Celebrating an Extraordinary Patron of the Arts

Fred Powell, the former chairman of the Audience Development Committee (AUDELCO) and owner of Barbara’s Flower Shop, was an extraordinary man whose unending support and devotion to promoting arts and culture I deeply admired.

We first met about 30 years ago when Fred provided his amazing floral designs to the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). During our conversation, I invited him to attend a DTH performance. Fred and the members of AUDELCO, an organization dedicated to promoting the art and culture of African-American theatre, would soon become regular patrons. The group’s membership included important tastemakers in theatre, and they were influential in creating a buzz in the community.

But Fred went beyond making sure AUDELCO supported DTH. He soon became a champion! He volunteered to take promotional flyers and postcards, without charge, to the churches where he delivered flowers for Sunday services. This included 30 of the largest African-American churches in Harlem and Brooklyn. Fred did this for every single show I worked on, small or large; dance or theater. He told me the churches eagerly looked forward to receiving the collateral materials. He was often asked: “What should I go see?”

Our pioneering marketing and audience development partnership continued when I left DTH and joined the staff of the Public Theatre. Fred’s passion was the theater and he was an Ambassador of the highest order. He not only believed that the performing arts needed an audience, Fred recognized that the audience also needed and benefited from experiencing the performing arts. Consequently, Fred selflessly utilized his time, network and resources to build the bridge between the two.

Fred also had a big and boundless heart. I remember when the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater performed several years ago on Mother’s Day at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). I asked Fred to provide flowers for distribution as the mothers entered BAM’s lobby. Without question, Fred responded to my request. He sent 200 yellow roses to ensure that the mothers in attendance felt special, and to support the company’s engagement. Fred was that type of man. Extraordinary.

Just recently, Fred and I worked together on the reopening of the Billie Holiday Theatre, which I wrote about in a recent blog. We stood next to each other marveling at the newly-renovated theater and gushing with pride that this jewel was located in the community of Bed-Stuy Brooklyn not far from his store. Little did I know that would be our last celebration of the arts together, and our last conversation. Fred Powell transitioned unexpectedly on Tuesday, May 30th.

Indira Etwaroo, Executive Director of the Center for Arts and Culture, which includes The Billie Holiday Theatre, shared the following remembrance of Fred: “On the morning of the reopening of the historic Billie Holiday Theatre, the staff of the Billie wore gardenias on our lapels; tucked behind an ear; on our wrist….a symbol of the namesake of the theatre, Billie Holiday. These gardenias, which stood out with such magnificence against our all-black attire, were graciously donated by Fred Powell of Barbara’s Flower Shop. In many ways, the history of this flower epitomizes Mr. Powell’s place in Bed-Stuy and beyond. Legend tells us that Billie Holiday burned herself with a pressing comb and tucked a gardenia behind her ear to hide the scar.  Isn’t that what Fred has done for Bed-Stuy during all of our life events; in all of our celebrations and losses? He has taken our humanity, our joy, our pain and made it something beautiful. His life exemplifies how one small flower can change the world.”

Fred also was a former board member of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce. When he learned of Fred’s passing, Chamber President & CEO Lloyd Williams said: “Fred was a member of the board of The Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce for over 15 years and served with extraordinary dignity, commitment and class. Fred always had a kind word and a smile for everyone.  He was truly a ‘pillar of our community’ and will be sorely missed.”

I am so grateful to have been the recipient of Fred Powell’s endless generosity—from the promotion of events to donations from Barbara’s Flower Shop. I feel so fortunate that Fred also provided the flowers for my wedding 24 years ago, which will always be a part of that day’s treasured memories. Fred also hosted a book signing for me at his lovely home in New Jersey, with his deceased wife Barbara.  They were so kind and generous to enable me to promote my book to their friends and family.

While my heart is filled with sadness with the news of Fred’s transition, I am determined that his legacy of collaboration, promotion and celebration of African-American culture and the arts continues to thrive. I understand also from his brother Les that Barbara’s Flower Shop is determined to maintain Fred’s commitment to support the arts. The bridges that Fred helped construct from both Harlem and Bed-Stuy to the diverse communities of New York are now two-way thoroughfares to the arts. I will continue my efforts in Fred’s honor to ensure that these avenues always remain open. Thank you Fred!