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Downtown's Grammy Museum grows up

December 14, 2009 |  7:17 pm


The Grammy Museum faced a number of challenges when it opened to the public last December. Set in downtown's L.A. Live complex, the institution was up and running in advance of many of the development's restaurants, hotels and movie theaters. Foot traffic, at least from those not attending basketball or hockey games at Staples Center next door, would be at a minimum.

Then there was the recession. The museum, which carried a price tag of around $34 million, executive director Robert Santelli told the Times last year, was forced to make staff cuts soon after its grand opening. (AEG, developer of L.A. Live, has committed to financially support the museum for 10 years.)

"We did cut down a bit, and that’s to be expected in the first year, even without an economic dilemma that we face," Santelli said last week."You really don’t know until you're open for six months in terms of what you need or don’t need in terms of manpower."

All told, in its first year of operation the museum hosted approximately 85,000 guests. A substantial number, no doubt, but one that still wouldn't fill a U2 gig at the Rose Bowl.Yet the museum has had no shortage of A-list visitors. Among its 60 or so public programs, the Grammy Museum has hosted events that featured the likes of Brian Wilson, Annie Lennox, Clive Davis, Dave Matthews and Tom Morello, among others.

The word "museum" may not even be the most apt descriptor for the complex. The Grammy Museum uses the annual awards as a jumping-off point, allowing visitors to digitally explore genres, regions and the recording studio. It takes a hands-on approach to education, giving the guests the opportunity to record vocals, mix a track and learn the basics of traditional rock 'n' roll instrumentation.

After establishing a foothold in the first year, Santelli has ambitious plans for the four-story, heavily interactive museum in 2010. The timing seems to be right. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel & JW Marriott Hotel is on track to open in early 2010 at L.A. Live, and the 14-screen Regal Cinemas opened in the fall. Among Santelli's hopes for 2010 are the launch of a Grammy Museum travel program, which would visit four music destinations per year.

Additionally, on Jan. 8 the museum will open "Elvis at 21: Photographs by Alfred Wertheimer," pairing the intimate looks at the star with rare footage and collectibles. It's a joint production with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and Santelli intends to start the Grammy Museum's continuing education program with the exhibit. 

Santelli, who served as an executive at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland and the Experience Music Project in Seattle, comes from the academic world, having taught at Monmouth University and Rutgers. His course on Presley, said Santelli, should start in January. "It’s free to members and the community, so people will be able to come to this four- or five-part program," he said. "The intention is to keep this very accessible to the general public and our managers."

The Presley display will be one of three or four temporary exhibits the museum hopes to host in 2010, taking over the second-floor space vacated by the yearlong "Songs of Conscience, Sounds of Freedom" installation. The museum will continue to expand its Latin Grammy floorspace, and it became a national tourist destination thanks to its ever-expanding "Michael Jackson: A Musical Legacy" exhibit.

Santelli reflects on the Grammy Museum at 1, and shares some of the institution's 2010 plans. 

Is daily attendance where you want it?

Of all of the key sustainable points, that’s the one place where we continue to suffer. We’re doing fine with group sales, we’re doing fine with school groups, we’re doing very well with corporate sponsorship, gift giving, public programs, membership. It’s just the walk-up attendance that we are behind on. We’re going to see an improvement with the opening of the two new hotels -- the Ritz-Carlton Hotel & JW Marriott Hotel -- will more or less bring people down to L.A. and keep them there overnight.

We’re working very closely with the Regal Cinemas. If you go there you’ll see a big ad and a big Grammy Museum display. We’re finding ways to coordinate more with other tenants at L.A. Live. We know, however, that’s going to be an uphill battle, and is going to happen over the course of time – probably not months, but years. But we’re optimistic. Downtown will eventually kick in again.

How difficult was it to open while L.A. Live was a work in progress?

