As accomplished as Lakeisha Edwards is — and she is very accomplished — her résumé doesn’t exactly scream “arts ecosystem.”
Born and raised in Tennessee, the 43-year-old Edwards spent most of her professional career in operations and leadership roles as a social worker or food bank administrator. She also holds dual bachelor’s degrees in social work and psychology from the University of Memphis.
However, since relocating from Memphis to Northwest Arkansas in the summer of 2021, Edwards has been flourishing as the first executive director of Art Ventures in Fayetteville. It’s a budding organization growing its profile in the region’s thriving arts ecosystem, which is just as essential to the region’s quality of life as parks, libraries and schools.
Art Ventures is a nonprofit art gallery. Its mission is to promote the visual arts in Northwest Arkansas through active community collaborations, artist support, education and accessibility.
The nonprofit maintains its headquarters and gallery inside the historic Putman House at 20 S. Hill Ave., just west of the Fayetteville Public Library and within the confines of an area the city designates the cultural arts corridor.
The person most responsible for hiring Edwards said various factors make her an ideal leader for Art Ventures.
“I was looking for someone with smarts, a sense of community, someone who liked people and was a quick study,” said Sharon Killian, the nonprofit’s founder and board president, and a noted artist. “Everything translated. She could reflect empathy in just about any place she landed. We needed somebody who is an ambassador for the work we’ve been doing, and she’s been a good match.”
Edwards said she’s spent her entire career committed to work that impacts clients’ quality of life. That’s still the case at Art Ventures, whose mission is to add value to the region by developing young artists throughout diverse communities.
“Art Ventures truly improves the quality of life,” she said. “Not only for the artists but also for the patrons. Being in the community and having those collaborations are important to me. To create a space where people are wanted, welcome, and safe regardless of the community they are attached to. That’s what we are creating.”
Art Ventures — formerly known as the artist collective Fayetteville Underground — in its current form began in 2014 when it was reborn as a mission-driven nonprofit, thanks to the financial support of Killian and others.
A board of directors led the nonprofit, but in October 2020, the Windgate Foundation announced a grant that made it possible to hire a full-time executive director.
Edwards began the job in July 2021. She built a strong foundation for her career, working in child support services for 13 years as a county employee and later as a state contractor in Memphis and Nashville. She gained experience in legal documentation, management, strategic planning and operations management, but a passion for community and business acumen led her to food banking.
Before accepting the job with Art Ventures, Edwards was the director of food solutions and partnerships at Memphis Leadership Foundation, a non-denominational outreach ministry. She had a cross-functional role in developing and sourcing for the nonprofit’s 100-acre campground, conference and retreat center in the center of Memphis and a budget of $2.5 million.
Before that, she was the director of agency partnerships and programs for the Mid-South Food Bank in Memphis, liaising with over 200 partner agencies across 31 counties in Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi and managing an operating budget of $3 million annually.
Her development efforts helped to significantly build the annual budget, which included a $500,000 gift from United Healthcare.
“She has a keen business acumen,” Killian said.
In Memphis, Edwards was an advisory council member for Shelby County’s Mayor’s Young Professional Council, a founding board member for Leadership Preparatory Charter School and the fund development coordinator for the Junior League of Memphis. She is also a graduate of the Memphis Leadership Class of 2018.
Edwards believes everyone is entitled to arts access. Art Ventures works to remove challenges and barriers for that to happen through what she calls the three pillars: representation, education and community engagement.
Art Ventures promotes more than 50 represented artists through live and virtual exhibitions.
“We primarily represent local artists and specifically seek underrepresented artists,” she said. “We put them in places and give them the exposure they wouldn’t necessarily have access to. How most things [work] in the art world, you have to know someone at the gallery or know the right person to get to the curator. We want to judge people based on their talent and push them forward, regardless of skin color, background, or whom they know.”
The education pillar is through Art Ventures’ K-12 Gallery Initiative. It allows school-aged kids to participate in a creative learning course of up to eight weeks. It encompasses the entire gallery process from researching, creating artwork, receptions and even putting their art in the Art Ventures gallery or other public space.
All K-12 students in Northwest Arkansas are encouraged to participate in the initiative. Teachers develop a project theme or idea that enhances their curriculum or challenge students to “solve a problem” through art.
Selected entries get to take their students through the exhibition phase at Art Ventures, and they receive $500 to support the project through the exhibition.
Community engagement allows collaboration between Art Ventures and additional public spaces for exhibitions. There are currently Art Ventures exhibitions at Startup Junkie Foundation, Fayetteville Public Library, Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce, Faulkner Performing Arts Center on the University of Arkansas campus and Northwest Arkansas National Airport.
Missouri-based Sterling Bank, a relatively new lender in the market, opened its first Arkansas branch in Fayetteville earlier this year. The bank made a large purchase of Art Ventures art that’s now part of the three-story building’s collection.
“We’re putting art into space where people need to see it but don’t necessarily expect it,” Edwards said.
Edwards said Art Ventures partners with other nonprofits who serve clients “we want to reach,” including Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese, Arkansas Soul, Big Brothers Big Sisters of NWA, Teen Action Support Center and Canopy NWA.
Edwards said Art Ventures’ operating budget will increase to $325,000 in 2023 and expanding the K-12 Gallery Initiative is a top priority.
“We want to go outside Washington County and focus on additional areas such as home-school kids,” she said. “We recently had a home-school class. The lack of access to art doesn’t always have to do with finances.”
She mentioned discussions about having art in additional corporate spaces in Benton County.
“Fayetteville is a very special place with the type of open arms needed for an organization like Art Ventures,” she said. “But we want our reach beyond Fayetteville.”
She underscored that greater visibility is part of the overall Art Ventures mission to elevate artists’ profiles in Northwest Arkansas.
“We need to focus on local artists,” she said. “Rather than sourcing artwork or looking beyond our region to pull in talent … we have talent right here.”