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Blogcritics Interview: Jim Henke of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland is entering its eighth year. It’s hard to believe it was that long ago that I was covering the opening for WENZ, and interviewing Chief Curator Jim Henke about the exciting new shrine.

With the nominations for 2003 recently announced, the blockbuster John Lennon exhibit about the close, and a new U2 exhibit in the works for early next year, it was a good time to check in on Jim and the Rock Hall.

    EO: How well has the Rock Hall fulfilled its mission so far?

    JH: We just passed our seventh anniversary, and in the museum world, we’re still a baby. That said, I think we’ve made some significant strides. The exhibits have changed a lot, and I’d say we’ve changed about 80% of them since we opened. There are many, many more artifacts on display than when we opened, and I think the whole vibe is more exciting. We’ve also done some very successful special exhibits. Our first one, on the psychedelic era, was very thorough and we got the participation of several of the musicians, artists, etc., from that era. We also did the first-eve hip-hop exhibit, which has been traveling around the country since it closed here. It’s been in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and there’s a chance it will be going to London next year. We also did a collaboration with the Metropolitan Museum of Art called Rock Style — most museums in the world would die to be able to collaborate with such an august museum. That exhibit was in Cleveland, New York and Columbus. And our John Lennon exhibit was the most comprehensive exhibit on a Beatle. We’ve also done some terrific programming, and we are planning to build a library and archives sometime in the next few years. If we keep going at this pace, I think we will be able to be very proud.

    EO: What does a curator do?

    JH: My job is basically to oversee the content of the museum. That includes everything from deciding what exhibits to do, what artifacts to collect, and how to display them to working with filmmakers on the content of the video elements of the museum and working with the computer folks on the content of the interactive displays. We are different from many museums in that we don’t have a big budget to buy artifacts, so virtually everything we exhibit is either on loan or is a gift. Most of the artifacts come from the musicians themselves, their families, their managers, etc., so a big part of my job is to establish and maintain relationships with those people. For example, both our Jimi Hendrix exhibit and our John Lennon exhibit resulted from our good relationships with the Hendrix family and with Yoko Ono. We also encourage musicians to visit the museum when they are in Cleveland for a concert. I’ve found that once artists see the museum, they have a better understanding of what we are doing and they are far more likely to donate artifacts. About 99% of the artists who visit love the museum.

    EO: What are your best and worst memories from working at Rolling Stone? Who is the best writer you have worked with?

    JH: I really enjoyed my time at Rolling Stone. I spent about 15 years there, from 1977 to 1992, and I had the good fortune to have a lot of different positions. I started out as a copy editor for the music stories, and I was given the chance to do some writing at the same time. Then I was asked to move to Los Angeles to open a bureau there. I spent two years in LA before coming back to New York as music editor. I also worked on several special projects, including the Rolling Stone album guide and the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll. In many ways, I miss journalism. I miss the immediacy of doing an interview, writing the story and seeing it in print, all in a matter of weeks. The projects at the Hall of Fame take considerably longer to develop, so we sometimes spend a year or two on one exhibit.

    People often wonder how I made the transition from journalism to being a curator. It was actually quite easy. Putting together an exhibit is very much like writing a story. At the Hall of Fame we try to figure out what we want to do, then we begin approaching people, both to obtain artifacts and to get more information about the subject. Inevitably one contact will lead you to numerous others, and you start finding people who have knowledge and/or artifacts that will help with the exhibit. Once the collecting process is finished, we develop an outline and figure out how we are going to tell the story — do we need a film, photos, interactives, etc.?

    During much of my time at Rolling Stone, the music department consisted solely of me, Kurt Loder and Chris Connelly. We had some really great times and a lot of fun. I have few complaints

    EO: The John Lennon exhibit is almost finished – when does it close? What has
    it accomplished? What are its highlights?

    JH: The Lennon exhibit opened in September of 2000 and will close at the end of this year. It has been our longest-running exhibit, primarily due to the demand from the public to see it. I think it works on several levels — the general fan of John Lennon or the Beatles will love being able to see so many of his personal items, from early childhood materials (report cards, drawings, notebooks), to aout 45 of his handwritten lyric manuscripts. The lyrics are my favorite part of the exhibit. They take up an entire floor and they really shed a lot of light on his creative process. We also look at John as an artist (there are many paintings and collages that have never before been exhibited) and we look at his work as a social activist with Yoko Ono. Yoko has been great to work with and this exhibit would have been impossible without her.

    EO: When does the new U2 exhibit open?

    JH: The U2 exhibit will open in early 2003. We don’t have an exact date yet. This exhibit is another example of how valuable our relationships are. I first met U2 back before their first album, Boy, came out. I did a story for Rolling Stone — the first American interview with them — and we became friends. When I started at the Hall of Fame, I approached them about getting some artifacts, and we put together a small exhibit on their earliest years — it includes items like the first U2 T-shirt which was made in a high school art class, a bio of them when they were still called the Hype, etc.

