Safeguarding Cultural Legacy | The Case Of The Nina Simone House

The tennis superstar, activist, entrepreneur and art patron Venus Williams joins contemporary artists group's endeavor (Adam Pendleton, Julie Mehretu, Rashid Johnson, Ellen Gallagher) to save Nina Simone's childhood home—alongside a nhistoric preservation organization, an art gallery and an auction house.

by GRIOT - Published on 31/03/2023

It was 2017 when the New York Times announced that a group of prominent African-American artists—made of the conceptualist Adam Pendleton, the sculptor and painter Rashid Johnson, the collagist and director Ellen Gallagher and the abstract painter Julie Mehretu—had merged their capital, created a company, won the auction and, “as an act of politics and arts activism” purchased music icon and civil rights activist Nina Simone’s childhood home, located in Tryon, North Carolina, for $95,000.

The exterior of the three-room clapboard house in Tryon, North Carolina, where singer Nina Simone was born and raised, prior to its recent restoration. Photo: Scheherazade Tillet

The house had been empty for some time and in danger of being demolished; previous rehabilitation efforts were unsuccessful, and in 2017 it was once again put up for sale.  The words of the acquisition had tremendous appeal;  a year later, in 2018, the National Trust and the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund designated the Nina Simone Childhood Home as a National Treasure. And in 2020 the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s (NTHP) African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund partnered with the World Monuments Fund and Preservation North Carolina to secure protection for Simone’s childhood home.

Previous owners had started the restoration, furnishing the home as it would have looked when Simone lived there with her parents and seven siblings. Photo: Nancy Pierce

As of today, March 2023, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has announced a two-folded initiative to support the project under the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, a co-funded program aiming to uplift the stories and places of resilience, activism and African-American accomplishments.

According to the news, Pendleton and the LLC partners were joined by Venus Williams and together they have assembled a strong group of high-profile creative luminaries, thoughtful leaders and cultural preservation experts to protect Nina Simone’s childhood home, whose cultural heritage has immense personal significance for all involved. This collaboration will bring different worlds–from art to philanthropy and historic preservation—into unprecedented action.

Notably, since its involvement, the Action Fund has developed a rehabilitation plan to ensure that this symbol of Simone’s early life and legacy endures for the generations to come. Since the fundraiser began, the Action Fund has raised nearly $500,000 for the Nina Simone Home Project and, through this new initiative, the organization aims to raise $5 million to ensure its continued preservation.

Previous owners had started the restoration, furnishing the 660-square-foot home as it would have looked when Simone lived there with her parents and seven siblings. Photo: Nancy Pierce

The funding plan provides for a series of events: a 10-days online auction open to the public and an exhibition at the Pace Gallery, which will culminate with an in-person gala and ticketed dinner always held at the Pace Gallery on West 25th Street in NYC.

The auction is co-curated by Sotheby’s, the highlighted piece will be led by auctioneer Kimberly Pirtle; and will feature outstanding works donated by internationally renowned contemporary artists in honour and recognition of Simone’s monumental contributions to the arts and social activism. Alongside works by Pendleton, Gallagher, Johnson and Mehretu, the auction will feature works by Mary Weatherford, Stanley Whitney, Robert Longo, Cecily Brown, and other notable contemporary artists yet to be announced.

The selection of the works for sale is by Pendleton and Williams. The proceeds from the sale will be used to restore the place where the talent of Nina Simone was discovered. Currently, the purpose of the renovations is still undefined, the site could be maintained as it is or restored and expanded to accommodate an artist’s residence.

Talking about the legacy of Nina Simone and the spirit of the project Venus Williams stated: “I’m so excited to be a part of this expansive project centering on the life and legacy of Nina Simone, who has been a huge inspiration for so many. Each of the artists Adam and I have selected for the auction has a unique, powerful voice, and we’ve been moved by their generosity and enthusiasm for this important cause. It’s been a privilege to collaborate with Adam in curating the auction.” Artist Pendleton added, “Nina Simone is one of the most important musical artists of the twentieth century. I’m inspired to be able to protect her legacy by preserving her childhood home. A physical structure like a house can be a symbolic way to honor somebody. Her music, her vision, cannot be forgotten. ”

The HOPE Crew preps the clapboard for repainting. Photo: Nancy Pierce
The freshly whitewashed home after its renovation. Photo: Nancy Pierce

The versatility of this project highlights the seminal work of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. Established in 2017, the trust is led by Executive Director Brent Leggs, who also serves as Senior Vice President of the National Trust, and is the largest conservation effort ever dedicated to historic African American sites. Its mission is to make a lasting impact on American history by preserving sites of African American activism, success, and resilience.

Nina Simone

Simone, who was born Eunice Waymon in 1933, the sixth of eight children, she spent her childhood in this clapboard-clad, 660 sq. ft, three-room structure. Here she taught herself to play the piano at the age of 3, accompanying the sermons of her mother, a Methodist preacher. She developed a love of classical music and hoped to become a concert pianist. She became sensitive to racism when at age 12 she gave a piano recital in a library where her parents had to stand in back because they were Black. A student of classical music at the Juilliard School of Music in New York City, she began performing as a pianist. Her vocal career began in 1954 in an Atlantic City, New Jersey, nightclub when the club owner threatened to fire her unless she sang too. Her first album featured her distinctive versions of jazz and cabaret standards, including “I Loves You, Porgy,” which became a 1959 hit.

Simone performs on a television show at BBC Television Centre in London in 1966.
Photo: Redferns, via TNYP

In the 1960s Simone added protest songs, became a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X, and performed at civil rights demonstrations. Her 1964 song Mississippi Goddam exemplifies this period. Her popularity grew as she added folk and gospel selections as well as songs by the Bee Gees, Bob Dylan, and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“I Put a Spell on You”) to her repertoire. Angered by American racism, she left the United States in 1973 and lived in Barbados, Africa, and Europe for the rest of her life.  She died in April 21, 2003 at age 70.

The benefit gala will take place on May 20. The multi-part event will be co-presented by the Action Fund, Pace Gallery and Pendleton along with Gallagher, Johnson and Mehretu. In support of this initiative, many of the artists involved will attend the gala in person. In addition to online bidding during the auction—available to the public from May 12 at 11:00 am to May 22 at 3:00 pm EDT—all the artworks will be exhibited in the spaces of the Pace gallery to be viewed in person throughout the period.


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