Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Can Marian Anderson Awards fund her struggling museum in South Philly?

Both the Marian Anderson Awards and the museum bearing her name were created to keep the legacy of the famed contralto alive. That’s where the similarities end.

Misty Copeland performs during the Marian Anderson Award Gala Concert to honor Wynton Marsalis at the Kimmel Center on Nov. 10, 2015.
Misty Copeland performs during the Marian Anderson Award Gala Concert to honor Wynton Marsalis at the Kimmel Center on Nov. 10, 2015.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The Marian Anderson Awards program is a glitzy affair that each year honors A-list celebrities while raising money for young artists.

Each year as the prize money is handed over - this year to jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis - the question inevitably pops up: Why do the Marian Anderson Awards not fund the struggling house museum in South Philadelphia where the famed contralto once lived ?

I mean, why not?

Both the awards and the Marian Anderson Historical Residence Museum were created to keep the legacy of the famed contralto alive. I had always assumed the two groups were related until a 2011 column by my colleague Stu Bykofsky pointed out that there's no connection between the two.

Here's some background: Former Mayor Ed Rendell created the Marian Anderson Awards in 1998, reportedly unaware that the singer had established a similar award back in 1943.

The Marian Anderson Historical Society runs the modest house museum in South Philly where Anderson grew up.

The only thing they have in common is the fact that they both honor the life of the historic opera singer. Other than that, there's little connection between the two.

Last night, I caught up with celebrity strategist/radio personality Dyana R. Williams as she was overseeing rehearsals for the gala hosted by Soledad O'Brien that included a performance by Misty Copeland, principal dancer of American Ballet Theatre. (My apologies to Williams for my bad timing.)

"We're honoring a great humanitarian, a great musician, Wynton Marsalis. This has nothing to do with [the house museum]," said Williams, who serves as vice chairwoman of the awards board. "We are two different entities."

"What we have in common is perpetuating the legacies of Marian Anderson . . . our missions are different."

It's a shame that there's such a disconnect, because the tiny rowhouse on 762 Martin St. (also known as Marian Anderson Way) near Catharine really could use some help.

Anderson owned the home for 69 years and was living there in 1939 when she became an international symbol of racism after the Daughters of the American Revolution refused to allow her to perform at Constitution Hall because of her skin color. She famously wound up performing instead on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in an open-air concert that made headlines worldwide.

Blanche Burton-Lyles, who as a child played the piano when Anderson entertained in South Philly, purchased the home in 1997 and turned it into a museum filled with photos, newspaper clippings and artifacts from Anderson's storied singing career.

Attendance is meager. I've been there twice in recent years and neither time was there any other visitor. (I had a lovely time when I went this summer, though. I had lunch and enjoyed a mini concert in the parlor.)

I don't know how Burton-Lyles, now 82, even keeps the lights on. There's no paid staff. Everything that comes in the form of donations and the $10 general admission entrance fees is used for the day-to-day running of the house.

Two years ago, Burton-Lyles hired Jillian Patricia Pirtle to succeed her. Pirtle, 32, a 2004 graduate of the University of the Arts and a former participant in the house's young scholars program, funnels money she earns as a singer into the property.

"Everything I make, I put back into the house," Pirtle told me yesterday. "I made Ms. Blanche a promise, and I'm going to keep it until the day I die."

That's a big responsibility for someone so young, which is why I wish she could team up with a larger organization willing to assist with fundraising and getting the museum to be self-supporting. But it doesn't look like any assistance will be coming from the Anderson Awards.

"The award has been struggling a little bit financially as well," said James Cuorato, the CEO of the Independence Visitor Center and former chairman of the Anderson Awards. "It's always challenging finding sponsors."

So, where does that leave the Marian Anderson House? Pretty much where it started, which is why, no doubt, during the next Marian Anderson Awards, someone else will pose the same question.

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong