Museum for bluesman B.B. King has strong 1st year

JACKSON — The thrill is gone at many attractions across the country as recession-mired tourists stay home, but in Indianola, Miss., a favorite son is packing ‘em in at the B.B. King Museum.

A year after its opening, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center has drawn about 30,000 visitors to the Mississippi Delta town roughly 100 miles northwest of Jackson where the Grammy-winning singer/songwriter/guitarist once made his living on a cotton plantation.

Attendance exceeded a first-year projection of 25,000, despite the museum’s opening last fall amid hurricanes, high gas prices, economic woes and the end of the traditional summer travel season, said Connie Gibbons, the museum’s executive director.

King, who was born in nearby Itta Bena and now lives in Las Vegas, celebrates his 84th birthday Sept. 16. He said the museum’s strong launch “makes me feel real good,” but he’s not surprised by it.

“I have to tell you that even though it bears my name, the museum is as much about the history and culture of the Mississippi Delta as it is about me,” King said in an e-mail. “People from all over the world are fascinated by this area that I’ve called home.”

King won’t be at a weekend event in Indianola to mark the museum’s anniversary. He’s planning to celebrate his birthday with friends and family away from the stage, said Tina France, managing director of B.B. King Road Shows LLC.

The museum was carved out of a cotton gin where King worked before he became a music icon. Half its $15 million cost came from fundraising by local business and community leaders. King attended the opening and was there again recently when an AT&T Mississippi-funded learning center opened as an extension of the museum.

“My only regret is that we didn’t have anything like this when I was growing up here,” King said in his e-mail.

For the $10 admission fee, visitors find artifacts spanning the arc of King’s life — including a frayed quilt from the home where he lived as a young man, a recreation of his home studio and various versions of his guitar, Lucille. King, a Grammy-winner for his anthem “The Thrill is Gone” and albums such as “One Kind Favor” and “Riding With The King,” donated a number of his personal items, including his draft card.

Ron Franklin, a Texas lawyer in Jackson on business, took time Thursday to wander the exhibits. Franklin, from Houston, said he’d been to museums worldwide.

He said visiting the blues museum in Indianola and feeling the Mississippi Delta helped him better grasp the phrase, “the birthplace of the blues.”

The museum also houses memorabilia of other artists, including handwritten lyrics by rocker Janis Joplin and art objects she made from yarn, on loan from the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, said Gibbons.

Admissions, memberships and donations helped the museum meet its budget of $820,000 for the first year; it beat its projection of 25,000 visitors by about 20 percent.

They’re strong indicators of solid organization, said Dewey Blanton, spokesman for the American Association of Museums in Washington, D.C., which provides museum accreditation and support services.

“Sometimes niche museums like this have a difficult time, particularly on the launch because of the appeal of the exhibits,” Blanton said. “It speaks to the power of the museum’s theme — B.B. King has been performing for 50 years.”

The slumping economy might have presented an additional challenge, he said.

However, although tourism venues such as Las Vegas have taken a body blow, museum attendance often rises in troubled times, Blanton said. He cited a spike after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

For Indianola and Sunflower County, where nearly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, success is measured in tax collections.

Indianola’s tax on hotel occupancy and meals for July was up 17 percent from a year ago, according to the state Tax Commission. Mayor Arthur Marble said sales tax collections are up 12 percent over the past year as tourists scoop up souvenirs including T-shirts and mugs licensed with King’s image.

Marble said the increased tourist traffic has spurred work on community projects, including the town’s park.

The King museum’s first-year visitors included more than 2,000 Europeans, testament to the global appeal of the blues.

Marble said he’s in discussions with Lise Wiik, mayor of Notodden, Norway, about forming a sister-city partnership. Notodden holds an annual blues festival, and a Norwegian delegation traveled to Indianola in June for King’s annual homecoming concert.

“She brought some economic development individuals from over there, along with a guy who built a throne for the King of the Blues,” Marble said. “Europeans seem very much in love with something that we have a very hard time recognizing ourselves.”

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On the Net:

B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center: Click here for bbkingmuseum.org

Shelia Byrd/The Associated Press