Spotlight on the Bessie Smith Cultural Center
Gallery exhibits---like this one of work by artist Aaron Henderson---are just one of the many programs that take place at Chattanooga's Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Photo courtesy of BSCC
"We... never know if the next Carmen De Lavallade, Jacob Lawrence, or Wynton Marsalis is in our midst." --- Carmen J. Davis
At the turn of the 20th century, Chattanooga, Tennessee's Ninth Street---now M.L. King Boulevard---was the heart of the city's African-American community. Though the area has faced many challenges over the years, thanks to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center (BSCC), the city's artistic heart is still going strong. Named for blues icon Bessie Smith---a Chattanooga native---over time BSCC has evolved from a history museum to a museum that engages its community across a wide range of arts and culture disciplines, including, of course, music! We spoke with BSCC Curator and Programming Director Carmen J. Davis to learn more about the center, its namesake, and why the arts work in Chattanooga!
NEA: What are the history and mission of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center?
CARMEN J. DAVIS: The mission of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is to become the premier interdisciplinary cultural center that promotes cultural, educational, and artistic excellence and fosters research and education of African and African-American heritage; and provides a venue that allows the community to celebrate through education, art, and entertainment.
The Bessie Smith Cultural Center has been hosting exhibits & events and welcoming people through its doors since 1983. Our events have included the visual arts---from traditional realism to abstract expressionism, musical themes that are educational and participatory, and an exploration of the cultural life of African Americans.
NEA: Can you say something about who Bessie Smith was, her connection to Chattanooga, and why the center's named for her?
DAVIS: Bessie Smith is known as “The Empress of the Blues.” She was raised in Chattanooga and got her start at the age of eight singing and dancing on the street corners for money to help support herself and her siblings. Eventually she would earn a spot in Ma Rainey’s vaudeville act and would go on to her own claim of fame with the success of “St. Louis Blues.” Aretha Franklin, Mahalia Jackson, and Janis Joplin are some of the musicians who cite Bessie Smith as one of their greatest musical influences.
As a result of an extensive strategic planning process and to generate an overall awareness of what the one entity offers to Chattanooga, surrounding areas, and the southeastern region, the Chattanooga African American Museum/Bessie Smith Performance Hall was renamed the Bessie Smith Cultural Center (African American Museum & Performance Hall) in 2009. The center is referred to as “The Bessie.”
NEA: What's your role at BSCC? How long have you been there, and what excites you about your job?
DAVIS: I came to the Bessie Smith Cultural Center in 2001as a new college graduate to volunteer while looking for a job in what was my field of study in college (advertising). The then-executive director, Vilma Fields, hired me a week into my volunteer stint as the marketing director. Since then I have served in several capacities, and currently I am the programming director and curator.
I know I was destined to do this job from a very young age. Growing up, when we would travel, my mother always sought out the history and art museums in whatever city we visited, not the amusement parks (much to my dismay). She also always made it a point for me to take classes in various disciplines in the visual and performing arts as well as provided me the chance to see live productions and performances when they would come to Chattanooga and the surrounding areas. I still get emotional every time I see Revelations performed by the Alvin Ailey dance company. Nothing moves you like the arts.
My job changes every day, and that is what I love about it. This week alone I had an exhibition installation and de-installation, confirmed a vocalist for a future [event], finished reports for a grant, spoke with a former New York City Ballet ballerina about hosting future master classes at our facility, worked on the details for an out-of-town excursion for our joint African-American art collectors and supporters group with the Hunter Museum, updated our web site, and confirmed a visual artist residency sponsored by the BSCC with a local Title One school’s visual arts program, and it is only Tuesday.
NEA: Please describe some of the ongoing programs at BSCC, such as the Songbook series and Heritage Festival, for example. What are they and how do they serve BSCC's mission?
DAVIS: In 2008, the Bessie Smith Heritage Festival (BSHF) was coordinated by the Chattanooga African American Museum (now Bessie Smith Cultural Center) with the sole purpose of promoting African-American culture. This program celebrates the richness, diversity, and worldwide influence of African culture through jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, and soul performances as well as visual art presentations.
