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Beating the drum for Phoenix's Musical Instrument Museum

Former Target CEO Robert Ulrich wants to represent the musical culture of every country on the planet.

April 18, 2010|By Randy Lewis

Reporting from Phoenix — Not long before Robert Ulrich stepped down from his long-held job as CEO of Target Stores upon reaching the company's mandatory retirement age of 65, he was on a trip through Europe indulging one of his extracurricular passions as a museum junkie.

On the trip was his friend and fellow African art aficionado Marc Felix, who, over beer in the Grand Sablon square in Brussels, asked Ulrich what he had most enjoyed during their day of museum hopping. "I said this was fun, and that was fun, but that musical instrument museum -- I still think that was so cool!" Ulrich recalled recently, referring to the Belgian city's century-old Museum of Musical Instruments. "Right away he says, 'Well, why don't you build one?' "

Musical Instrument Museum: An article in today's Arts & Books section about the new Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix said the building was designed by Richard Varda of Minneapolis and Phoenix-based RSP Architects. Varda is no longer part of RSP; he and the firm collaborated on the design. Founder Robert Ulrich's campaign-leading donation, which the article identified as $10 million, is characterized in the "$10 million and above" category on the museum's donor plaque. Also, Ulrich was quoted as saying, "There are numbers of museums that try to do encyclopedic [music] collections —the Met, the Smithsonian, the Louvre. . . . " The word "music" should not have been inserted; his comment was about those museums' overall collections. The story also referred to Kenyan mbiras as being among the museum's collection. The mbira, a type of thumb piano, is from Zimbabwe.

The result of the dinner challenge four years ago will open to the public Saturday in northern Phoenix: the $150-million, 190,000-square-foot Musical Instrument Museum. Its mission is little short of astonishing: to represent the musical culture of every country on the planet, both with displays of the instruments on which that music is played and with regular live performances by those who play them.

To realize that, Ulrich, his staff of five curators and more than 100 consultants have put together one of the largest instrument collections in the world in barely three years. The 4 1/2 -acre building now houses more than 13,000 music-making contraptions, including ancient German krumhorns and sackbuts (an early trombone), Kenyan mbiras (thumb pianos), Chinese pipas and some of the coolest electric guitars Leo Fender ever made.

Among the latter, on short-term loan, is "Brownie," one of the Holy Grail Stratocasters played extensively by one Eric Clapton. MIM's inaugural celebrity collection also includes the banged-around upright piano on which John Lennon wrote "Imagine."

"Bob and I are grand aspirers," said Bill DeWalt, whom Ulrich hired three years ago from the Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh to be president and director of MIM. "If you don't think big, you won't accomplish anything big."

The setting may seem unlikely, but Ulrich is quick to list the many reasons he chose Phoenix, among them the city's robust growth over the last couple of decades into one of the five largest urban areas in the U.S.; its proximity to major tourist attractions such as the Grand Canyon, Las Vegas and Los Angeles; and expanses of affordable real estate. MIM joins the Heard Museum of Native American art, the Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix Opera and Phoenix Symphony in the area's expanding cultural life.

Ulrich, who now divides his time between homes in Phoenix and Minneapolis, brings to this project the same style and team-building skill that helped him transform Minneapolis-based Target from a moderate-sized company with 215 stores when he became president in 1984 to a widely influential industry giant with more than 1,600 locations when he retired as CEO two years ago.

"There are numbers of museums that try to do encyclopedic [music] collections -- the Met, the Smithsonian, the Louvre -- and there are people trying to do the same thing with natural history museums, in a different sort of way," said Ulrich, dressed workday casual in a blue denim shirt with sleeves rolled up and khaki pants that could have come off the rack of a Target store. He was seated at a table in a conference room at MIM headquarters, his blue eyes flashing the kind of fire not usually associated with retail chief executives when discussing the museum's mission to connect through music. "But no one represents [all] the different countries of the world in music and yet arguably what has more impact on people's lives day in and day out than music? It seemed like a tremendous void."

Ulrich is applying many of the same principles to MIM that have made Target an American business success story. One of the key strategies was identifying and filling a market niche. Target distinguished itself from the pack of discount merchandisers by emphasizing a designer aesthetic for budget-conscious shoppers.

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