Museum for blues on move in St. Louis

Museum for blues on move in St. Louis
November 3, 2011
by Wayne Risher
The Commercial Appeal

High-rollers partied at the Peabody two weeks ago in a fund-raiser for a world-class blues museum in a historic downtown building.

It happened in St. Louis, where downtown boosters donated profits from an annual gala to a planned National Blues Museum. The venue: a newly restored Peabody Opera House, the former Kiel Opera House, repurposed in a naming rights partnership with Peabody Energy.

While Memphis bemoans the Folk Alliance International's announced move to Kansas City, St. Louis appears to be gaining ground on another music-related front: creating a blues museum to celebrate the Delta-born art form and pull in visitors.

The Show Me State's blues museum development parallels the Memphis-based Blues Foundation's effort to create a Blues Music Hall of Fame at 421 S. Main.

Both groups have been laying behind-the-scenes groundwork for capital campaigns, shooting for about $3 million in Memphis and $13 million in St. Louis. Neither has gone public with fund-raising, although St. Louis is touting a 2013 opening.

A St. Louis blues museum was proposed in 2003, went dormant and was revived by the 2010 advent of Blues Week. The series of concerts and workshops leads into Labor Day weekend's annual Big Muddy Blues Festival.

The Blues Foundation Hall of Fame has been operating in Memphis 30 years, but has never had a bricks-and-mortar museum to display the honors accorded to artists, songs and industry figures.

Organizers in Memphis and St. Louis see their attractions coexisting peacefully, even feeding off each other.

"I certainly think there's room for both," said Kevin Kane, Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau president and longtime Blues Foundation backer. "I think what we're doing is apples and oranges. We are the living, breathing Blues Hall of Fame that is recognized by musicians all the way to their obituaries."

"Theirs is a community effort to capitalize on their blues heritage, which I think is smart, and I think the timing of it is a little coincidental. We're moving forward with something we've basically been doing for 30 years."

A Blues Music Hall of Fame would fit in with Memphis Mayor A C Wharton's City of Choice initiative.

"As part of the City of Choice, we are focusing on those areas where we are first, best or only. Memphis is the Home of the Blues. While we haven't seen a concrete proposal yet, we are strongly supportive of the Blues Foundation's efforts," said Wharton, who is scheduled to be in St. Louis Friday wooing the Church of God in Christ to return its annual convocation to Memphis.

Memphis firm Design 500 and the architectural firm archimania presented preliminary plans for the Blues Music Hall of Fame in September. The exhibit would occupy about 10,000 square feet on street and basement levels of the Hotline Records Building on South Main.

Dawne Massey, project director, said the National Blues Museum's focus would be broad. "We want to tell the whole story of the blues: St. Louis, Memphis, Delta, Chicago, West Coast."

Massey said the museum gained traction after Mike Kociela of Entertainment St. Louis got behind it. "St. Louis has a really rich blues heritage, as well as Memphis. We're on the Blues Highway too."

Massey worked at the Memphis CVB before leaving for St. Louis 17 years ago. "We totally know that a lot of great music in this part of the country goes all up and down the river."

The St. Louis museum got a boost when Spinnaker St. Louis asked the museum to occupy 23,000 square feet of a former Dillard's Department Store at 601 Washington. Spinnaker's Mercantile Exchange project has converted upper floors into an Embassy Suites Hotel and apartments.

Noted music museum consultant Bob Santelli, whose credits include the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles, Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Seattle's Experience Music Project, is a volunteer, Massey said.

Museum designer is Gallagher & Associates, which created designs or master plans for museums including the Grammy Museum, the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Miss., and the Bethel Woods (N.Y.) Center for the Arts, also known as the Woodstock museum.

Massey said National Blues Museum fund-raising is "on the edge" of going public.

Kane said the Blues Music Hall of Fame is focusing on insiders before taking its appeal public. "The train has left the station, so to speak. We're going to take probably a year to raise the money."
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