The Songbook series is a monthly music series taking place in the Bessie Smith Performance Hall one Sunday of each month (except for August and December). The main goal of the Songbook series is to showcase the African-American musical heritage that was once so prominent on Ninth Street (now Martin Luther King Boulevard) using local and regional talent through a series of educational and entertaining performances that highlight blues, gospel, jazz, neo-soul, and rhythm and blues. The BSCC has teamed up with local performing arts troupe the Creative Underground, Chattanooga School for the Performing Arts, Dexter Bell, and Joe Johnson to secure talent to produce this series. Through these partnerships the BSCC has presented Songbooks that paid tribute to Wayman Tisdale, Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin, and Women in Jazz to name a few.
NEA: I know that you currently have an exhibit of work by Ross Oscar Knight. Who is he, why did you select his work, and what do you hope people take away from the show?
DAVIS: A Morehouse College and Georgia Tech graduate, Ross Oscar Knight began his professional career as an electrical engineer at NASA, General Motors, and the Southern Company. He left corporate America in 2006 to venture full-time into photography. Ever mindful of the sensitivity his own mixed ancestral ties carry; he found a niche documenting the love stories of interracial couples.
Subsequently, he began shooting internationally to quench his insatiable thirst for culture and to gain a better understanding of his clients’ customs/traditions. Both Oprah Winfrey and CNN took notice of his work as well as millions of viewers turned supporters across the globe. In 2010, he began showcasing his fine art images from Africa, the Caribbean, India, Thailand, Japan, and Central/South America. He coined the term “the photoculturalist” to describe himself as both a photographer and a student of culture.
The show Beauty in the Face of Destruction features images from Knight’s travels around the world but mostly to Haiti. The images in this series tell a story of the life and culture of Haiti beyond the stained image of destruction left from a magnitude seven earthquake. The disaster only illustrates a piece of Haiti’s story, while Knight's images offer a different perspective into the culture and spirit of its people. Knight has provided short stories to…put [the viewer] in the moments leading up to or after the photo. His desire to expose the audience to cultures other than their own was the main reason why I selected this particular show and hope the audience takes away the beauty he was able to find even after such a horrific event.
NEA: We usually ask what's the role of the artist in the community, and I'm going to tweak that to ask what the role is of the arts organization in the community.
DAVIS: In my dual role as curator and programming director what has been made perfectly clear to me is something that ballerina Aesha Ash said some years ago, "The power of imagery; how what we don't see is equally powerful as what we do see." In the Bessie Smith Cultural Center's 29-year history, we have continually presented visual and performing artists who exhibit cultural, educational, and artistic excellence. The role of the BSCC is to address the cultural void and broaden the diversity of cultural offerings in the area. If I am an inner-city, African-American child who loves to dance but I have never seen a professional ballerina who looks like me it leads me to believe that being a ballerina is not an option for me.
NEA: What's been your favorite program/project at the center to date?
DAVIS: My favorite program as a curator at the BSCC was the closing reception for Works by Duncan, which featured an artist talk by Isaac Duncan and his mentor Richard Hunt. I enjoy our artist talks because they allow the community to understand the process that these artists utilize to create their pieces, which often leads to a deeper appreciation from the audience members for the artist and artwork. I also enjoy the fact that audience members get to see living and breathing artists. Often times there is a disconnect when one goes to a museum to look at artwork, but these artist talks give the pieces a very real human touch. Plus how often can one say that they had an opportunity to mingle with Richard Hunt, a man who is considered to be one of the African-American masters in the visual arts arena.
NEA: Overall, what do you hope the public takes away from a visit to BSCC or participation in a BSCC program?
DAVIS: A motto that I often place on my personal Facebook page is “support the arts; it is what the cool people do.” That is what I hope people take away whenever they visit an exhibition or come to a performing arts event at the BSCC. There is a reason why many of our exhibits feature living artists and [why] we make it clear that the pieces you see are available for purchase. We want to support these artists while they are living. We do still also have exhibits that feature many of the masters but most of the masters are no longer with us. There is also a reason why we offer free and/or reduced lessons in African dance and drumming, tap, ballet, piano, guitar, theater, etc. to children who come from backgrounds that often make it impossible to afford those lessons on their own. If these children are exposed to the arts at a young age, that appreciation will carry on with them throughout their adult life, creating life-long art enthusiasts. We also never know if the next Carmen De Lavallade, Jacob Lawrence, or Wynton Marsalis is in our midst.
NEA: At the NEA, we believe "Art Works." What's your take on what that phrase means?
DAVIS: Art works because it awakens the imagination, inspires people to create, and influences so many aspects of our lives. Art works because whether you are the consumer or the creator of the artwork; it influences people and allows them to think in different terms.