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River Music Experience Prepares for Takeoff PDF Print E-mail
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Tuesday, 25 May 2004 18:00
Chris Smither, Patty Larkin, and Kris Kristofferson are booked for future performances. The opening day will feature music by local bands, the Blue Band, and Pieta Brown & Bo Ramsey. Local and regional talent will be featured in the coffee shop, Mojo’s, on Thursdays and Fridays. Gospel brunches start on day two.

Several weeks before it opens in the Redstone building at 130 West Second Street in downtown Davenport, it’s apparent that the River Music Experience (RME) is working hard to be more than a museum celebrating the music that developed along the Mississippi River. It wants to present American roots music – from Cajun to country to blues to rock – as a living thing, not simply as exhibit fodder.

Connie Gibbons, executive director of the RME, gave the River Cities’ Reader a sneak preview of the facility 22 days before its June 12 opening. While none of the exhibits had been installed, the tour offered a good sense of the feel of the finished space, and how visitors will experience it.

“I’m stunned at what we’ve done,” Gibbons said, “ … our ability to pull all of this together in a year and a half.”

It’s not so much the amount of time it’s taken but the staff. The Experience Music Project in Seattle, for instance, has a curatorial/interpretive staff of about 30, Gibbons said. “We don’t have curatorial staff.”

A dozen writers worked on scripts for the interactive River Wall – the centerpiece of the RME – and some of the six geographic “ports” on the wall had as many as 20 re-writes.

“There’s enough material here to keep somebody engaged for six to eight hours,” Gibbons said, although she expects most people to stay between an hour and 90 minutes.

Gibbons said she has a full-time staff of two people – local musician Ellis Kell is membership, operations, and special-events manager, while David McDaniel manages retail and customer service – and expects to have between 12 and 20 part-time employees when the RME opens. She plans to hire a few additional full-time staff members in the Experience’s first six to 24 months.

Patrons enter the building on the west side, and an intricate wood floor greets them. Few people will probably notice, but the staining of the floor, the curve of one wall, and the arrangement of track lighting create the shape and strings of a guitar. There’s no vantage point in the RME to get a good look at this, and Gibbons said it creates the “element of surprise, discovery.”

The guitar’s neck leads people into Mojo’s, where patrons can buy an RME ticket, a sandwich, or merchandise.

The first level contains no artifacts – “I can’t control the lighting here,” Gibbons said – but the space certainly creates an impression. The grain of the wooden floor suggests water, as do the curved walls. And the building itself has “an incredibly welcoming, warm ambiance you can only achieve with historic structures,” Gibbons said.

From Mojo’s, visitors proceed up a staircase, and on the second level they will be met by a replica of the S.S. Capitol, an excursion boat that played a critical role in the transportation of music up and down the Mississippi. These excursion boats – “floating ballrooms” – were “training grounds for some of these New Orleans musicians,” Gibbons said.

From the Capitol, Gibbons expects people to move to the right, where there will be display cases with artifacts and exhibits. One case will house Quad Cities legends, initially featuring Bix Beiderbecke, Louie Bellson, Pat Patrick, Francis Clay, and Bill Bell. Another case will feature posters for excursion cruises in the 1920s and ’30s.

A children’s area is next on clockwise journey through the RME, and it’s followed by an orientation theatre, featuring a 15- to 20-minute film culled from a dozen interviews with musicians and historians that the RME has conducted

And then there’s the River Wall, an 81-foot interactive exhibit with six geographic “ports,” each representing a different location on the Mississippi. At each port is a wand that can be pointed to an area of the screen, an action that leads to new content being presented; the person with the wand chooses what gets displayed.

“It’s easy to use,” Gibbons said of the River Wall interface. “It’s not intimidating. They’ve tested it with everybody from three years old to 90 years old.” She added that it was important that operation be intuitive. “The content should always lead,” she said. “The technology that delivers it should always be invisible.”

Beyond the River Wall is another theatre, featuring short interviews with artists such as Chris Smither, Jason Marsalis, and Taj Mahal discussing their craft.

And back near the Capitol is a space for rotating exhibits, which will showcase the blues photographs of Dick Waterman when the RME opens. This room will also double as a performance space.

Throughout the River Music Experience will also be “ear ports” – stations where visitors can learn about key players in river music over the past few centuries. These ports – each with two sets of headphones – have several hundred biographies in them, Gibbons said. (She told the Reader last June that it would have roughly 500. See “Director Seeks to Craft a Unique ‘Experience,’” River Cities’ Reader Issue 429, June 11, 2003.) “This is what’s really going to grow over time,” Gibbons said.

So even when the River Music Experience opens next month, it will be far from a finished product. Gibbons has a lengthy to-do list, and a wish list, as well: finish the RME basement space within a year, build a recording studio, complete the “Musical Lives” feature on plasma screens in the RME, and explore the ideas of classrooms and syndicated television or radio performance programs.

The museum also needs to finalize its transition from the DavenportOne Foundation to an independent board of directors. The DavenportOne Foundation is overseeing construction, and Gibbons said it will hand over the reins of the museum to an independent board – which has already been seated – within the next six months. “For the center to actually grow … it has to be independent of DavenportOne,” Gibbons said. Shifting governance from DavenportOne is important because that organization’s mission is different than the River Music Experience’s; one is devoted to economic development, while the RME’s focus is arts and education.

Construction costs on the River Music Experience are now $9 million – with $7 million from the Vision Iowa program – and the operating budget for the museum’s first year will be roughly $1.5 million, Gibbons said. In addition to that, Gibbons has a programming budget of $400,000 for the first year.

“We’ve got a pretty ambitious program planned,” she said, including academic symposiums, programs for schools, and workshops on the business of music for local musicians.

The RME has a $750,000 fundraising goal for programming and the remainder of construction costs, and right now the facility has raised $380,000, Gibbons said.

For budgeting purposes, the RME expects 75,000 visitors in its first year, Gibbons said. “That’s pretty low,” she added. “I could see us doing anywhere from 125,000 to 150,000.”

Gibbons thinks that the River Music Experience can be a national draw, with the prominence of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or Experience Music Project. “We have a lot of work to get to that level,” she said. “We’ve laid the groundwork. … Our exhibit is on a par with anything I’ve seen in any of those other spaces.

“This really is just the beginning,” she continued. The RME has the potential to have “tremendous impact and significance nationally. … I really want to be a part of that.”

Admission to the River Music Experience is $6.50 for adults and $5.50 for children and senior citizens. The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information on the River Music Experience, visit ( or call (563) 326-1333.
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