Memphis Arts Leader Martha Ellen Maxwell Dies

Mar 7, 2014

Martha Ellen Maxwell

She was a powerful influence in the Memphis arts community for more than 50 years. 

Martha Ellen Maxwell, former executive director of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, died on Thursday, March 6,  after a long battle with cancer.

Memphis loses one its most prominent, and in some ways, pioneering arts leaders. She was also the founding executive director of the Memphis in May International Festival and the Memphis/Shelby County Film, Tape and Music Commission.

Born in Dyer, Tennessee, Maxwell earned her bachelor of arts degree in music at Southwestern College, which is now Rhodes. She was a college freshman when she met her late husband, Dr. Rex Maxwell, and insisted on finishing the degree before starting a family.

In 1953, Maxwell attended the first performance of the Memphis Sinfonietta, which would later become the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. She took over the organization in 1993, and steered it through a challenging decade, in which she finally ushered the orchestra into its new home, the Cannon Center.

Katie Smythe, founding director of New Ballet Ensemble, said that Martha Ellen Maxwell paved the way for many women executives in Memphis.

"She gave us permission to be brave in our choices, to take risks and not be afraid," Smythe said. "And she set the example by overcoming a lot of obstacles herself. She just ploughed ahead of us and parted the waters."

Arts groups statewide still benefit from Maxwell’s efforts. As the president of Tennesseans for the Arts from 2002-2005, she advocated for the specialty license plates that generate grant money for the Tennessee Arts Commission.

She was also the founder of the beloved Sunset Symphony concert, which closes every Memphis in May International Festival. 

For nearly three decades, Maxwell interviewed musicians on her weekly talk show “Know the Score” on the Public Library’s cable channel.

A memorial service is still being planned.