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River Music Experience Comes Into Focus PDF Print E-mail
Art - Feature Stories
Tuesday, 25 November 2003 18:00
Connie Gibbons’ office at DavenportOne is small to begin with, but it’s positively cramped now, with boards and papers showing layouts, logos, and artist renderings of the River Music Experience, set to open June 11 next year across the street, in the Redstone building on Second Street between Main and Brady in downtown Davenport.

“I’m building a country,” she said, probably only half-kidding. What Gibbons, the director of the River Music Experience, is building is a place where Quad Citians (and, if Gibbons’ aspirations to develop a national attraction come to fruition, the rest of the United States) will come to learn about the rich history of music along the Mississippi River, from New Orleans to Minneapolis.

And to hear live music. “You can’t do a music museum without live music,” Gibbons said. “Any day that we’re open, we’re going to have some kind of live music going on.”

The Redstone building and adjacent courtyard will have no fewer than seven locations of varying sizes for live music, and Gibbons promises that those might not be all. “We’re going to be real creative about where we do live music,” she said.

Gibbons has been on the job less than a year, but so far, the most important tasks are on-schedule. A 14-member museum board has met twice and will at its next meeting start a strategic-planning process. Scripts for the mammoth River Wall are well underway.

Perhaps more importantly, Gibbons has made good on promises to make connections with the local music community. The River Music Experience board includes Frank Cincola of the Bix Beiderbecke Memorial Jazz Society and Larry Tierny, an active volunteer with the Mississippi Valley Blues Society, and Gibbons hired local musician Ellis Kell as the museum’s membership, special events, and operations manager. (His first day was Monday.) Local music experts are also participating in researching and writing scripts for museum content.

The physical space of the museum – which takes up the entire second floor of the Redstone and will include a gift shop and restaurant on the first floor and a performance space in the basement – is still an empty shell, but that doesn’t mean progress isn’t being made.

Gibbons describes the work of developing and opening a museum as 90 percent reading, researching, and writing, and 10 percent “creating it” – meaning the physical components. “We’re still well within that 90 percent,” she said.

The bulk of the work has gone into researching and developing scripts for the centerpiece of the museum, the River Wall. Pity Gibbons: She’s been forced to visit museums and collections around the country, such as the Stax museum in Memphis and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, sifting through material. “A lot of my time has been going through dusty boxes,” she said. (And she doesn’t really expect your pity. She knows she’s pretty lucky to be forced to go to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame again.)

The River Wall will consist of six seven-foot-tall-by-12-feet-wide panels, each representing a “port” on the Mississippi: the Delta, New Orleans, Memphis, St. Louis, the Quad Cities, and the headwaters (terminating at Minneapolis-St. Paul). “We’ve written content and scripts for Memphis, New Orleans, the Delta, and St. Louis,” Gibbons said.

Memphis has been the template, and “there’s been about 22 re-writes,” Gibbons said. That will be pretty typical, and indicative of the amount of work involved. Gibbons is doing some of the writing, and she’s also enlisted a Boston firm, a University of Iowa faculty member, local interns, and local music experts Nate Lawrence and Karen McFarland.

The River Wall is an interactive exhibit. At each port, a visitor can point a wand to select a style of music (such as jazz, Cajun, or zydeco in New Orleans). That will in turn generate a menu of icons along the bottom of the panel, and each of those icons represents a branch of content. For example, if a person selects the radio icon in a genre of music, that visitor will be able to move down a radio “dial,” hearing a variety of actual broadcasts from that city in that style of music. “You move through those different branches and can explore,” Gibbons said.

Each port has its own stories, but there are some common themes. From St. Louis south, Gibbons said, the history of music mirrors “the story of race, and the story of race relations.” For instance, the lack of segregation in New Orleans allowed for the blending and sharing of different musical styles, while that didn’t happen in a segregated city such as Memphis. All of the ports south of St. Louis have “a real strong roots tie,” Gibbons said.

