This Dyer, Tennessee, native came to Memphis to attend Southwestern (now Rhodes College) to study piano. During her six decades here, she left her mark in fundraising and management of the visual and performing arts — and made a few men sit up and pay attention.
M artha Ellen Maxwell served as president of the Memphis Symphony League and became the first woman president of the league’s governing board, the Orchestral Society. In that role she initiated the Decorator Showcase and the Symphony Pops, and helped hire Alan Balter as symphony conductor. During that same era she launched Memphis in May’s Sunset Symphony, and was a force in saving such landmarks as The Orpheum Theatre and what is now the Levitt Shell.
In 1979 Maxwell gave up volunteering to take the reins of the Memphis in May International Festival, which was drowning in debt and in need of fresh ideas. Maxwell proposed commissioning Memphis artists to create MIM posters. The sale of these posters helped pull the organization back into the black. In the early 1980s she turned her talents to raising funds for the Dixon Gallery and Gardens’ expansion, surpassing its goal of $1.8 million.
After a two-year stint as director of the Memphis and Shelby County Film, Tape, and Music Commission, Maxwell returned to the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, this time as executive director, leading it through the search for a new conductor and the construction of the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts. She still found time as a volunteer to lead the Tennessee Summer Symphony, which takes classical music to outlying communities.
Maxwell is also remembered for her speech to an all-male Rotary Club, in which she listed three things wrong with Memphis: racism, male chauvinism, and turf protection. She became the third female member of the Club’s downtown organization.
A gifted leader with a passion for the arts, Maxwell died on March 7, 2013, at age 85. She used her strong voice, sharp wit, and boundless energy to make Memphis a better place.
Bessie Vance Brooks
Martha Ellen Maxwell