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The Commercial Appeal featured a great story on the Blues Foundation.

March 8, 2010

Now on firm footing, the Blues Foundation eyes a new physical presence for fans, artists

In the Home of the Blues, the Blues Foundation has its heart set on a home.

The International Blues Challenge is one of several events staged by the Blues Foundation to promote the music. Now, the organization envisions a new building that would be part office, school, interpretive center and hangout for fans and artists.

In the Home of the Blues, the Blues Foundation has its heart set on a home.

Foundation boosters believe blues followers from around the world deserve more than a nickel tour of a decent collection of memorabilia amid the trappings of a small nonprofit organization.

The leadership of executive director Jay Sieleman has re-energized the foundation's presence in Memphis.Photo by Dave Darnell
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The leadership of executive director Jay Sieleman has re-energized the foundation’s presence in Memphis.

They’re not thinking museum or monument, but a visible, physical presence in the community: part school, part interpretive center, part executive office, part hangout for artists and fans.

They say the foundation is finally in position to pursue the dream, thanks to a rebuilding job overseen by executive director Jay Sieleman and activist board members.

Sieleman received a President’s Award this winter for shepherding a foundation that was deep in debt and flirting with moving to Louisiana in 2002.

Since the arrival of Sieleman, an Iowa native and former government lawyer in the Panama Canal Zone, finances, membership and special events have flourished; the board of directors, previously tilted toward industry insiders and fans, has welcomed heavyweights from the Fortune 500 world.

The International Blues Challenge drew 224 bands to Downtown and Beale Street. Newer events, like a FedEx-sponsored international showcase and a youth showcase, are helping to cement the blues’ popularity in a growth market of young people and foreign audiences.

“Jay has done a masterful job of really putting a good financial foundation underneath the feet of this organization,” said Eric Simonsen, a corporate turnaround specialist for AlixPartners and a recent board recruit.

“We’re not going hand to mouth here,” added Simonsen. “It allows us to be able to do some careful planning and be able to move forward in a positive manner and not always look over our shoulder and say, ‘Are the lights going to get turned off tomorrow?'”

Board president Pat Morgan, retired California-Berkeley professor, changed planes in Denver on her way to the Blues Challenge Jan. 20-23.

“The plane was filled with bands and people coming to Memphis for the Blues Challenge, and half of them were kids. That’s what really excites us about living up to our mission, to encourage these kids and provide some resources.”

Morgan, who manages elderly bluesmen Pinetop Perkins and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, said a physical facility is the next step.

“We honor people every year and put them in a Hall of Fame, but we don’t have a hall,” Morgan said.

Kevin Kane, a past president who leads the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, said the recession stopped the foundation from the purchase or long-term leasing of a building last year.

“We look forward to the day when we will have our own facility, a Blues Foundation interpretive center, with an educational component and a space dedicated to past award winners and Hall of Fame honorees,” Kane said. “It will be something people will be able to visit and come in and experience.”

Sieleman said when blues fans come looking for foundation headquarters, some are disappointed to find a decidedly businesslike office on Cotton Row.

On the walls are classic posters from blues events and awards ceremonies and guitars signed by luminaries like the Rolling Stones, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf’s band, but there’s no real tour to be had.

“Memphis touts itself as the Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock and Roll,” Sieleman said. “If there’s currency or credibility in that, perhaps I’m biased, but I say it’s in the Blues Foundation.”

Kane said crucial to a building campaign are board members who combine love for the blues with expertise in business organization, finance, sponsorships, fund-raising and strategic planning.

Newcomers include Steve Bryson, who founded and runs credit card processing firm Global Electronic Technology Inc. in Cypress, Calif..; Craig Ray, a former Mississippi Development Authority tourism official; and Laurie Tucker, senior vice president of corporate marketing at FedEx.

Simonsen, whose recent gigs include chief financial officer of Finland-based giant Nokia Siemens Networks, was volunteering backstage at a Scandinavian blues festival when he met Sieleman. Bryson bought a B.B. King guitar at foundation charity auction and owns a record label, I55 Productions. Ray worked on the Mississippi Blues Trail project to put historic markers in the Delta. Tucker, one of the chief keepers of the FedEx brand, has a 16-year-old son whose Will Tucker Band plays at B.B. King’s on Beale Street.

Sieleman and board members are careful for the time being about how they characterize the building search. They shy away from calling it a capital campaign and say it’s more of an exploratory effort.

Simonsen, finance chairman, said, “I don’t think there’s a thought it’s a museum. It’s more of a destination place where people who love the blues can hang out and meet one another, where people can come do research and visit.”

Bryson, who grew up here and attended Kingsbury High, believes the permanent home can create more appreciation of the blues in its hometown and serve as a vehicle to improve the lives of blues musicians.

“Blues musicians are part of the American tradition, and they need to be protected,” Bryson said. “My goal in becoming a member was to go out and raise money but to make sure we’re taking care of the musicians, that we’re putting money in health care, that we’re taking care of the people.”

Reflecting on ups and downs of the foundation’s 30-plus years, Bryson added, “In my humble opinion, the Blues Foundation should have a home that rivals Graceland, and should have had it a long time ago.”

Blues Foundation: On a roll

Leader: Executive director Jay Sieleman

Location: 49 Union

Budget: $789,645 in expenses in year ending Sept. 30

Bank account: More than $300,000 in reserves, compared to $150,000 in debt in 2002

Membership: 3,575, up from 1,000 to 1,500

Affiliated blues societies: 185, up from 115

Employees: Two full-time, one part-time, down from six

Upcoming events: Blues Hall of Fame induction, May 4, Marriott; Blues Music Awards, May 5, Memphis Cook Convention Center; International Blues Challenge, Feb. 2-5, 2011, Beale Street

Web site: blues.org

—Wayne Risher: 529-2874

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deltabluz#412507 writes:
The Blues Foundation has hundred of guitars, posters, and uncategorizable “stuff” that fans never see because there is nowhere to show it. If the BF wants to stage an event, it has to find a place to do it. A larger building with a performance space and information center would definitely be an asset to Downtown, Memphis, and the entire Mid-South.

Every day there are visitors from all over the world who come to Memphis, Arkansas, and Mississippi to visit sites associated with their musical and cultural heroes. A first stop at the Blues Foundation could be the entry point for tourists bound for destinations as varied as Stax and Sun to Tutwiler and Helena.

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