New name and ambitions for historic event venue

Overton Park’s historic event venue has a new name.

The Shell first opened in 1936, and has cycled through periods of popularity, disrepair, and revitalization throughout the decades. Its most recent renaissance—beginning in 2008—has introduced major technical and aesthetic improvements.

Live concerts have drawn neighbors from different areas of the city, but making admission free didn’t remove the barriers many Memphians still face to participate in Shell events.

Executive Director Natalie Wilson and her team have led a focused effort over the past few years to increase Memphians' accessibility to programming at the Shell. That means numerous changes, including taking the Shell on the road.

When did conversations about the name change start? Why was it necessary?

We started really talking about this in discernment with the board [in 2019]. We just started looking at the financial stability of the organization. There's still about $4 million left of renovation that we're working on. We just felt like we really needed to be careful about stability, and so it took a long time to make this decision.

So the Levitt Foundation is no longer a partner?

We absolutely love our partnership with the Levitt Foundation. We will always love it. We just will not be a part of their network of venues. But we will always be a partner and will always be grateful, eternally grateful for their support.

What new revenue streams will support the organization?

Continuing the support of local families donating and supporting us, local foundations that support us, and companies who sponsor - that will always be a part of our contributive support. But also we will have a model of ticketed concerts. We will also have a higher level earned revenue model with merchandising and food and beverage at The Shell.

Most people don't know that we are city owned space. But we as a nonprofit organization are responsible for the day-to-day operation of The Shell. That's the maintenance, preservation, and renovation. We have to be able to preserve it and at the same time keep giving our mission of free concerts every year.

The organization is in the process of planning new ways to connect with underserved neighborhoods in Memphis and Shelby County. What does the outreach strategy look like?

It's called Shell on Wheels, which is going to be a way that we will amplify the voices of our incredible Memphis arts partnerships—organizations that do wonderful work in performing arts. And we'll partner together and build community where people are underserved. So it's going to be near the stage, and we will amplify their work from Memphis. Not just music—the performing arts at large.

Our first Shell on Wheels series will be at the Benjamin Hooks Library. We're partnering with the Memphis Black Arts Alliance, Slim House, Stax Academy, and Memphis Jazz Workshop, and those will be the five Friday nights in April.

I know the outreach is a continuation of efforts started a few years ago because there were people who felt that the target audience for the programming wasn't inclusive. Overall, how are those efforts going and how does the organization plan to continue?

We are a gathering space for all Memphians. So, to ensure that Memphians still feel they have a place of belonging in the lens of equity, we go to where people are, we will invite them, we will have diverse music. All genres will be presented.

A lot of people, with the transit and access issues in our city, can't come [to The Shell]. They don't know where to park, they don't know how to get to it, or they can’t catch the bus back home since the bus line is already cut off when we finish our concerts at 9:30.

So, we want to be thinking about what equity really means, and that is building relationships where people are and making access based on what people's needs are.

How has the professionals board contributed to the effort?

Our professionals board are brand ambassadors for The Shell. They are where people are. They're using their expertise and their vision. They’re the future of our organization—so many emerging Memphis leaders, and they're learning the importance of giving back, of amplifying their talents and vision for a place that matters. And they are so fantastic.

We've still got about five more spots open on the board. So we're taking applications. They can email [email protected].

Are there specific ways you plan to preserve the legacy of The Shell?
We're launching what's called “The Connie Abston Archive & History Exhibition.” It will be the green rooms of The Shell, and it will tell 86 years of our history here. The Levitt era will always be a part of our history, just as the “Save our Shell” era in the '80s will be a part of our history.

Every era will be a part of telling our story, and we'll tell that story with gratitude. But Memphis is what this organization is about. This stage is for Memphis.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Brandi Hunter.

Brandi is a freelance journalist, brand writer and tech strategist based in Memphis, TN.