Beating the drum for Phoenix’s Musical Instrument Museum


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.

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.

Matthew Hill, associate curator in charge of instruments of North America and the museum’s guitar collection, noted a heavy concentration of Native American musical instruments he’s working with, most of them new, because typically instruments that have been played ceremonially are considered sacred and therefore off limits for museum exhibitions.

Cultural issues, as well as social and political ones, abound. Curator Jennifer Post arrived in Mongolia in 2008 to bring back a number of instruments just as a state of emergency had been declared after a contentious election.

During ensuing riots a cultural center including many musical instruments was set on fire; Post had to persuade local authorities on the lookout for looting that her acquisitions had been acquired legitimately.

Given the speed with which the collection has been built, not surprisingly there are gaps some of the curators are looking to fill. Hill would love to track down a homemade double bass played by Roy Talbot of the Talbot Brothers calypso band from Bermuda, while Amanda Villepastour, hired less than a year ago, is aiming to bolster the collection’s representation from several regions of Africa.

Curators also have to be alert to instruments made after the Endangered Species Act of 1973 governing international trade. Another hurdle is fully realizing Ulrich’s vision for a new-model 21st century museum.

“What we’ve done here from the very beginning, and something I’m absolutely the most passionate about, is I don’t want to create a museum and then leave it as is for 25 years, or even 10 years,” De Walt said. “We want to be a museum that’s constantly in evolution. . . . Two weeks after opening, we’re going to continually be changing as we get better things.”