Chatham Arts Council: Nurturing creative thinkers, giving relief

What artists provide is ‘not a luxury. It’s essential.’

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Throughout the pandemic, the Chatham Arts Council has been working to support local artists and creators in various ways — including through unique and creative grants programs. This week, we speak with Cheryl Chamblee, CAC’s executive director, about that work.

Cheryl has been the executive director since 2012 and has worked with nonprofits for more than 20 years. When she’s not leading the Chatham Arts Council, she has adventures with her daughter and husband, makes theater, and coaches other creative-leader-mamas. Cheryl’s earliest creative memory is of being 3 years old and making a three Wise Men craft with Q-Tips, construction paper, and cardboard with her mother. She still has it.

Remind us what CAC is and does …

The Chatham Arts Council nurtures creative thinkers in Chatham County. We do that by focusing on two things: investing in artists and educating kids through the arts. This year, we’ve concentrated our efforts on Service, Solace, and Hope through the arts.

Our educating kids through the arts work is evolving into Arts for Resilient Kids. The arts provide an avenue for processing trauma and a pathway to the resilience that’s so vital right now, so that focus is a big deal.

First, through our Chatham Artists-outside-schools initiative with our school and artist partners, we’ve offered: county-wide virtual artist of the month videos, 37 interactive virtual artist workshops for 5th-grade classes, and truck-and-trailer arts performances through four Chatham neighborhoods.

Second, we created ClydeFEST in the Wild this spring to give kids some outdoor, COVID-safe time to create together, which was really so much fun.

Finally, we created a new ArtAssist for Kids program, which got basic art supplies to nearly 2,500 kids who needed them during COVID-cautious learning.

But we serve grown-ups in Chatham, too, and during this time, we’ve been leaning hard into opportunities to secure relief and recovery funding — and then get that to artists and arts orgs.

How many grant programs have you already completed? What types of grants do you offer?

We’ve done some granting for arts organizations and some granting for individual artists. Both serve artists and audiences (the Chatham community), but in different ways. Both are important to the arts ecosystem in Chatham.

Chatham’s arts ecosystem is different from the landscape in other places. The balance of nonprofit organizations, small arts businesses, and individual artists is unique — and we’ve designed our granting this year to respond to that uniqueness. That’s made it more difficult — and we hope more impactful.

We worked hard to apply for dollars available outside the county to support arts work in Chatham, and thanks to some funders who work hard to understand our arts landscape, we secured or partnered on relief and recovery grants totaling $204,000 and counting. Specifically, we were proud to offer six different grants over the past year.

Tell us more about your current grant opportunity ...

This is one of our grants for arts orgs, but it ends up benefiting individual artists, too. Each year, we partner with the North Carolina Arts Council to award Grassroots Arts Grants to help nonprofits pay artists as part of their arts and human services projects.

We especially love these grants because they help carry the arts into every corner of the county. The award amounts range from $500-$2,500, and we prioritize projects that pay artists and actively work toward inclusivity among artists and audiences. Since 2000, we’ve awarded more than $200,000 to nonprofits — and we know how critical this grant is this year, with so many organizations struggling through the pandemic.

We hope folks who know and love nonprofits around the county will check out the opportunity. The basic eligibility requirements are:

• You’ve been in operation for at least one year as a 501(c)(3);

• You have an arts mission, or you run a program that uses the arts to help accomplish the organization’s mission;

• You’re based in Chatham County, or are carrying out this project in Chatham County.

Applications are available online at The deadline is 11:59 p.m. on Friday, June 11.

How has the pandemic affected artists? Are they still limited by the way we are re-opening our county?

The arts are about creativity and human connection. And that creativity has meant that artists have invented ways to continue making new things and reminding us of human connection through this time. But there’s a limit to our capacity for connection when we’re separated by screens, when we are so strangely isolated.

So artists have suffered this year — gigs and exhibitions and sales dried up overnight when COVID hit, and it’ll be a while before they’re back in any way that feels fully recognizable. We launched the Chatham Artists and Arts-workers Relief Effort (CAARE) to provide emergency funding for artists for that reason — to help with things like medical bills, groceries, rent.

But there’s hope. We just transitioned our emergency grants into a new phase of artist recovery we’re calling Jumpstart, which pays artists to make art and to put art in the public sphere as we re-connect with one another in public spaces. (Those grant applications were due last week.)

Artists have been collecting our stories for many months — and artists will help us make sense of this time as we re-emerge. Artists will help hold our grief, but they’ll remind us about joy and love and connection, too. This is not a luxury. It’s essential.


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