FYI - Art Ventures
Find out more about Art Ventures on Facebook at facebook.com/artventuresnwarkansas and on their website at artventures-nwa.org/