White: The Bessie Smith Cultural Center blues

White: The Bessie Smith Cultural Center blues

August 31st, 2014 by By Dr. Clark "DeaconBluz" White in Opinion Columns

Bessie Smith Cultural Center

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

Lewis Latimer made improvements to the filament of the light bulb, and is part of the exhibit Bright Ideas: African American Inventors at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

Lewis Latimer made improvements to the filament of...

Photo by Angela Lewis /Times Free Press.


* 1996 -- 200 E. M.L. King Boulevard becomes the new home of the Chattanooga African American Museum and Bessie Smith Hall.

* 2009 -- The facility is renamed the Bessie Smith Cultural Center.

* A 15-member board of directors oversees the center.

The robbery earlier this summer at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center has given me a chronic case of the blues. As a blues educator and performer, I take it personally.

The center has found itself at a proverbial crossroads. I can hear Bessie now, "They done stole my money again."

The robbery, which occurred after the June 9 Bessie Smith Strut, raises questions about the overall state of the center, including its mission, financial health and future. It appears that since 2006, the center has spent more money than it has raised. How will it manage its current and future fundraising efforts under the current circumstances? Who will be willing to take an obvious financial risk? How can funders be assured that their money will be properly used? As one City Councilman pointed out to me, this current situation is part of a sad legacy of failed black nonprofits in the MLK neighborhood.

As the sociologist W.I. Thomas once said, "Things that are perceived as real are real in their consequence." The current public perception of the center leaves a lot to be desired. How will it be able to restore the public trust? What are some specific steps that should be taken immediately? Will the center be able to overcome the negative perceptions as it attempts to garner support?

What is the real mission of the center? Is it primarily a "rental facility/tea room?" The lease between the city and the museum stipulates that the museum produce research on the black experience in Chattanooga as part of the agreement. Where and in what form is the research? Has the museum ever a published catalog of its holdings?

Why hasn't it ever applied to be an accredited museum and become eligible for the funding and services provided by the Institute for Museum and Library Services?

As an educator and museum consultant, I can say that the current permanent exhibit is inadequate and outdated and in some cases incorrect. There are specific items that need further authentication including the "Bessie" dress and the "Bessie" piano. Do we want to continue to expose our children, young adults, students and the general public to information that may not be correct?

Staffing and staff qualifications also are issues. Why has the center never employed a trained museum professional, curator, archivist or historian on a long-term basis? Does the current staff have the capacity, verifiable academic credentials and formal training to manage a museum and cultural center? Would an artist/scholar in residence program enhance the mission and credibility of the institution? The trend nationally has been to bring trained museum professionals, academics and artist into the museum field. Why has there been a reluctance to tap into the talents of African American studies faculty at Vanderbilt, University of Tennessee, UTC, Fisk, Tennessee State University, the University of Memphis and Middle Tennessee State?

As a working blues artist and educator I have often wondered why there is so little activity in the building that supports local blues artists. Wasn't the building designed and built to accommodate the production and performance of the blues? Why can't we have a program at the Center similar to the Kansas City Jazz Museum, the BB King Museum, the Delta Blues Museum or the Stax Museum? The Center would be a perfect location to showcase and support blues talent and celebrate the legacy of Bessie Smith. There is also a growing area of "Blues Tourism" taking place in the South.

When the building was completed it was fully equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. What happened to the original custom-made sound board? What is left of the instruments, mikes, speakers, teaching pianos, pianos, etc.?

It is time for critical analysis, discussion and action. I understand the potential economic impact of live blues music in Chattanooga. I am hopeful that in the coming weeks some of the questions raised will be addressed by all interested and invested partners.

Most importantly, I am hopeful that those who truly have an interest in valuing the blues are given an opportunity to plan for the future use of a city-owned facility.

About the writer

Clark Eldridge White, a fourth-generation Chattanoogan, is a blues educator and artist. He graduated from Riverside High School in 1966, earned his bachelor's degree from Morehouse College, his doctoral degree from Michigan State University and did post-graduate work at Harvard. He has worked as a consultant to major foundations such as the Pew Charitable Trust in Philadelphia and the New England Foundation for the Arts in Boston, and as a project director and consultant to several museums across the country.