VOL. 130 | NO. 198 | Monday, October 12, 2015
By LANCE WIEDOWER
When Barbara Newman took over as president and CEO of The Blues Foundation, it was her first job in the music industry.
Barbara B. Newman is The Blues Foundation’s new president and CEO. She takes the reins of the organization which opened its new public face – the Blues Hall of Fame – in May.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
But to be clear, Newman’s path has been pointing to the position since she was a child meeting musical icons such as Duke Ellington and Leonard Bernstein.
Her grandfather’s twin brother was a session player in Muscle Shoals, Ala., and at Stax, where he was a violinist on Isaac Hayes’ classic “Shaft.” He also was a charter member of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.
And a young Newman was a witness to it all.
“From the time I was really young, that music piece was important to me,” said Newman, who replaced the retiring Jay Sieleman Oct. 1. “I was raised with it. But it wasn’t a path I planned for myself.”
Today, Newman leads The Blues Foundation to further its mission to preserve blues history, celebrate recording and performance excellence, support education and expand appreciation, awareness and enjoyment of the art.
The public facing piece of that mission is the Blues Hall of Fame, which opened in May in the storefront of the foundation’s South Main Historic Arts District office. The hall has existed since the 1980s, but only this year has a physical home where it helps support the foundation’s educational mission.
“By having a footprint where people can engage with the blues, it will give the opportunity for that music to be preserved and for people to experience it in a live setting,” Newman said. “I see the Blues Hall of Fame as a key point of preserving history.”
More than 350 performers, industry professionals, recordings and literature have been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Having the physical presence, at 421 S. Main St. across the street from the National Civil Rights Museum, gives the foundation an important opportunity to honor these contributors while educating visitors on music’s impact.
“Being directly across from the Civil Rights Museum, visitors can learn about the struggle then walk across the street to hear the music of the struggle,” Newman said. “But just because it’s called the blues doesn’t mean it’s sad and oppressive. People who haven’t taken the time to listen because they think it’s sad music, when they hear it they want to engage in the music. That’s part of the education process.”
Newman grew up in Memphis. After graduating from Brown University she went to work in New York City at National Westminster Bank USA. She went through the loan officer development program and moved along a path that gave her experience in corporate finance.
She left work when her children were born, and in 1989 she and her husband, Bruce Newman, decided to move the family to Memphis.
Barbara Newman moved into the business side of the restaurant industry before taking over as executive director of Beth Sholom Synagogue, where her responsibilities included financial administration, communications, human resources and facility management.
She left the synagogue in the spring, knowing she wanted to continue working in the nonprofit sector. She became aware of the position at The Blues Foundation and realized everything she had done in her career up to that point made it a natural fit.
Newman and her husband have spent the past 15 years producing fundraising concerts throughout the community, giving her even more industry experience that made the move to The Blues Foundation logical.
Her mission today begins at the board level as they take a deeper strategic look at how the museum can continue reaching a broader spectrum of the public.
“Jay was able to solidify plans to position us for growth and getting the Hall of Fame was a great final accomplishment before he was ready to retire,” Newman said. “Now it’s looking at who does The Blues Foundation want to be in the next five years and how are we able to expand so people know we’re here and how to engage with us.”
The next year will see the organization focusing on continuing that legacy Sieleman put in place as Newman and the board create a strategic plan for the future.
“One of the concerns we want to address is our own city is not aware of who we are and what we do,” she said. “Having the museum where you can’t miss us when you walk down South Main is important. We want to work with the city so they know we’re here. We have an obligation to our city that’s our home as well as to blues music throughout the world.”