Paulene Keller 0000-00-00 00:00:00
Folks are fired-up at FireHouse No. 12, where immersion in culture and knowledge of the arts is hot, hot, hot! Young people are setting fires all over Memphis. They meet Downtown at 985 S. Bellevue and encourage other Memphis youths to join them. But these fires are flames of burning passion for theater, dance, and the arts, and in 29 years, no one has gotten burned. The Memphis Black Arts Alliance and its director, Bennie Nelson West, are dedicated to fueling this creativity from within Firehouse No. 12. After attending Tuskegee and Columbia universities, lobbying in New Jersey, and immersing herself in New York City’s art scene, West returned to Memphis in 1978 with a new perspective on the power of unified black artists. The Orange Mound native had taken dance classes, consulted for the National Black Theater Alliance, and knew actors Ruby Dee and Ozzie Davis. “When I came home, I realized there was no alliance to bring black artists and the community together in Memphis,” says West. “Many of them did not know each other, and they were not sharing their experiences.” As coordinator of community services for Shelby State Community College, she met Memphis artist Patti Lechman, who was organizing a local exhibit and half-day conference featuring African-American crafts. West, herself a potter, envisioned a six-day conference and festival highlighting national craftspeople and regional folk artists from all disciplines. With support from the National Endowment of the Arts & Humanities and The Links Inc., the event, a seven-month logistics miracle, was held Downtown in May 1979, and it attracted artists, historians, and arts educators from 28 states. OUT OF ASHES, AN ALLIANCE IS BORN After the conference, West contacted Memphis artists, musicians, architects, journalists, and actors to form an alliance. The Memphis Black Arts Alliance, with West as its director, began with 15 arts organizations and 35 charter members. The inaugural reception, attended by Ruby Dee, Ozzie Davis, and 300 other guests, was held May 7, 1982, at LeMoyne-Owen College. “I gave a speech at that reception on the five reasons MBAA was needed,” says West, “and much of it is still true today.” But the new alliance needed a center. West discovered Firehouse No. 12 at 985 S. Bellevue — empty, but not for sale. West approached the city, which offered to rent it for the tax equivalent of $40 per month, and the 1910 firehouse became MBAA headquarters. Local artists now had a place to meet, create, rehearse, and display their work. In 1988, a difference in philosophies and focus parted MBAA and its founding director. “I felt we should be proud of presenting national talent to build audiences and recognition,” West says, “but that we should also promote our local artists working with them.” By the early 1990s, however, MBAA had seen several directors come and go, and participation was fading. In 1995, West was asked to return to the helm. “We reinvigorated the board, increased funding, and put the building back in use,” says West. “We then attended a two-day workshop and decided the best way to meet a community need and earn income was to create the FireHouse Community Arts Academy. We received a grant from the National Guild for Community Arts Education to be trained on how to set up a real academy.” FANNING THE FLAMES In 1998, MBAA became the first nonprofit to purchase property from the City of Memphis. Firehouse No. 12 had new, Artistic owners. In 2004, funding for a second renovation began a push for really setting the smoldering arts organization on fire. The fire engine bay became a combination dance studio, theater, meeting room, and art exhibit gallery. Firehouse poles were removed and the upstairs holes covered to convert former locker room/sleeping areas into classrooms and office space. A large captain’s room became the music studio for instruction in voice, guitar, drums, and violin. “The academy became the first multidisciplinary school of the arts serving all cultures in Memphis,” says West. Two hands — one black, one white — form an “It’s OK, We Approve” MBAA logo. The Sankofa bird, with an egg in its mouth, faces forward while looking back, representative of MBAA’s philosophy: “To reach back and gather the best of our past so we can achieve our full potential as we move forward.” ARTS ON FIRE Local artists teach students ages 3–83, who come from Shelby and surrounding counties and neighboring states. A Kwanzaa camp is offered during the holidays, and the late, Stax legend, Rufus Thomas, was the academy’s first tap dance teacher. The summer-long Arts-A-Fire camp still has T-shirt–clad campers climbing the stairs to tell “Mrs. West” what a great time they had. “We offer services that help everyone feel good about who they are, regardless of their background,” explains West. “When they leave here, we want them feeling better than when they came.” Arts-A-F!re Youth Theater Troupe, FireHouse Little Theater, Jazz-A-F!re jam sessions, youth ensemble programs, and jazzercise for seniors were added to the mix. ArtsReach began off-site presentations at daycares, schools, businesses, and community centers. Students across the region were acting, creating costumes, dancing, singing, playing instruments, and becoming artists while learning collaboration. “Our faculty are successful artists who just want to give back,” says West. That includes renowned jazz artist Naomi Moody, who lights up the stage at the FireHouse’s monthly Jazz-a-F!re jazz sessions, which are open to all — and their instruments. Dance celebrity Dorsey Brown, who performed on Fox’s So You Think You Can Dance and later signed with a national dance troupe, leads the way on the dance floor. One of the multimedia artist instructors was West’s late husband, Leonard. THE FUTURE BURNS BRIGHT Seniors rediscover creativity and mobility; children’s classes are held after school; private lessons are available by appointment; and Saturday classes are open to all ages. These programs — and many sponsors — are the primary funding for MBAA. The alliance also hosts fundraisers, such As the FireHouse Community Arts Festival and the Jazzy Holiday Luncheon, where, of course, entertainment is partially provided by the talent nurtured in the firehouse. Future goals include promoting cultural tourism by collaborating with other arts organizations and public and private patrons to establish a world-class African-American History Museum & Cultural Center. A benefactor recently donated 200 classic movies and historic documentaries, which will soon allow MBAA to host a monthly Black Cinematheque to view and discuss films by black filmmakers and artists worldwide. But until then, “We support the creative spirits of all ages and provide an opportunity for them to spend time together,” says West. “We continue to appreciate the diversity within and outside our community by having events that bring people together.” Memphis Black Arts Alliance 985 S. Bellevue, 948-9522 memphisblackartsalliance.org. MEMPHIS BLACK ARTS ALLIANCE PROGRAMS • FireHouse Community Arts Academy: multi-arts instruction and cultural programming open to all regardless of age, income, ability, and background • ARTS-A-F!RE Youth Theater Troupe: writing, acting, producing, and presenting for ages 9–19 • FireHouse Little Theater: plays by national, regional, and local playwrights • JAZZ-A-F!RE: Monthly jazz jams with professional faculty and community musicians, where all are invited to BYOI (bring your own instruments) • Youth JAZZ-A-F!RE Ensemble: jazz playing and singing for ages 11–17 • FireHouse Art Gallery: original works by students and local artists • ArtsReach: instruction and program outreach in community settings • Encore Creative Arts Series: visual and performing arts instruction and presentation series for seniors 55+ • ArtsVentures Camps • Family Arts Days • FireHouse Library and Museum: multimedia resources (reference books, DVDs, VHS tapes, Cds, and videos) • Black Cinematheque: presentation and discussion of films from throughout the world by and about blacks FireHouse Community Arts Center, 985 S. Bellevue, 948-9522, memphisblackartsalliance.org.
Published by Downtowner Magazine. View All Articles.
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