Reviewing his calendar, H. Beecher Hicks III could only chuckle at what the date implied for the superstitious side in all of us: Friday, March 13, 2020. The day that worked overtime to upend the past decade of Hicks’ professional life.
In the early workday hours, Hicks held a meeting to tell staff that their board had agreed to terms of a bridge loan. By lunchtime, the bank rang. It was time to renegotiate terms. The price on the payments had gone up, and the collateral requirements were higher. The cause? Covid-19.
“By the afternoon, I was in full-fledged crisis mode trying to fix everything to keep it from coming undone,” said Hicks, CEO of the National Museum of African American Music. “That was a pretty tough day. I think for a month or so, I had several tough days like that.”
The pandemic was another setback for a project seemingly fueled by them. It pushed back the opening date — previously set for Labor Day — by four months.
But through what Hicks describes as sheer will, determination and tenacity, this $60 million project — more than two decades since it was first imagined — has prevailed. The museum held its ribbon-cutting ceremony on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and officially opens to the public on Jan. 30. It adds a unique offering to Music City’s beleagured tourism industry, one that could attract tourists and locals alike.
Like the music, people and heritage the museum represents and celebrates, the struggle to get here has been evident, but worth the wait for Hicks.
“We had to turn up the tenacity one more level and try to keep pushing,” Hicks said. “Fortunately, what has been a very pleasant surprise is that the donors have really stepped up as well. In some of our darkest moments we’ve raised the most money. Right at the beginning of Covid, in that March to May timeframe, we probably raised the most money of any 90-day period of time. I think people were at home and had the ability to focus on things that would ordinarily take longer.
“People also saw that we were in the construction phase, and needed to push to keep things going, so they gave it. Sometimes without asking, and if we did have to ask, we didn’t have to twist arms. It’s really been a gratifying thing to push through.”
As one of the anchor tenants of the sprawling Fifth + Broadway development, the 56,000-square-foot museum is being billed as the only museum in the world dedicated to preserving and celebrating more than 50 music genres and styles that were created, influenced or inspired by African Americans, including spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, R&B and hip-hop.
With more than 1,500 artifacts, objects, memorabilia and clothing, along with state-of-the-art technology, each of the museum’s seven galleries is designed to share a different narrative and unique perspective on African American music and history.
“The concept of the museum is to demonstrate, highlight and celebrate the impact of African Americans on music,” said Kevin Lavender, a Fifth Third Bancorp executive vice president who serves as the museum’s board chairman. “Even though the name of our museum is the National Museum of African American Music, the hook for me — and what I always tell people about the project — is that this museum is not only going to highlight African American music, but it’s going to highlight the influence that we’ve had on rock ‘n’ roll, the Beatles, Elvis Presley — you name a group.”
Doubt fell on deaf ears
Hicks heard the doubters, but he never bought into what they were peddling. Outside of a few key board members, Hicks recalls the museum having more detractors than supporters during his early days as CEO, a role he took on in 2013, after a career that included stints in investment banking, management consulting and private equity.
“I never thought they were right,” Hick said. “I always had supreme confidence that this was the right thing to do, and Nashville was the right place to do it. “
While large sums of money ultimately fund projects like these, Hicks found confidence in the smallest of donations.
“Every now and then I would come into the office and get a check for $5.47 from somebody,” Hicks said. “That told me we were going in the right direction.”
Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Corp., joked that he’s the last original board member left on the project.
“It took longer than any of us thought. But it was a journey worth taking, and worth the trials and tribulations,” Spyridon said. “It’s one of those projects that’s been left for dead more times than I can count, but there were enough good people to get it done.
“All of that worked to our benefit because where it is today, it could not be any better for the museum to be successful and to make a statement about our Music City brand. Timing was never in our favor, but perseverance paid off.”
The record-scratch moment
Depending on who you ask, the project first became an idea in the late 1990s. As Hicks tells it, Francis S. Guess and Dr. T.B. Boyd III hatched the plan in 1998, before taking it to the Nashville chamber for a feasibility study. The result of that report, Hicks said, was that the project would be “tough to do, but would be well received.”
