EMP: Chronicler of Seattle's pop roots

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Named after none other than a Jimi Hendrix song, IF VI WAS IX remains one of the most iconic features of EMP. Consisting of over 500 musical instruments--most of them guitars--it was built by local sound sculptor Trimpin.

EMP is more or less Seattle’s ultimate package — a chronicler of past rock ‘n’ roll and an encyclopedia of present popular culture, all in a futuristic-looking building. For the museum’s 15th birthday on June 23, museum leaders threw a gigantic party in which they both celebrated EMP’s accomplishments and outlined the lessons that they had learned along the way.

The birthday bash also served as a formal introduction for the new exhibits What’s Up, Doc? The Animation Art of Chuck Jones and, in a choice that gets back to the very roots of the museum, Wild Blue Angel: Hendrix Abroad, 1966-1970.  The museum also featured a wide array of props from works of science fiction, from the Delorean in Back to the Future (courtesy of Seattle Time Machine) to the Command Chair in Star Trek to the TARDIS in Doctor Who.

But this being Seattle, the star of the show was the city’s rich musical history and EMP’s role in documenting it. Over its lifetime, EMP — originally known as the Experience Music Project — has devoted exhibits to classic rock ‘n’ roll acts such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and — of course — Jimi Hendrix. EMP has also helped foster Seattle’s musical scene through its Sound Off! program, an annual battle of the bands that gives young musicians a chance to jumpstart their careers and have their songs heard. Local artists and Sound Off! alumni such as Bleachbear, Dave B, and Manatee Commune returned the favor by providing musical entertainment for the party.

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The new Jimi Hendrix exhibit,

“It’s not just that Seattle has a great music community,” said Patty Isacson Sabee, current CEO and director, said of the acts both past and present. “Seattle has great music because Seattle has a great community.”

Controversy, shmontroversy

As with any teenager, EMP has seen its share of troubles. In its opening years, the museum was hounded by financial troubles; fortunately, those days appear to be moving into the rearview mirror. Jasen Emmons, EMP’s curatorial director, estimated that nearly two-thirds of the museum’s revenue comes from general admissions, while the remaining third is covered by grants, private events and contributions from Allen. Emmons noted that Allen has gradually been cutting back on his contributions, hoping to get the museum self-sustaining by 2018; what this means for EMP is that driving attendance has become more important than ever.

“We’ve gone, in the last three years, from 400,000 visitors to just over 600,000 visitors per year,” Emmons says — the highest annual admission since 2001, the year after the museum opened.

Still a bit of a sore point, even after all these years, is the museum itself and its architectural design. “I love the fact that it’s really pushed the boundaries,” Emmons said. According to Emmons, architect Frank Gehry was inspired by the energy of the nearby Fun Forest Amusement Park, as well as pictures of classic (unsmashed) guitars such as Gibson Les Paul Goldtops and Fender Stratocasters.

EMP’s architecture was met with considerable criticism upon the building’s construction, and though some deep-seated derision still lingers, popular perception regarding the museum’s design has begun to change toward the positive. Words like “cool” and “iconic” are used by tourists and locals alike to describe the building, but even so, some resentment remains.

“When they originally designed it and built it, I was mad about it,” said Seattle native Stewart Visser, who was taking part in the celebration. “I thought it was an ugly building, and still kind of do.”

Evolution of EMP

EMP was founded in 2000 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, whose love of rock music stretches all the way back to his teenage years, when a friend turned him on to Jimi Hendrix. The original plan for EMP was to be a museum solely for Hendrix, a plan that was revised in favor of providing a wider context of rock music. Even today — and despite that the museum has hosted many exhibits that are not about Hendrix — EMP is still seen by some as Allen’s personal love letter to Hendrix, but to reduce EMP to that is to ignore the majority of what it has to offer.

“Over the course of the last seven or eight years, we’ve started to evolve into this popular culture museum and do things like horror film, science-fiction, and fantasy,” said Emmons. The expansion beyond rock music came with the incorporation of the Science Fiction Museum and Fantasy Hall of Fame, at which time EMP realized that its best course of action was evolving toward, as Emmons put it, becoming an institution that presents popular culture.

“By having a broader umbrella, it allowed us more flexibility about different aspects that we could explore,” Emmons said. “It allowed us to broaden our audience, and it offered more variety to the visitor.”

Frank Catalano, a cultural observer in addition to being a tech consultant and columnist for GeekWire, praised EMP’s evolution from music to popular culture as “a smart move and a good move for both Seattle and the museum.”

“It is one of those developments that really both highlights the importance of pop culture and the arts in general, and also the importance of Seattle in pop culture,” Catalano said of EMP’s ties to its home city.

Also essential to EMP are its community outreach programs. Sound Off!, the competition among local musicians, was one of EMP’s first programs, and it quickly outgrew the museum’s modest expectations into a program that the museum is most proud of. Winners of Sound Off! are rewarded with studio time to record their songs, or even shows at music festivals to play them live. Despite the competition, Emmons was pleased to report the “incredible sense of camaraderie” between the bands, and mentioned that booking agents have started coming to the semi-final performances looking for talent.

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Bleachbear, one of several Sound Off! alumni who helped EMP celebrate its birthday. Bleachbear were finalists in the 2015 competition.

“It’s really become a launching pad for a lot of artists,” Emmons added.

In addition to Sound Off!, EMP’s Students Training in Artistic Reach (STAR) program connects youth music ensembles — bands and orchestras — with experienced directors and professionals to offer them valuable advice in performance. Isacson Sabee cited these programs as one of the most important things that EMP has been doing.

Referring to the heavy emphasis in schools on science, technology and math, Isaacson Sabee said, “A big part of what we want to do is make sure we keep the arts in STEM learning, and help kids really have an opportunity for their best approach to using their own innate creativity to further their own artistic, educational, and social development.”

But most important to EMP are the people who come back to it time after time. Emmons spoke fondly of the “geeks” whose passion and excitement for such diverse elements of popular culture as Nirvana and Star Wars gives the museum cause to take pride in how far it's come — and how they can keep moving ahead.

“It’s a way for them to connect with other people who are equally passionate,” Emmons said of the museum’s loyal patrons. “These people want places to get together and celebrate the fact that they love this stuff so much … people want to be together, doing this stuff with people who really love it.”

And for countless Seattleites — whether they identify as hippie or hipster, Trekkie or Whovian, Potterhead or Muggle — EMP offers a place for these people to share their passion with others.

“We’re about fandom,” Isacson Sabee said. “We’re about loving what you love.”

Photos by Jacob Nierenberg


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg

Jacob Nierenberg is an editorial intern at Crosscut. He has lived in Washington for nearly all of his life, and still proudly identifies with the Pacific Northwest despite his relocation to Stanford University; a junior, he studies American Studies and Communication in addition to writing for various on-campus publications. His hobbies include spending time with friends, listening to music, and doing absolutely nothing.