Curtain Call

National Black Theater Museum proposed for Memphis

Midwest News Preservation
The 100-year-old Brooks Museum building may soon change hands and become the National Black Theater Museum. (Kevin Barre Photography/Memphis Brooks Museum of Art)

It has only been a few short months since the Memphis, Tennessee, Brooks Museum of Art announced it was considering a move from its current home to the proposed Mississippi riverfront cultural center. The city is now listening to ideas to fill the historic 1916 building, and the proposal is for the National Black Theater Museum. Spearheaded by the local Hattiloo Theater, the museum hopes to bring together at least four other theater programs from across the country.

The building the Brooks Museum is currently housed in, located in Overton Park, is in need of extensive renovation, including environmental updates to preserve the art inside. It has been estimated that it would cost upwards of $80 million for necessary fixes, and the building would still not address additional space needs for the museum’s growing collection.

The proposed National Black Theater Museum would take the building in a new direction by focusing on interactive digital installations rather than displaying fine art. The basis for the museum is a mobile gallery formed by Hattiloo in 2010, yet the proposed institution will take on a much grander presence. Four black theater organizations have pledged support, and have expressed interest in moving their institutions to the new Memphis museum. These include the Baltimore-based Black Theatre Commons, Washington, D.C.–based August Wilson Society, St. Paul, Minnesota–based Black Theatre Association, as well as the Lorton, Virginia–based Black Theatre Network. Memphis’s own Rhodes College is also getting involved, with the possibility of expanding its Africana Studies and Performing Arts departments. Additionally, a private donor has committed to a gift of $350,000 help establish the museum.

While the museum is the first proposal to be presented, the city will be hearing other ideas for the Brooks Museum building for the next 90 days. If the National Black Theater Museum proposal is accepted, Memphians will have access to 500 years of digitized manuscripts and archives, from African dance through Academy Award–winning films.

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