Memphis’ WPA-built band shell in Overton Park has reached back to the 1930s to reclaim its name – Overton Park Shell – while looking to its future with a 21st century focus – equity and creative placemaking.

It is classic, modern Memphis: celebrating the past while leveraging it to set a stronger foundation for a diverse city’s future.

The importance of equity is surfacing more and more when it comes to parks and their facilities, particularly Overton Park, Tom Lee Park and the riverfront, and Shelby Farms Park. 

That the renamed Overton Park Shell is anchoring its future on a foundation of equity is an exclamation point on its importance to our community.  “It’s a new chapter about how equity and inclusivity is at the heart of every decision and the heart of our mission,” said Executive Director Natalie Wilson.

Putting The Pandemic To Good Use

Reeling from the pandemic, Overton Park Shell was like many nonprofit organizations, facing financial disruptions they never could have envisioned as revenues vanished along with live performances. 

The Shell was dark for 19 months.

That was the bad news.

The good news is that the staff and board took the down time of the pandemic as the opportunity to conduct a comprehensive review of all that it was doing – its finances, its programming, its branding, and most of all, its mission and purpose.

“The financial challenges forced changes,” said Ms. Wilson. “Nonprofits have chapters of growth. We had built a brand on giving music to Memphis – it’s now first and foremost a stage for Memphis music – but we saw an opportunity to do more.  (Financial) sustainability is at the heart of everything but as a public gathering place owned by the public, we had an ethical, moral responsibility to look even deeper.”

Armed with this priority, Overton Park Shell is entering a new era in which inclusivity and equity have become the key measurements of success, as determined by the 31 members of the Overton Park Shell’s board, who Ms. Wilson describes as “people with great minds who came together around this mission.”

Still Standing

The Shell was one of about 26 band shells built by the WPA (Works Progress Administration) in the late 1930s to put about 8.5 million Americans back to work in the bleakest years of the Great Depression.  It was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and its public works project provided work to thousands of actors, musicians, writers, and other artists.

Today, Memphis’ Shell is the only one of its kind still in active use.  Many have succumbed to a fate like the one in Detroit which was bulldozed to make way for an Amazon distribution facility.  A few stand unused in parks where they are treated a curious historic relics.

It could have happened here.  In the 1980s, there were suggestions in Memphis that the Shell should be removed so a parking lot could be put there.

“The Shell was constructed for $14,000 ($282,000 today) to build positivity, unity, and trust through the arts, and coming out of the pandemic, we decided it can do that again” said Ms. Wilson, who said those values will motivate the venue in the future.  “It’s about how can the Shell be a place of dialogue that produces hope and unity.”

Levitt Foundation To The Rescue

At a time when the Shell’s future was again in question, the Levitt Foundation in 2005 provided seed funding to repair it and reopen it in 2008 as the Levitt Shell, where there ultimately would be more than 600 concerts attracting close to one million people.  “The Levitt Foundation saved the Shell, and their support allows the Shell to embark on this new era and become independent.  We can’t say enough about how important the Levitt Foundation has been to us and to Memphis,” said Ms. Wilson.

As a result of the board’s reimagination of what the Shell could be, it will build a “diversified funding model” with new lines of funding with more concerts in the future with an overriding emphasis on Memphis music.  NexAir, a Memphis company that provides gas and welding supplies for the Southeast U.S., will remain as a presenting sponsor. 

The creative placemaking focus is about the Overton Park Shell harnessing the power of arts and culture to drive more authentic, genuine public engagement, particularly with low-income neighborhoods and minority communities.  At its essence, it involves artists directly in meaningful, creative discussions that can lead to more effective and accessible arts and culture. 

“It requires us going to the community and listening,” said Ms. Wilson.

Taking It To The Streets

With equity and accessibility in mind, the Shell will launch Shell on Wheels.  “It’s a mobile shell that we’re building now and hopefully will be ready to go by fall,” she said.  “It’s a 21 foot truck with a stage designed to amplify the voices of Memphis creatives.”

Already, 16 arts groups have signed on as partners to provide popup concerts and other events at schools and neighborhoods. Shell on Wheels can also be rented for special events.  “We are so excited to have arts partnerships that will be all about how the arts can change your life,” she said.  

In addition, she’s especially excited by how the Overton Park Shell, rooted in the music of Memphis and sustained by Memphians, will be a key part of Overton Park as it continues its  evolution.  “It’s Memphis true urban park and it’s about how we can support it,” said Ms. Wilson.  “It is transformative green space.”

As a result, the Shell is looking for even deeper collaborations with Overton Park Conservancy to create the 21st century version of the 116-year-old park’s 342 acres. 

New leadership at the Memphis Zoo has brought solutions to protecting 2.4 acres of the greensward from zoo parking and transferring 17 acres of the Old Forest State Natural Area back to the Overton Park Conservancy.  The former Memphis College of Art will be renovated and house the underappreciated but deserving more attention Metal Museum.  It might also house the kind of offices that the Conservancy deserves.  The golf course is undergoing a $5 million reimagination.  Memphis Brooks Museum of Arts awaits a new use and executing the Conservancy’s parkwide master plan promises continued improvements.     

In other words, it’s hard to imagine a better time for the Overton Park Shell to become a key piece in this emerging park puzzle and to become a force for equity and creative placemaking. 

Most of all, its new era is no longer about surviving but now is all about thriving. 


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