Bio - Bennie Nelson West
BENNIE NELSON WEST - Executive Director of the Memphis Black Arts Alliance followed a dual career
path as a professional health educator and human services advocate-planner-lobbyist in New Jersey and a
student -participant in the Black Arts Movement in the disciplines of dance, literary, theater and visual arts
while living in New York, 1968-1978. She returned home to Memphis in 1978 to Shelby State Community
College where she organized the historic First National African-American Crafts Conference & Jubilee, a
(forerunner of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta) funded by NEA & NEH and The Links, Inc.
In 1982, in response to the need of Black artists and the Greater Memphis arts community for audience and
professional development, advocacy and resource-sharing, Bennie organized the Memphis Black Arts
Alliance with support from nationally acclaimed actors-activist Ruby Dee & the late Ossie Davis.
Under West tenure, MBAA has employed more than 300 performing and visual artists, provided affordable
community based arts education to more than, 3,000 Memphis residents of all ages, abilities and socioeconomic
backgrounds and initiated unique programs attracting residents and tourists alike to support Black
Artists. Through her MBAA initiated many Memphis firsts. 1) The first and only locally initiated Black-owned
non-profit arts & cultural center, the FireHouse Community Arts Center (1983); 2) produced Memphis' first
African-American Juneteenth Festival on Beale Street in 1983 & 1984; 3) sponsored the first series of
national touring African-American artists in Memphis - 1984, A Soldier's Play (cast included Denzel
Washington) at the Orpheum, Alvin Ailey Dance Theater (1985), & Sweet Honey in the Rock; 4) the first
multi-disciplinary community school of the arts - FireHouse Community Arts Academy (1996); provided
incubating support to artists Brenda Joy Smith, George Hunt, Ekundayo Bandele, Lurlynn Franklin, Nubian
Theater Company, Chauniece Connor (Ballet on Wheels), Nubian Theater Company and African in April.
More recently, West worked to expand MBAA's reach to youth with the creation of The Arts-A-Fire Youth
Theater Troupe, serving more than 80 youth and currently performing its third season of musicals and
dramas with the goal of promoting “Excellence on Stage and in Life.” Adult programming has expanded to
include Jazz-A-F!RE a unique cabaret/BYOI (Bring Your Own Instrument) monthly jam session; Encore
Creative Arts Series of dance, chorale, plays and arts for mature adults and Movement Mondays - a series
of dance classes aimed at adults with Zumba, Grand Tappers, and Movers & Shakers.
A graduate of Melrose High School, Tuskegee Institute (B.S.) and Columbia University (M.P.H), Bennie also
pursued a Doctorate in Higher Education and an Executive Masters in Business Administration from the
University of Memphis and received additional training in Arts Management from the New School of Social
Research in NYC and the Arts Management in Community Institute through the National Guild of Community
Schools of the Arts. Bennie is the widow of artist Leonard West and the mother of Joshua Parks, Jacob Ford
and the late Sarah June Parks and the grandmother of Sarah Jeanette & Joslyn.