An Interview with Tuwisha Rogers-Simpson, Vice President of Brand & Partnerships, National Museum of African American Music
Tell me the museum’s origin story.
NMAAM originally started twenty years ago as an idea from Nashville civic leader Francis Guess, who, after attending a charity gala at the home of baseball legend Hank Aaron, was inspired to bring a cultural institution celebrating African Americans to Nashville. Francis and his friend T.B. Boyd created the African American History Foundation of Nashville and began discussing the prospect of a museum with city leaders and community members.
In 2001, a taskforce formed by the chamber of commerce chartered the Museum of African American Music, Art, and Culture (renamed to National Museum of African American Music in 2011). This coincided with Nashville’s aspiration to broaden its image and attract a more diverse group of visitors. City officials included the museum in the $450 million Fifth + Broadway development, ultimately gifting 56,000 square feet of space in the building to the museum.
In 2019 – the same year former Nashville Mayor David Briley and Hicks signed the lease for the museum’s home – support began to snowball. In just six weeks, NMAAM received nearly $12 million in donations from organizations like Music City Center and Vanderbilt University.
What key events/moments were pivotal in getting you to this point in bringing the museum to life?
This is the perfect moment in time to open an institution like NMAAM, the only museum in the United States dedicated to the rich musical history of African Americans. The Black American experience has always been a vital part of our country’s history and future. The score that has been birthed in the process has always been a relevant narrative to share. Given today’s environment, the opportunity to educate and celebrate the impact that African American music has on society today and in the future is imperative. It is the soundtrack of change and will continue to bring people together.
How has COVID-19 impacted your opening plans?
The pandemic has had a big impact on every part of the museum – from construction to programming. NMAAM takes the health and safety of the community very seriously, so our grand opening had to be pushed to later this fall. We are looking forward to having a grand opening worthy of this cultural milestone and the past 20 years of work towards bringing the museum to life. Meanwhile, we are keeping NMAAM members engaged and updated through virtual town halls.
In what ways are you considering enhancing or pivoting your exhibitions from in-person to virtual?
Virtual engagement is a part of the NMAAM experience; we have always envisioned offering a variety of ways to engage with our programs and exhibits given the rich vastness of the subject. During COVID-19, we have leaned into our “Museum Without Walls” programming and are offering virtual discussions that leverage artist and history and reflect the narrative of our exhibits. Our signature “From Nothing to Something” program is being offered on our social media platforms. We have also partnered with Amazon, BET, National Urban League, and others to hold insightful conversations around the intersectionality of music and social justice.
We plan to continue maintaining a virtual programmatic presence so we may remain connected to our audiences everywhere in a meaningful way.
How has the pandemic impacted fundraising efforts?
While the pandemic has put a slight hold on NMAAM’s grand opening plans, I am happy to say that we’re still meeting our fundraising goals despite having to change how we conduct fundraising efforts. We came into the pandemic with a strong position — over the last several years, NMAAM successfully executed a capital campaign and raised nearly $60 million to support our opening. We have been able to continue to allocate funds according to donor intent to continue museum construction.
How has staffing been impacted?
Fortunately, NMAAM’s staffing levels haven’t changed due to the pandemic. Additionally, in keeping with recommended social distancing protocols, we have provided museum employees with the option of working from home.
What forms of support do you need right now?
What excites you most about the museum opening its doors?
I strongly believe we will exceed everyone’s expectations, from the seamless use of technology of the RFID bracelets, which can capture visitors’ interactive experience, to life-like music moment takeovers in our Rhythms of River exhibit, to sharing both the stories that are well known and those that are not commonly told. This is truly an unparalleled experience and the opportunity to tell our, the African American, the American story in an impactful way. Most of all, I can’t wait to see the look on a child’s face as they take in all the history and possibilities!