North of St. Louis, the collective story is less easily defined, and it’s less tied to the geography and culture of the ports. Gibbons argued that the stories on the northern Mississippi relate to the region’s consumption of music as much as creation, and to technology at the headwaters. Gibbons ticked off a list of the most famous musician from each port – Louis Armstrong in New Orleans, Robert Johnson in the Delta, Elvis in Memphis, Miles Davis in St. Louis – but when she came to Minneapolis-St. Paul, the name was a little unexpected: Prince. Gibbons argues that the headwaters are typical of the ports in having a “pioneer spirit – out there on the edge and testing new ground,” but otherwise acknowledges that the musical products of Minneapolis-St. Paul –including Prince and the post-punk explosion of the 1980s – “could have happened just about anywhere.”

While all that context borders on the academic, the content of the River Music Experience promises to be more personality-centered. The museum’s exhibits and databases will include information on 300 to 500 musicians when it opens, and “that will grow to thousands of musicians,” Gibbons said, with a dramatic growth in the first 18 months. “Once we open our door, this is not the end.” The content of the River Wall will not change once the scripts are finished, she noted, but the computer databases – accessible at terminals throughout the experience – will be added to.

The museum will also include two small theatres, the content of which will be based on filmed interviews and demonstrations with famous and respected musicians. One will be an introduction to river music and the other will feature a series of 10-minute “master class” programs with accomplished musicians.

The museum will also have what you might expect to see in a river-music museum, including display cases with artifacts and a model of an excursion boat, the type of vessel that traveled the Mississippi from New Orleans to Minnesota. There’s also a space for changing exhibitions – between 2,500 and 3,000 square feet, Gibbons said.

The first major exhibition is not set yet, but for the River Music Experience opening Gibbons hopes to get a show of photographs by Dick Waterman that recently opened at the Govinda Gallery in Washington, D.C. The exhibit, Between Midnight & Day: The Last Unpublished Blues Archive, features photographs of artists Son House, Skip James, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Booker White, Arthur Crudup, John Hurt, Robert Pete Williams, and others. Gibbons is also talking about traveling or River Music Experience-curated exhibits on the history of radio and album covers.

The museum’s operating budget will be in the neighborhood of $1 million a year, with a tentative admission price of $6.50. “It certainly won’t be higher than that,” Gibbons said. Approximately 10 percent of the operating budget is expected to come from memberships, which will start at $25.

The River Music Experience’s incoming board has met twice, although the launching of the museum is still governed by the DavenportOne Foundation board. The foundation board is managing the $8.4-million startup, which includes the Redstone renovation/construction and securing a tenant for the restaurant space.

Gibbons said she expects a transition to the new board to take place within the next year. The River Music Experience board will be in charge of policymaking, fundraising, and fiscal management.

In addition to Cincola and Tierny, the museum board includes Jim Anderson (Genesis Systems), Burt Baker (Best Western Steeplegate Inn ), Richard Bittner (Bittner Lambert & Werner), Darryl Harmon (Wells Fargo), Lu Ann Haydon (Deere & Company), Dan Huber (DavenportOne), Frank Klipsch (YMCA), Rachael Mullins (Davenport Community School District), Bill Patterson (McGladry & Pullen), Kent Pilcher (Estes Company), Ron Reinders (Genesis Health System), and William Wilke.

Gibbons would also like to create an advisory board with representatives, for example, of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and Experience Music Project in Seattle. She wants to have this body’s first meeting in early spring, and she hopes it “will position us nationally.” In other words, Gibbons won’t be happy with a museum with only local or regional appeal.

She admits that covering the comprehensive history of music along the mighty Mississippi is impossible – “There’s unending material out there,” she said – but making her dreams for the River Music Experience a reality might not be as difficult as one might think.

After all, Gibbons developed and opened the Buddy Holly Museum in Lubbock, Texas. Put another way, she had a smaller community (about 200,000 people) and a lot less material to work with. In comparison, getting people to the River Music Experience – with thousands of subjects, multiple genres, and the entire Mississippi River to draw from – should be relatively easy. “This is nothing,” she said.
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