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Music Museum Proposed for D.C.

By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 9, 1998


Museum supporters Bob Dole, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Sinatra, from left, at yesterday's news conference. (William Philpott / AP)
A group of cultural and business leaders, joined by Nancy Sinatra and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, announced plans yesterday to establish an ambitious music museum and entertainment complex in downtown Washington.

The effort, led by former senator Robert Dole, now president of the Federal City Council, and Smithsonian Institution Secretary I. Michael Heyman, would create an enterprise that would be a hybrid of a museum's traditional displays, a research archive, performance spaces, studio space and retail outlets.

The heart of the proposal would be a museum built on the vast music collections of the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian. In the future, Nancy Sinatra confirmed yesterday, the two places will be the repositories for the archives of her father, Frank Sinatra.

The planners for the proposed museum do not have a specific location in mind, but Austin Kiplinger, the council's chairman, underscored that they wanted the project downtown and probably not far from MCI Center, where yesterday's announcement was made. "The site is an open question but without question it will be in the downtown area," Kiplinger said.

photo Nancy Sinatra and Gen. Donald Scott at the MCI Center, where plans to develop a music museum were announced. (Juana Arias / The Washington Post)
In addition, no financial investors were named and no date for an opening has been set. After Dole and Heyman signed an agreement to get the ball rolling on what they called the National Music Museum and Center, Heyman said the next step is "serious exploration," including a feasibility study and fund-raising.

"The council is going to be seeking to raise money from the corporate community here and from the music community around the country," Heyman said. The feasibility study will be underwritten by the council. Undoubtedly, the Sinatra name and the prospect of his collections raises the appeal among fund-raisers and as a tourist attraction, according to an official familiar with proposals.

"I hope the museum brings together under one roof three American treasures -- the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress and Frank Sinatra," Sinatra said. Her father, one of the most influential entertainers of the century, died at age 82 in May.

The planners said they wanted a unique destination that would be not only a state-of-the-art cultural complex but also another catalyst for the downtown area, which is making a strong comeback.

"We know the visitors are excited by the real stuff and we have it. What we need now is to combine the authentic materials of our history with a place for people to come and enjoy, to participate and to hear all kinds of music," said Heyman.

"We envision . . . a multifaceted experience for the visitors," Dole said.

In other cities, music museums with concert halls and stores are credited by business and cultural communities with helping to revitalize downtown districts. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland has brought in crowds beyond the organizers' expectations. The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville is constructing a new $35 million home. In Seattle, Paul G. Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, is spearheading a $100 million museum called the Experience Music Project.

Mrs. Clinton, who has taken a keen interest in the development of downtown as a showplace for the country, as well as emphasizing the reach of the arts, said cultural complexes could be transforming, and said visitors could experience "another attraction that would be so indicative of what we value and care about in our country."

Yet, unless one person has a dream, such as team owner Abe Pollin's goal of a downtown sports arena, Washington has proved to be a hard sell for large new cultural institutions. The Washington Opera has abandoned its plans to convert the old Woodward & Lothrop building into a new home, mainly because of the formidable task of raising an estimated $200 million for the restoration. Dreams of new movie theaters for the downtown corridor have languished for years.

But yesterday, planners were optimistic.

"It has the potential to bring together all of the factors that would make a project successful. It has quality cultural offerings, potential for good retail, relationships with the government and significant private sector involvement," said Patricia Mathews, co-chair of the Downtown Arts Committee.

The Smithsonian entered the discussion as part of its affiliations programs, in which the Smithsonian does not invest financially but lends display items on a long-term basis, and allows its curators to help expand or start museums around the country. An outlet in Washington would ease the space crunch at the Smithsonian museums for its collections and musical performances, such as the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. "We don't have adequate space," Heyman said.

This time Nancy Sinatra said emphatically she has the dream. Years ago, she explained, she had approached a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about housing some of her father's film and music collections. "This man told me, 'Your father is America. He belongs in Washington, D.C.' And when I told him, my dad got tears in his eyes and he said, 'Isn't that marvelous,' " recalled Sinatra. She then began a series of talks with the Smithsonian and the Library of Congress.

"With the Smithsonian's excellent presentations and exhibits and with the library's state-of-the-art restoration and preservation techniques, I knew that my dad's body of work would be protected and accessible to generations to come," she said.

The Sinatra collection is huge, she said simply, and the entire family has agreed that the two Washington institutions are appropriate repositories. His singular career, she pointed out, followed the changes in technology for most of the century. "In the early days he used a megaphone and he said the kids used to throw coins into the megaphone and try to get them in this mouth," she said.

She said the gift would include instruments, including an outsize grand piano with extra keys that composer Jimmy Van Heusen gave her father; movie costumes, including the sailor suit Sinatra wore in "On the Town"; thousands of arrangements and recordings of music; and recordings of radio and television programs. "When a student wants to see what the trombone line in 'I've Got You Under My Skin' looks like, he will be able to get that on the Internet. It's exciting," she said.

The Smithsonian has the largest collection of musical instruments in the country, including priceless Stradivarius violins and guitars, the largest harmonica archives anywhere and 150 keyboard instruments. The holdings have been enhanced in recent years with the artifacts of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington, whose family gave the Smithsonian 200,000 documents, including many unpublished scores.

The music holdings of the Library of Congress go back almost 200 years with the original gift by Thomas Jefferson and have grown to more than 6 million items, including the copyright deposits and the collections of John Philip Sousa, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Leonard Bernstein.

While the plans are being finalized, the organizers are planning a prototype exhibition downtown next April to mark the 100th anniversary of Ellington's birth.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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