    Then, when they were on tour last year, they came by the Hall of Fame on an off-day and spent a lot of time here. They loved the place and said they wanted to give us more materials for an exhibit. It took about a year to pull it all together, but they came through. We are still in the process of collecting things, but we have numerous outfits from their tours and videos, instruments, lyric manuscripts, set designs, etc. I think U2 fans are absolutely going to love it, and I think the general public will find it informative and fun.

    EO: What is the nomination and voting process for the Hall of Fame?

    JH: Artists become eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame 25 years after the release of their first recording. The nominations and inductions are handled by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation, which is based in New York and which is essentially the museum’s parent organization. The Foundation is made up of the heads of most of the record companies, as well as other major music executives.

    Each year, the Foundation puts together a comprehensive list of everyone who is eligible. That list then goes to the Nominating Committee, which is a group of about 70 people, including journalists, record execs, producers, etc. That committee then meets and discusses the potential nominees. They then vote and develop a ballot, which includes about 15 people. There is then a voting body of about 1,000 people who vote on the final inductees. The voters include all of our current inductees, as well as journalists, historians, record execs, etc.

    The selection process is based entirely on the quality of an artist’s work. Record sales and hits are not a big part of it. So it’s entirely subjective. I may think someone is great and someone else may think they stink. It’s not like baseball, where they are statistics that can be used to judge someone’s performance.

    There are also separate committees that decide on the inductees in different categories, such as sidemen, non-performers and early influences (musicians who were not rock and roll artists, per se, but who influenced rock and roll).

    EO: Who do you think will get in of this year’s nominees?

    JH: It’s impossible to guess. I’m always as surprised as the general public. You really can’t predict with any degree of accuracy.

    EO: What are your favorite items on display in the museum?

    JH: I like a lot of the items. One of my favorite exhibits is the Sun Records recording studio. It’s actually the original equipment from Sun (the stuff at the studio in Memphis is not original), and I think it’s a very valuable piece of history. After I was hired here, I made it a point to go down to Memphis and meet with Sam Phillips. I had never met him before, and I knew it was essential that his role in rock and roll be represented in the Hall of Fame. I made about 20 trips down there, and spent hours with Sam. First I had to deal with the issue of why the Hall of Fame is not in Memphis, then I had to convince him that we would be telling the history of rock and roll in an accurate way. Eventually, we not only got the recording equipment, but we got a host of materials on the history of Sun, from their incorporation papers from the state of Tennessee, to their first log books, to telegrams regarding the sale of Elvis’ contract to RCA. Along the way, I became good friends with Sam and his family and it’s a relationship that I truly value. Sam has been to Cleveland a couple of times and is now a good friend of the Hall of Fame’s.

    EO: What are your favorites not on display?

    JH: There is actually a ton of stuff not on display. We rotate items on exhibit fairly frequently so that the light and other environmental things don’t destroy them. One of the odder things we have is one of Bob Marley’s dreadlocks. It fell out when he was getting treatment for his cancer, and the family donated it to us when we opened. We hope to do a big Bob Marley exhibit in the future. I am currently talking with his family about that.

    EO: Do the artifacts themselves have meaning, or are they more important for
    the memories they generate?

    JH: It’s a combination of both. Certainly many of the artifacts — especially things like handwritten lyrics, correspondence, memos, etc. — are very valuable historical documents. Once we get our library open, we hope to make these kinds of materials available to researchers and writers who are documenting the history of rock and roll. But we’ve attempted to make the museum a place where everyone from the most casual rock fan to the most avid rock historian can have a satisfying experience, and I think we’ve been pretty successful in doing that. Certainly, a lot of our visitors come here to go back to their youth and revive memories of their favorite rock artists. But more avid rock fans can also discover a lot of history here that they may not have been aware of.

    EO: Any big future plans for the Rock Hall?

    JH: As I said, aside from upcoming exhibits, we hope to be able to raise the money to build a library and archives as well as some temporary exhibit space. Time will tell. Obviously, the economy has made it tough to raise money. And being a non-profit, we must rely on donations from corporations and foundations, as well as the general public. I hope the expansion will become a reality because it will enable us to move up to the next level.

    EO: The Rock Hall has been open 7 years now – would you have done anything

    JH: The one thing we have to deal with is the building. It’s a beautiful building and a landmark for the city of Cleveland. However, it has its problems as a museum. For one thing, the amount of natural light that comes in through the glass pyramid makes it tough, if not impossible, to display artiacts in the more public areas. Also, there was no flexible temporary exhibit space in the original design, so we’ve had to take other areas and adapt them for our temporary exhibit. But overall I’m pretty happy with the way things have gone.

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About Eric Olsen

  • Sean Hackbarth

    What does Mr. Henke think of the many bands who are eligible for induction that haven’t made it? The first one off the top of my head is Rush. They’ve been making quality music and filling arenas for 30 years. They’ve progressed from heavy metal and prog rock to radio-friendly radio rock. What’s prevented them from getting into the Hall of Fame?

  • george p de la garza

    Journey. enough said steve perry best vocals on earth. neal also enough said. cain should have been the glue but let us down. smith & valory again enough said