We were the first ones, basically, to open. We opened right on time last Dec. 6, but not a lot of the other restaurants and other entities were ready to go as well. As they opened, that has helped us. But what we haven’t really done a lot of, which is very much at the top of the priority list, is better integration with L.A. Live. Now, when you buy a ticket to Club Nokia or the Nokia Theatre, you have a chance to buy a Grammy Museum ticket. A lot of these integrations didn’t occur our very first six months, even our first eight or 10 months.

What's the challenge in branding? The Grammy Awards are only a fraction of the museum, and it's also largely interactive exhibits.

If it were up to me, and it wasn’t, I’d have a different name. Not so much Grammy – I’m OK with that. I think the term ‘museum’ scares people sometimes. They go back to their youth where they’re looking at dusty things on a wall. Clearly we’re not about that. This has never been a museum that was object- or artifact-driven … We’re not a conventional museum where the thing you do is to go and look at objects. I don’t believe in that. I think in the 21st century you have to be far more dynamic.

It really separates us. If we called it the Grammy Music Experience, or the Grammy Music Center, that may have been a little more accurate in terms of the way people perceive us.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Annex will leave New York on Jan. 3 after just one year. How do you keep the public excited about visiting a music museum?

The whole music culture in this country has changed. It was once dominated by the baby boomers, and the baby boomers were growing up with a music that was deeply connected with their souls. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore with the younger generation, and that’s neither good nor bad. But what I’m here to do, and what the staff is here to do, is to convince people that the Grammy Museum is a source of information and inspiration about music today. One of my dreams is to make sure the Grammy Museum is on the same level as an MTV or a YouTube or whatever, in which we are able to get information out about artists and musical trends right away. I’m less interested in looking at the past than I would be if I were still at the Rock Hall or Experience Music Project, which really concentrates on that.

Leading up to the Grammys in 2009, it didn’t seem like the museum had a huge presence, or was taking advantage of the artists coming through.

It’s changed. When we release our Grammy Week program [for 2010], it is jam-packed. I don’t know when we’ll sleep. We’ve taken a brand new approach. In our defense, last time we had only been open five weeks. We were still trying to figure out how to turn on the lights and lock the door. This year, we have a year under our belts, and we will participate more. I have to be honest about this: The museum understands its place. The Grammy Award show, which is the biggest event, we like to think, in music, we’ll support it, but we will never take center stage.

One of my favorite pieces in the museum is a letter that Clive Davis wrote offering notes about Whitney Houston's portrayal in "The Bodyguard." It offers a unique look at the business, but one that appeals to a wider audience as well. How does the museum see its role in reflecting the changing industry?

I want to play a big role, not necessarily in shaping the industry, but acting as a place of public discourse. We’re planning a major series on the future of music. That’s a tentative title. It’s going to be a five-part series in which we look in depth at all elements of music culture in the music industry. Our job is to present it and offer it up to the general public and the industry. It’s going to be, I hope, a great exchange of ideas. It’s going to be controversial. It’s going to be something that will have some of the best and brightest and most prestigious minds and leaders in the industry and culture in the Grammy Museum. But it’s not our place to dictate the course of the industry. We’re here to be a place where ideas are scrutinized and argued. The goal would be to make this an annual event.

We'll have more coverage on the Elvis exhibit soon, but what's the objective?

I grew up on Elvis Presley music. Personally, and professionally as a curator, it’s always irked me that young people, especially when they think of Elvis, they see the caricature of the fat guy in the jumpsuit. They don’t really understand why two previous generations so admired this guy, and history has recognized him as one of the great cultural innovators.

When I heard the Smithsonian was doing this exhibit, I said, "Wow, I would love to be the first place to show this." We’re dealing with the Elvis that people need to remember. The guy was 21 years old in 1956, and gave birth to popular music culture. I had a relationship with the Smithsonian for years, and they agreed to let us take it. We embellished what they originally intended it to do. They originally intended it to be just a photo exhibit, but I went to Graceland and to collectors. There are artifacts, and there will be films and rare footage we will show as part of the exhibit. There’s some interactivity, a lot of multimedia and then the objects. Elvis turns 75 the day it opens.

--Todd Martens


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