Venus Williams Is Working with Top Artists to Save Nina Simone’s Childhood Home

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Venus Williams Working to Save Nina Simone's HomePascal Le Segretain - Getty Images

Venus Williams is on a mission to help preserve the legacy of Black American artists. “For African Americans who have left such a mark on our culture, we don’t preserve their stories and their histories enough,” says Williams in a short film published on the website of Pace Gallery. “This is so crucial…to pave the way for what we can do in the future for monumental moments and figures.”

The tennis champion, arts patron, and entrepreneur, who owns South Florida-based interior design firm V Starr Interiors, teamed up with artist Adam Pendleton to curate an online auction and host a benefit gala to support the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund's project to restore Nina Simone's childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina. The gala, held at Pace’s West 25th Street gallery in New York on May 20, brought in a staggering $12,500 in table and seat sales.

The online auction, which was conducted by Sotheby’s on May 22, featured 11 artworks selected by Williams and Pendleton and donated by the featured artists. It drew $5.38M in sales with paintings by Cecily Brown, Sarah Sze, and Julie Mehretu being the highest sellers, going for $900,000, $900,000, and $1,600,000, respectively. These two events, along with a few individual donations, brought the grand total of proceeds to nearly $6 million.

this is the birthplace of nina simone born eunice waymon , 30 livingston st, tryon, nc
Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina. Nancy Pierce /National Trust for Historic Preservation

Simone’s childhood home is where the legendary artist learned to play the piano. She began playing at an early age when two women convinced her mother, a Methodist preacher, to start lessons after hearing Simone accompany the community choir at Tryon Theater. Joined by artists Ellen Gallagher, Rashid Johnson, and Julie Mehretu, Pendleton purchased Simone’s childhood home—and 650-square-foot clapboard structure exemplifying the Appalachian vernacular of the early 20th century that had fallen into disrepair—in 2017.

nina simone auction
Sarah Sze, Spell, 2023Courtsey of Sotheby's

“Everything around this project in relationship to Nina is about establishing community and it starts with four people, four artists, then it expands to Venus Williams, then it expands to other artists getting involved in preserving her home and her legacy,” says Pendleton in the film. “It’s exciting, and I would even venture to say it's profound.”

Pendleton has worked with Brent Leggs, executive director of the Action Fund and senior vice president of the Trust, to develop a plan for the home’s rehabilitation, future use, ownership and stewardship models for the entire site, and additional protections to ensure it will endure for generations to come.

“When Adam and the three artist co-owners purchased the house in 2017, we saw this as an example of arts activism and politics,” says Leggs in the film. “The big dream is that the Nina Simone childhood home will be fully restored along with the cultural landscape, and that this will be a new and vibrant historic site.”

“It’s a place for youth, artists, scholars, and all Americans to learn about Nina Simone and her family history, to learn about this Black neighborhood and community in Tryon, North Carolina, to begin to appreciate the overlooked beauty of vernacular architecture—it’s so reflective of many Black heritage sites in the United States—and to begin to understand that they, too, as ordinary citizens can have extraordinary impacts in the world.”

robert longo, untitled black panther working title, 2021, charcoal on mounted paper, 60
Robert Longo, Untitled (Nina), 2022 Sotheby's

Since fundraising for the Nina Simone childhood house project began, the Action Fund has raised nearly $500,000. The auction was expected to generate a substantial donation for the site’s ongoing preservation—thanks to the generosity of the participating artists and support from Pendleton, Williams, Pace Gallery, and Sotheby’s.

“At Pace, we’re passionate about our artists’ passions. When Adam came to us with his idea for this benefit, we jumped at the opportunity,” says Marc Glimcher, CEO of Pace Gallery which describes itself as an “artist-first” gallery. “The determination shown by Adam, Venus, Brent, and every artist participating in this fundraiser continues to inspire me and the gallery’s wider community.”

stanley whitney, nina in the sky with diamonds, 2023, painting, oil on linen, 60 18
Stanley Whitney, Nina in the Sky with Diamonds, 2023Richard Gary

For Williams, the opportunity to support preserving the legacy of someone like Simone through her passion for and patronage of contemporary art is thrilling and deeply meaningful.

“Simone’s legacy is what has put people like me on the map today,” says Williams. “Her childhood home is the place where it all started. These are her roots, and to preserve her home is important to preserving her story. It’s so appropriate that other artists are preserving her legacy.”

“To be able to be a part of something like this, to be able to be involved in the arts beyond appreciation into action…is really a dream come true for me and hopefully this is just a start of ways that I can make an impact through art.”

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