Raising the Roof

Blues Foundation in final stage of fundraising for Hall of Fame

RICHARD J. ALLEY | Special to The Daily News

If all goes well, The Blues Foundation will be raising the roof on a new Blues Hall of Fame at 421 S. Main St. in six months.

Executive Director Jay Sieleman of The Blues Foundation speaks about the foundation’s capital campaign to add a Blues Hall of Fame to their offices at 421 South Main. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The roof, of course, is already there, and the ground floor now holds the foundation’s offices and a gift shop, but the Raise the Roof campaign is hoping to garner the last $1 million needed of the $2.5 million proposed to build out a first-class venue.

The architecture firm of archimania and the museum exhibit firm Design 500 are working on final plans for what should be another jewel in the city’s heavyweight belt of music that includes Sun Studio, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Graceland and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum.

For a music genre known for testifying to the human condition and championing the everyman, it is fitting that $1.25 million of the funds have come directly from blues fans around the world in the form of direct contributions and membership dues – the Blues Foundation currently has 4,500 individual members.

The Memphis area is responsible for $250,000 with the largest local donors being ArtsMemphis ($175,000), First Tennessee Bank ($45,000) and the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau ($25,000).

“We have been focusing on getting blues fans, wherever they live, to show that this is an important thing and step forward first, and now we’re reaching out more to the Memphis community,” said Jay Sieleman, president and CEO of the foundation.

“The Blues Foundation is recognized around the world for bringing attention and acclaim to this unique, authentic art form,” said Susan Schadt, president and CEO of ArtsMemphis. “Where could be better than Downtown Memphis to house the Blues Music Hall of Fame? It’s thrilling to see the broad base of support Jay Sieleman and the Blues Foundation have garnered for this project, not just in Memphis but nationally.”

The Blues Foundation purchased the 11,500-square-foot condo in 2010, and currently uses the street level space of 3,800 square feet as offices, some exhibit space and a gift shop.

Interactive exhibits will fill the area upon renovation, with a portion sectioned off for offices. The basement level, which will be accessed by a “monumental” staircase where schoolchildren will be able to sit and listen to music, holds another 7,700 square feet yet to be built out. The upper floors are finished residential units.

While not at the crossroads as Robert Johnson knew them, the location is premium as it is not quite a half-mile from Beale Street, two blocks from WEVL radio station, and next door to the Memphis Music Foundation.

In plain view across the street sits the National Civil Rights Museum, creating what Sieleman calls “a real synergy between the two African-American cultural institutions,” adding that Blues Hall of Fame inductee Bobby Rush, upon first touring the location, pointed out that “the Civil Rights Museum is going to be here forever, and the Hall of Fame is going to be here forever.”

Executive Director Jay Sieleman of The Blues Foundation shows off a basement area that would be part of the foundation’s capital campaign to add a Blues Hall of Fame to their offices at 421 South Main. (Photo: Lance Murphey)

The façade will become iconic itself along the storefronts of South Main. A blue canopy will cover the glass front of the building and the sidewalk to the street. Beneath it and to one side will sit a bronze statue of Memphian and Blues Hall of Famer Little Milton, resting on a bench to re-create his last album cover before his death in 2005.

On the sidewalk is a mosaic of a piano by local artist Kristi Duckworth surrounding a Blues Highway historical marker. A mural is planned for the southern face of the building as well.

The Blues Hall of Fame was established in 1980 to “preserve blues music history, celebrate recording and performance excellence, support blues education and ensure the future of this uniquely American art form.”

The foundation hosts the annual International Blues Challenge in February and the Blues Music Awards in May, with a total local impact of $5 million, Sieleman said.

While the full amount sought for the Hall of Fame seems daunting to an organization that has relied primarily on its members to support what they love, the advantage, Sieleman noted, is that they are not trying to build an organization at the same time.

“The Blues Foundation is the world’s blues music organization; we have no competition,” Sieleman said. “We are the ones that have been inducting people and recordings into the Hall of Fame since 1980. We’re not creating anything from scratch, we’re not competing with anyone, we’re actually just building out on one of our existing programs.”

The momentum built over time is moving the project along with the speed of a freight train these days.

“A physical Blues Hall of Fame or a museum has been a dream of this organization since its earliest days,” Sieleman said. “At this point, we have the administrative and financial wherewithal, and have had for a number of years, to actually pursue it and doggedly pursue it until we make sure it’s going to happen.”