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Grammy Museum takes a broad, hands-on approach

December 2, 2008 |  3:01 pm

The Recording Academy's Grammy Museum doesn't officially open its doors to the public until Saturday, but a Tuesday morning preview revealed the new facility to be a heavily interactive exhibition hall, one whose emphasis is not on past trophy winners or even historic artifacts but instead on music education and appreciation.

The 30,000-square-foot space, which comes complete with a 200-seat theater, essentially functions as a hands-on gallery: Visitors who weren't taken with the mix on Beck's "Gamma Ray," a single from his recent album “Modern Guilt,” can remaster it at one station, while others can rap along with Jermaine Dupri at another.

Guests are immediately whisked to the fourth floor, where they're greeted with an 18-foot touch-screen table that looks and feels like something out of a James Bond movie. There, they can put on headphones and scroll through genres -- tap "outlaw country," for instance, and a Waylon Jennings song plays.

"We get you in here, we get you engaged and hopefully get you intrigued and listening to stuff you haven't listened to before," said chief curator Ken Viste. "Hopefully you'll be listening to stuff you know and love in new ways."

The museum does have a more traditional collection of historic items as well. There are guitars used by Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly, as well as shards from one destroyed by Nirvana's Kurt Cobain. There's also the barely there green Versace gown Jennifer Lopez wore to the 2000 Grammy Awards ceremony.

Straddling genres

But those pieces are vastly outnumbered by technology-centric stations, some of which are designed to educate visitors about music from different eras and regions across the country. Touch-screen maps of the United States enable users to click on a city and a decade and hear an array of artists -- for instance, select Chicago in 1990 and on comes noise rockers the Jesus Lizard.

The displays provide broad and entertaining overviews of American music. This is not a building simply for awards and history buffs.

"I want to reach kids," said Executive Director Robert Santelli, who has worked at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Experience Music Project in Seattle. "I want to inspire them to explore. If they're hip-hop fans, I want them to know that there's a great conductor up the street from us" at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

The Grammy Museum has been talked about for much of the last decade, with some discussions about it being built in New Orleans or Memphis.

AEG's L.A. Live project, however, cemented Los Angeles as the location.

Setting the stage

The museum will open with the politically slanted exhibit "Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom," which pairs cultural moments with music. The exhibit will be on display for 12 months, and Viste said he's working with the Smithsonian and the other major music museums for rotating presentations.

"My expectation is one major exhibit a year," Viste said. "That's a goal. But we're approaching times where the fiscal realities of putting something like that together are going to be a little different than they've been in the past."

The price tag for the Grammy Museum was $34 million, Santelli said. Much of the funding, he added, came courtesy of AEG.

The city of Los Angeles kicked in about $12 million in community redevelopment funds, Santelli said, and he added that a host of corporate sponsorships and private donations covered nearly all the costs.

The sponsorships, Santelli said, allow the museum to operate with a relatively low admission cost at $14.95, about half the cost of an adult ticket to the new Rock Hall Annex in New York. AEG has committed to "financially support" the museum for 10 years, but Santelli stressed that the company, which operates neighboring properties Staples Center and Nokia Theatre, will not influence Grammy Museum events or bookings.

One of the first major events comes Jan. 15, with a concert and chat with Brian Wilson, which is $20 for non-museum members (on-sale information has not yet been released).

"A lot of the programs that we're going to do are going to be very nominal," Santelli said, "I was very lucky to convince people that this museum ought not to be elitist."

Nor will winning a Grammy be a prerequisite, which is good news for artists who have yet to earn a gilded gramophone.

"That was a key point from the academy and our stakeholders, from the very beginning," Viste said. "This is everything that gets up to the Grammys. This is all the music behind the Grammys. It's 130-plus years of recorded sound, and it's accessible at the touch of a button."

--Todd Martens

Photo: Jackie Shuster with the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors utilizes the Grammy Museum’s interactive active “Crossroads,” which allows guests to tap a touch-screen to sample genres. Al Seib / Los Angeles Times