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News/Features - Local News
Tuesday, 25 January 2005 18:00
As the River Music Experience prepares for its second director in its first year, the roots-music museum has established a new mission - one that focuses on entertainment as much as education. A new director is expected to be named as soon as this week and might start the job by February 1. Although River Music Experience (RME) board members have declined to name the person who was offered the job, they say the candidate has a strong background in live music and marketing.

The new leader will have input on many projects that have been in limbo in recent months, including construction that will turn the facility’s basement into a performance space, and the creation of a new interactive exhibit.

What’s evident is that the RME board is looking for a person who can establish and market the facility - and help create an identity in the community. “I’m not sure we’ve really defined what we are,” said Larry Tierney, an RME board member who currently serves as the facility’s interim director.

Kent Pilcher, chair of the RME board and owner of the Estes Company, said he was looking for a director who could “pull the raw clay together” into a coherent brand.

“You Have to Adapt Quickly”

Since it opened in June, the River Music Experience has seen the departure of director Connie Gibbons - who resigned in October - and has made numerous adjustments to its operations, from a new mission statement to a clear focus on events over exhibits.

“It’s like any startup business,” said Pilcher. Things that organizers thought would work don’t, he said, and new things need to be tried.

Pilcher added that even though the four months between the facility’s opening and Gibbons’ departure might seem like a short time, the RME had to make changes. “You have to adapt quickly,” he said. “We really did know [that the museum-based model of generating attendance through exhibits wasn’t working] after four months. … You [need to] experiment.”

That experimentation has included the addition of programming four days every week - an open-mic night Wednesdays, the local band showcase Live @ 5 on Thursdays, live music on Fridays, and kids’ events Saturday mornings - plus periodic concerts and Sunday events.

Through December, 15,000 people had visited the RME either as members or through paid admission, Pilcher said. Tierney said that in November, an estimated 6,000 people attended all RME functions, including free events such as live music at the first-floor coffee shop Mojo’s.

The performance focus is reflected in the new mission statement: “to present a diverse one-of-a-kind urban entertainment experience that celebrates roots music along the Mississippi and enriches the lives of Quad City residents and visitors.”

Some critics worry that education and music preservation - words that don’t appear in the new mission statement - are now taking a back seat to entertainment. (See Nate Lawrence’s guest column on page 5.) The original mission statement stressed the museum component of the RME: “to preserve and celebrate the music and music heritage of the Mississippi River through permanent and changing interactive exhibits, live music programs, and hands-on music education.”

The new mission statement reflects what the RME board learned from its first few months.

“People aren’t going to passively come to the RME” for museum exhibits, Pilcher said. “We need to create programs and events to get people to come down.” The initial business plan was for the RME to be attendance- and membership-driven, he added. Now, the board realizes, “we have to create events and excitement down here,” Pilcher said. For example, a recent jazz brunch at Centro had attendance of 300 people, and 160 visited the second-floor exhibit gallery afterward, Pilcher said.

Tierney noted that the River Music Experience faced numerous challenges, including being the sole cultural attraction in downtown Davenport until the Figge Art Museum and MidCoast’s Bucktown Center for the Arts open. “Basically, we’re the only game in town,” he said. “Downtown needs a critical mass.”

Furthermore, he said, the job of developing and opening the RME was monumental. “There was an awful lot to do with a small number of people,” Tierney said. Gibbons told the River Cities Reader before the RME’s opening that while the Experience Music Project in Seattle has a 30-person curatorial/interpretive staff, the RME only had her. (Gibbons, who now works at the Intuit gallery in Chicago, did not return a phone call for this article.)

As for the mission statement, RME board Vice Chair Frank Klipsch acknowledged that it represents a change of focus. “The first one is awfully exhibit-oriented,” he said. “The second one is more performance-oriented.” The statement reflects the board’s desire that people experience music as much as study it, he said.

He added that the River Music Experience board has always wanted to augment the facility’s exhibits with more programming. “It’s not changing direction,” he said. “It’s finishing the direction.”

“A lot of the original plans are still in place,” Tierney said. “We’re taking what was originally here and adding to it. … Nothing’s going to be diminished. We anticipate it being more participatory.”

Other changes have also been afoot. Management of the Mojo’s coffee shop and dining events in the second-floor changing-exhibits gallery was shifted to Des Moines-based Orchestrate. That company runs Centro, the restaurant that shares the Redstone building with the RME. In November, adult admission to the second-floor exhibits - including an interactive River Wall, music artifacts and memorabilia, two theatres showing short films, and listening stations - was dropped from $6.50 to $4. (Admission for children is free, down from an original price of $5.50.)

And in January, assets of the RME were transferred from the DavenportOne Foundation to the facility’s board - a transfer that was always part of the facility’s plan. Assets include the museum itself, Mojo’s café, the courtyard, and a skybridge lighting project.

But while the RME has added a lot in recent months, it’s also subtracted. Under Gibbons’ watch, the RME brought in national acts such as Martin Sexton, Kris Kristofferson, and Chris Smither. Since she left, the musical lineup has shifted to regional and local talent.

Pilcher didn’t say that the RME wouldn’t be hosting such famous musicians in the future, but his comments suggest it’s not likely. For one thing, he said, those “national” shows were at best break-even propositions for the RME. (With Sexton and Smither, the issue was the RME changing-exhibits-gallery capacity, while Kristofferson - who played at the Capitol Theatre - was more expensive.) And Pilcher said that the RME plans to offer a mix of music. “Our goal would be to evolve to where we feature local folks, regional folks, and national folks,” he said.

But the focus will likely remain on the local music scene. “We … want to be a real support network for the local musicians,” Pilcher said.

The changing-exhibits gallery, which opened with striking photographs by Dick Waterman of blues musicians, hasn’t hosted a new curated exhibit since then. Tierney said he’s talking with organizations about bringing in new exhibits, but nothing has been formalized at this point, and it might be difficult to secure artifacts with the gallery being primarily used for food service.

Realizing the Potential

When a new director comes on-board, the agenda will be daunting. The RME plans to finish its basement performance space - which should hold roughly 300 people, Tierney said - this spring.

Pilcher said the RME also has a $400,000 Institute of Museum & Library Services grant with which it will create a new interactive exhibit on the second floor. He wouldn’t describe it beyond saying that it’s in the concept stage. The exhibit will likely focus on music-making, and the goal is to make it more interactive than the River Wall - in which users point with a wand to select content.

And as the skywalk bridge nears completion, the RME will be responsible for developing the courtyard east of the facility, giving it a fourth possible performance space.

Pilcher said the largest challenge for the new director will be “to bring it [the RME] to its potential.” He added that he’d like the new director to focus on the basement performance space and creating an RME-branded music festival.

Board members’ comments about what they were looking for in a new director follow the lead of the new mission statement. The wish list focuses on performance, marketing, and administration, rather than curatorial excellence or education. Gibbons came to the RME from the Lubbock, Texas-based Buddy Holly Center, of which she was founding director. If the RME needed a visionary to guide the project from concept to reality, it now appears that the board is looking first and foremost for a steward.

Pilcher said the new director will need to brand and market the RME, create a “quality music experience” for customers, have strong administrative and collaborative skills, and have a “passion for what this thing can be.” Klipsch listed organizational leadership, community marketing, programming, activities, new exhibits, and live performances as being key skill areas.

The board - which used the local firm Management Resource Group to conduct its search - interviewed three finalists, who hailed from Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; and Washington, D.C.

The chosen candidate “has a tremendous amount of experience in the music business,” Klipsch said - including the areas of live music, marketing, and building support.
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