Bessie Smith Festival seeks sustainability

Bessie Smith Festival seeks sustainability

August 20th, 2011 by Yolanda Putman in News

Jeffrey McElrath pieces together the stage for Saturday's fourth annual Bessie Smith Heritage Festival. The festival will include several performances, food, merchandise and activities.

Jeffrey McElrath pieces together the stage for Saturday's...

Photo by Jenna Walker /Times Free Press.

The Bessie Smith Heritage Festival hasn't earned a profit yet, but organizers say they hope the event eventually will generate a $50,000 return to help protect the cultural center during a tough economy.

"We could never do totally without grant support or Allied Arts funding, so I don't want to create a climate that we're trying to move away from that," said Irvin Overton, board chairman for the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

About 60 percent of the center's annual $300,000 budget is funded by grants and about 40 percent from membership and events, Overton said.

He wants the museum to be better positioned to sustain itself with money from memberships and events if the grant money is taken away.

"We use a lot of grant-supported dollars and you can't make your organization successful using a lot of revenues that you don't generate on your own," Overton said.

After funding cuts hit agencies including the Hamilton County Health Department and the Regional History Museum this year, Bessie Smith officials say they want to have more programs to strengthen the center financially.

The cultural center will host its fourth annual Bessie Smith Heritage Festival today with Blues Hall of Famer Bobby Rush and Grammy Award-winner Chrisette Michele headlining the event.

"Come to have a good time and enjoy the music," said local musician and festival volunteer Booker T. Scruggs.

"It's a festival of music that is indigenous to this area," Scruggs said. "There will be a lot of blues played."

Rose Martin, the museum's executive director, said the festival's goal is to "celebrate the contributions that Bessie Smith made to American music and to celebrate the rich cultural legacy of the former Ninth Street historic district in Chattanooga."


  • The fourth annual Bessie Smith Heritage Festival will be from 5 p.m. to midnight today outside the center at 200 M.L. King Blvd. General admission is $35.
  • Jazz musician Eric Essix, a graduate of the Berklee College of Music, will give a musical demonstration and talk about his career at 3 p.m. today at The Chattanoogan hotel. Admission is free.

City and county funding helped to establish the center, formerly called the Chattanooga African-American Museum and Bessie Smith Hall, in 1996. The museum started in 1983 with a one-room display of donated items in the Central City Complex, also on M.L. King Boulevard.

Those who visit the museum will see traveling exhibitions and interactive communication about local and national black history. African drums and masks and pictures of local history makers line the walls along with pictures of Smith, a popular blues singer in the 1920s and '30s who was born in Chattanooga.

The center serves about 36,000 visitors a year.

All the money raised from the heritage festival goes to the cultural center, Overton said.

People should come support an organization that is trying to be more self-sustaining while at the same time making a contribution to the cultural and arts atmosphere of the community, he said.

It's a top-quality blues show with a variety of music including jazz, blues and R&B, said Overton.

"We support Riverbend and all the other festivals. Why shouldn't we support this one in the same numbers?" he said.

For $35 attendees see three top-quality acts, regional and local talent.

"People always say there's nothing to do in Chattanooga," Overton said. "Well, guess what, there is something to do, but there won't be anything if we don't support the activities that have been put in place."

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