Why Is What You Are Doing Better Than Eating a Plate of Worms?

Colleen McCartney. Photo courtesy of ArtsMemphis.
Infographic courtesy of the author and ArtsMemphis.



I’m Colleen McCartney, the Grants and Initiatives Manager at ArtsMemphis, where we work to sustain Memphis’s world-renowned cultural vitality and strengthen local communities through the arts. Our team manages over 160 grants, partners with over 70 art organizations and artist grantees, administers various initiatives and distributes more than $2.5 million is grant funding each year.



I came to ArtsMemphis through a different path than most might think. My background and education are in anthropology and museum studies, and I worked at several local museums before joining ArtsMemphis in 2017. While I don’t have an arts background, my focus in programming, community development and data collection work perfectly for working with grants and initiatives.



As a result of my distinctive path to the arts, I have three key things I would advise any professional starting out:


  • Look for a job based off of skills you possess that are required for the position, not necessarily just a job title. Particularly with the arts and nonprofit sector, there are so many diverse positions that are available, you never know how you might fit into the mix.


  • Always be willing to learn something new. A diverse range of skills is always a plus and it can also help uncover a new passion. I have taken several free online courses from MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) that have helped me discover new interests. It’s also a great way to get some business basics under your belt, which can be helpful as an artist.


  • Networking is a necessary evil. On the positive side, networking can be fun! Go meet people at a gallery opening, an artist lecture series, an art-crawl night or somewhere else a bit untraditional. Especially in a “large-small city” like Memphis, it’s beneficial to make those connections.


The most impactful lesson I was ever given was from my late professor Dr. Robert Connolly. He would ask us on a regular basis, Why is what you are doing better than eating a plate of worms? It’s one of those questions you think has an obvious answer, because eating worms would be disgusting. Often, I replied sarcastically referencing gummy worms, the general taste of earthworms or the like. But he had a point. I might be incredibly passionate about my work and see the benefits to what I am doing, but if someone else can’t, how do I justify it? How do I describe why my work is important, necessary and vital to our society? If I can’t communicate why my work matters, how will I get others to experience it?



This statement is essential to my career now. I use it to frame how I talk to all our constituents. I talk to donors about why the arts in Memphis matter, and I talk to patrons about why they should experience the arts. I talk to grantees about how their work is vital to sustaining Memphis’s world-renowned cultural vitality. I think, especially as a nonprofit professional in the arts, you have to get used to talking to not just the art lovers but also people who (think they) have never experienced the arts, think the arts are extraneous, the arts are too expensive, or people who don’t understand why the arts are important. So, I challenge everyone to ask themselves: Why is what I am doing better than eating a plate of worms?



Infographic courtesy of the author and ArtsMemphis.



I promise that an ArtsMemphis grant application won’t ask you why your work is better than eating a plate of worms, but the same concept applies. We want to know about your work, why you do it and where you want to go with it. I know several artists who have used our applications to regularly refocus on their current projects and plans for the next year. Even if you are just starting out as a visual artist, I encourage you to apply for an ArtsAccelerator grant if you live and work in Shelby County. It offers professional experience talking about your work, exposure of your work to new people and feedback to improve artist statements and work samples.



We understand how hard it can be for emerging artists to get started, so a lot of organizations and opportunities focus on that group. At least one of the six ArtsAccelerator grants is awarded to an emerging artist every year! Just know that you are established enough to apply and, as I mentioned, it’s beneficial either way. When you apply for an ArtsAccelerator grant, keep these tips in mind:



  • Read through the guidelines and eligibility, ask questions, seek opinions. A favorite part of my job is helping people with their application in any way that I can. It’s incredibly frustrating to read something that could have been corrected or changed, had I been asked to provide feedback.


  • ArtsMemphis recruits judges for the ArtsAccelerator Grant that live outside of Memphis, so I can give you very straightforward feedback on your application before you submit.


  • If you want feedback, contact me early. On the last day of a grant deadline, especially in the last few hours, my phone is ringing off the hook. I love helping everyone, and I do get to everyone who asks. But, if you want time to yourself then come in early, because I can offer you more if I’m not pressed with a line-up of questions.


  • Write your application clearly. Assume the person reading your application has no clue who you are or anything about your work. Often judges read dozens of applications, so the more clear and straightforward you are, the more memorable you’ll be.


  • If you’re not sure if you want to apply for a grant but are still looking to grow professionally or learn a new technique, several organizations in Memphis offer free or low-cost professional development opportunities. They’re a great opportunity to refine your skills or learn something new while networking at the same time. Here are a few that I know of:


  • The CLTV. PRIMER offers free workshops that offer a range of creative and professional development opportunities including the business side of being an artist, round tables and critiques.


  • Crosstown Arts. Shared Art Making is a membership-based workspace that provides anyone with common access to facilities and equipment in digital arts, music, woodworking, printmaking, and photography.


  • Indie Memphis. Shoot & Splice is a monthly forum for filmmakers. There is a different topic and presenter each month.


  • Momentum Nonprofit Partners. If you are looking to work in a nonprofit capacity, they have courses in all kinds of administrative functions for organizations.


There are so many pathways to use your art, your passion and your skills. I found mine at ArtsMemphis. Every day I work to sustain Memphis’s cultural vitality and strengthen local communities through the arts, and you better believe it will always be better than eating a plate of worms.



Colleen McCartney. Photo courtesy of ArtsMemphis.



Colleen McCartney is the Grants and Initiatives Manager at ArtsMemphis.