The Makings of a Museum
During that period, the Barry administration asked Federal City Council member Herbert S. Miller, the hyperactive retail developer behind mega-malls including Potomac Mills, to head the "Downtown Interactive Task Force." The task force was told to come up with ways to help the District lure more tourists and residents. One of its recommendations was a music museum and performance center, which Miller thought would create a sense of fun and excitement.
Miller called Sparks with his idea. Sparks, now 70 and planning to retire in September, had joined the staff of the Federal City Council in 1969. (Sparks's successor will be John W. Hill Jr., now chief executive of the charity In2Books and former executive director of the D.C. financial control board.) The tall, avuncular Sparks is a devoted music fan. The "Washington Song," which he composed, is posted on the council's Web site. "We call him Mr. Music," Miller said. "Ken Sparks, he writes music, he sings music, it's his soul."
Sparks was taken by the idea of a music museum and persuaded the council's board to make the museum its next undertaking. Federal City hired consultants who quickly raised concerns about Miller's plan. His task force had suggested housing the operation inside the old Carnegie Library on Mount Vernon Square. The consultants said that was impractical. The site was too small and faced considerable historic preservation requirements. (The building was turned into a museum of D.C. history instead.) The consultants suggested the old convention center site, which they said could contain a 3,200-seat performance hall for concerts and Broadway plays and two smaller theaters.
On the other side of the country, Nancy Sinatra, daughter of the late Frank Sinatra, was trying to figure out what to do with the piles of her father's old tapes, sheet music and more stacking up in her living room. She talked to the Smithsonian Institution about donating the collection. Jim Weaver, who headed musical displays at the Smithsonian, said the Smithsonian was interested, but did not have room in its Museum of American History. Much of jazz giant Duke Ellington's collection was gathering dust in a Smithsonian storage room.
An acquaintance told Weaver he should meet with Sparks. Weaver had worked in Washington for 30 years, but had never heard of the Federal City Council and was skeptical.
"Everyone thinks it's easy to set up a museum," he said. "I figured these were just some guys with an idea but no understanding of what it would take to execute." That notion was quickly dispelled when he got to the meeting and heard about their track record. "I was amazed that they had been behind some of these projects I had followed closely, but I'd never heard of them."
Officials of the Smithsonian and later the Library of Congress, where George Gershwin's manuscript for "Rhapsody in Blue" and other classics of American music sit on shelves, agreed to team up with the Federal City Council to push for a music museum. The museum was envisioned as an interactive experience, through which visitors could learn about all manner of American tunes -- folk and bluegrass, gospel and jazz, rock and roll and Broadway.
Nancy Sinatra joined the board of directors of the music center. Weaver became its staff director. And Sparks and the Federal City Council set about using their connections to build support.
Joseph E. Robert Jr., a real estate executive and Federal City Council member, recruited his friend, music impresario Quincy Jones to the project. Ken Rietz, chief operating officer of communications firm Burson-Marsteller in Washington and a former television producer, took the job of chairman. Paul Martin Wolff, a partner of law firm Williams & Connolly and a Federal City Council member who is now on the music center board, arranged a meeting with then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, via a friendship with her chief of staff. Sparks and other music museum advocates presented their proposal to her in her White House office; when the president's budget for the next year came out, $3 million was earmarked for the music center, although the money did not end up in the budget Congress ultimately approved. Clinton showed up at the group's 1998 press conference launching the museum.
Filling a Power Vacuum
The District's capacity to plan future developments, however, was withering during those years. By 1998, Mayor Barry was in his waning days in office. A financial control board was running much of the District's operations. The planning staff had dwindled to only a handful of people.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
Music legend Quincy Jones greets Nancy Sinatra at a November news conference detailing plans for the proposed National Music Center and Museum. Jones and Sinatra are on the museum's governing board.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta -- AP)
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