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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

Ulrich brings some of Target's nomenclature to the museum, referring to visitors as "guests," and he emanates a Walt Disney-like, all-encompassing focus on the guest experience in everything from the forgiving woods used in floor construction to the open-airy gallery layout, all chosen to make MIM as guest-friendly as possible. Admission runs $10 to $15, with kids 5 and under admitted free.

Hands-on visit

The instruments themselves for the most part won't be sequestered inside glass cases but out in the open where museum-goers can practically touch them, even though MIM supports the museum world's time-honored "look but don't touch" credo throughout its five "geo-galleries."

In the museum's experience gallery, however, touching and actual music making are 100% legal.

"When you talk about musical instruments," Ulrich said, "who wouldn't want to hit a great big gong from Indonesia, a gamelan from Bali, or pluck at a harp from Peru or play a resonator marimba from Africa. It's just so cool to have that kind of ability."

Ulrich personally signs off on the choice of color of paint for the walls, the pattern and fabric for the carpet and design of the furniture -- much of which was paid for out of Ulrich's campaign-leading $10-million donation that puts his name at the top of the donor plaque inside the main entrance.

"He wants every aspect just so," DeWalt said, "and he's been willing to rip some things out and redo it if it wasn't quite right."

To get everything just so, Ulrich has enlisted Michael Francis, Target's executive vice president of marketing, as president of the MIM board of directors, and the company's marketing and public relations consultant, Gail Dorn, as board treasurer. The building was designed by Richard Varda of Minneapolis and Phoenix-based RSP Architects; Varda also is head of store design for Target and designed the $1-billion Kingdom Centre in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

The museum has formed corporate partnerships with a variety of music equipment manufacturers, including Fender, C.F. Martin Co., Yamaha, Remo and Zildjian percussion makers. The museum also is getting cash or in-kind donations from at least two dozen more companies.

Such corporate alliances bode well, said associate curator Christina Linsenmeyer, whose musicological domain is Europe and mechanical instruments such as player pianos and music boxes. "They're so keyed to marketing, which is not always the case in museums. But that's what is going to keep the doors open when we've seen so many museums closing and their collections put in storage."

Although MIM is 100% privately funded, DeWalt said Phoenix officials have been supportive in a number of ways, and Mayor Phil Gordon has proclaimed April 24-30 as Musical Instrument Museum Week in the city.

Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum in downtown Los Angeles, noted that "they'll be challenged with self-sustainability like all museums are today. They've got a potential to create this niche . . . and if they're smart about their marketing, they can make it a world music site."

The museum's live music component launches April 25 with folk-bluegrass fiddler, singer and songwriter Laurie Lewis and in coming weeks will feature the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars (May 8-9) and Afro-pop standard-bearer King Sunny Ade (May 13). The museum aims to offer 12 to 15 concerts a month in its 299-seat theater adjacent to a full-fledged recording studio.

Audio and video recordings will add to the multimedia materials the museum is amassing on the road to becoming a major research center as well as a tourist destination akin to other major musical instrument museums in London, Paris, Berlin, the newly reopened Musical Instrument Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Music Museum at the University of South Dakota.

On the prowl

The newly hired curators have been working overtime to acquire instruments to fill in the blanks from the master wish list they assembled. Earlier this month as several curators strolled the exhibits, many of which were still being built, workers lowered a giant Japanese taiko drum onto its massive wooden stand by way of a winch suspended from the ceiling.

Some items they've bought at auctions, such as the pink Selmer tenor saxophone Linsenmeyer snagged that's identical to one John Coltrane famously played.

Others have come en masse, such as the Fiske Collection of 1,500 instruments MIM bought from the Claremont Colleges in Pomona. Still others have been purchased from other institutions, private collectors and ethnomusicologists in various parts of the world, and some directly from musicians in remote parts of Southeast Asia, Africa or central Europe.

A few have been commissioned and created for the museum, such as a set of bagpipes from an area of Malta where the regional style of bagpipe playing has been dying out.

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