One of the oldest organizations to celebrate African Americans in the arts turns 40

Plans to honor founder and other celebs
Published: Dec. 15, 2022 at 9:10 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - One of the oldest organizations to support African Americans in the arts is turning 40 this year and they’re planning a huge celebration.

Saturday night the Memphis Black Arts Alliance will honor some of the biggest names in the arts with ties to the Bluff City such as producer Boo Mitchell, actress Elise Neal and playwright and television executive producer Katori Hall.

The Memphis Black Arts Alliance has humble beginnings and still makes a major impact.

The organization is located inside an old building on South Bellevue that was built to house a single fire truck in the early 1900′s but was converted in 1982 to house some of the biggest creative minds in the Bluff City.

The Memphis Black Arts Alliance is often called the Firehouse Community Arts Center, the brainchild of founder Bennie Nelson West.

West is a vocalist by trade, but took the old garage in the Fire House and converted it into a dance studio and recruited some of the biggest and brightest names in the Memphis arts community to teach future artists.

WDIA and Stax recording artist Rufus Thomas taught tap dance at the center, his daughter Carla Thomas led vocal classes and artist George Hunt used space upstairs as a studio.

“When we started and the reason it’s called an alliance is because there were several different art organizations that existed, but they were in silos and weren’t necessarily connecting,” said West.

Today about 50 arts organizations fall under the Memphis Black Arts Alliance.

“If they call on us, we’re like ‘yes’ whatever we can do to help you. If we have to provide community space to do casting or rehearsal or if it’s helping them to find band members of singers,” said Executive director Lar’Juanette Williams who is now leading the charge to continue the vision of its founder.

Williams says the most important programming is reaching the youth in this city.

MBAA raises money to pay professional artists to go into the school system and teach in underserved communities that have dramatically cut their budget for the arts.

“When arts start decreasing, crime started increasing,” said Williams. The alliance boasts of training about 50,000 children in the arts such as future dancers, singers, and actors artists.. who may go on to do all types of great things.

“First of all, we are all creative beings. We were created,” said West.

The Memphis Black Arts Alliance Legacy Ball will be Saturday night, December 17th at the Halloran Theater at 7 p.m.

Bluff City Life host Gina Neely will be serving as emcee.

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