Fundraising issues early on, 9/11, a recession and disagreements on where the museum should be located — early plans called for it to be built on Jefferson Street as a catalyst for that historically Black area — added to the delays.
But chief among those issues was landing on a final focus for the museum. From inception to building a museum, Hicks said the process can take anywhere from 10 to 15 years. This museum, Hicks said, was originally to be called the “Museum of African American Music, Art & Culture,” with a focus on sports, fine arts, politics, music and more.
But when he joined the board in 2010, Hicks noticed a common theme during the meetings of his first year: All the conversations revolved around music.
“Building a cultural institution, it needs to fit the city. It needs to fit the place where it’s going to be,” Hick said. “That’s what the name change allowed it to do. By focusing solely on music, it matched the city’s brand and messaging.”
Once the group honed in on music, Hicks noticed more buy-in from city and state officials, as well as from donors.
From there, Hicks said support snowballed. More people began to give more money as they saw others backing the concept.
But there was one final hook necessary: educational and community programming that could illustrate the museum’s mission.
Dubbed the “Museum Without Walls,” NMAAM rolled out “Sips and Stanzas,” a monthly panel discussion, and “From Nothing to Something,” an interactive educational series that exposes young and old to the ingenuity of African Americans through music.
“Those things were more important to donors than a building,” Hicks said. “Those things justified the building. Those things said there’s a place in the community for this, there’s a niche, there’s a need that’s being met, there’s an audience that you’re speaking to. Before I’m going to support your building, I need to support the initiative or the educational point you’re trying to make. … Once we started that, we had constituents and people who cared. From there, we just had to carry on and get the building done.”
Amid covid, the beat goes on
Hicks said the museum will operate in a financially responsible manner, with the ultimate goal being to “find a way to break even or better.” Hicks said the museum will soon begin its capital campaign efforts to grow the museum’s endowment to ensure the organization’s long-term stability.
Pre-Covid, Hicks hoped the museum would attract 400,000 visitors per year. Now, he estimates it’ll be 2022 before the organization sees those kinds of numbers, but he is optimistic they’ll get there.
“The museum offers a walk through American music history for ages 8 through 80,” Hicks said. “It’s both technology rich as well as artifact heavy. Whether you like to read it and see it, or you like to play it with a controller or a touchscreen, it’s all here.”
Downtown Nashville is known for its honky-tonks and country music. But Hicks believes the museum can help provide a cultural shift that brings more locals to the downtown corridor, while continuing to build on Nashville’s strong reputation with the millions of visitors who flock to Music City each year.
“From a perception perspective, it says to locals that everyone is welcome downtown,” Hicks said. “It says to tourists that this is a place that is truly Music City. You can go to the Country Music Hall of Fame if that’s your thing. You can go to the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. You can go to NMAAM if that’s your thing. And you can do all three if all three are your thing, so we’re just offering more of what Music City is.”
Spyridon and his team at the Visitors Corp. have already incorporated the museum into the marketing of the city, making it the cover of the group’s past two vacation guides.
The museum has already garnered national attention. Nashville checked in on Travel & Leisure’s top 50 places to visit in 2021, with the museum being touted as one of the top reasons to travel to Music City. This month, the museum was written up by The New York Times and CBS News.
Spyridon believes this adds to Nashville’s already impressive list of offerings from a convention and entertainment standpoint. No other place, he says, can offer a museum like this, the honky-tonks, the history of the Ryman Auditorium and more in one entertainment district.
Lavender echoes those sentiments.
“For me, this puts an exclamation point on our moniker of Music City,” Lavender said. “This shows that the city is truly committed to all genres of music. We’re a diverse city. We’re a city that takes a lot of pride in being collegial with each other, and we have a lot of history here. We’re hopeful this can further the diversification of Nashville in general as a place to live, a place to come to school and a place to come have fun.”
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