Rock Hall Honors Bessie Smith, Plans Expansions

CLEVELAND — When Terry Stewart took on the top job at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum two years ago, he immediately began talking about expansion. The museum desperately needed room for its planned library and archives and for classrooms, kitchen facilities, a larger theater/performance space, parking, and other requirements that had been overlooked in building the original 150,000-square-foot glass tent.

On Monday, he announced that the museum will soon unveil its first strategic plan, including the results of a feasibility study for a proposed 40,000-foot underground expansion that would link the museum to the nearby Great Lakes Science Center.

President and CEO Stewart also announced that the museum has chosen Bessie Smith as this year's American Music Masters series honoree, and Hank Williams as next year's. An announcement of the 2003 honoree also is imminent. These artists, who will be honored with a symposium and concerts, are being announced much sooner than in the past. Stewart said planning ahead "gives us a chance to go to the performers and educators and other professionals that we want to have on the educational side and get their commitment … and also allows in terms of funding to seek out those foundations and other institutions that might be able to help us finance the programs … by tying them together over a three-year period." Presumably, planners could then prevent disappointments like not being able to have Eric Clapton appear at last year's Muddy Waters tribute because he had used up his allotment of U.S. visa days.

While avoiding saying whether the expansion was definitely happening, Stewart promised that the long-postponed library and archives would become a priority.

"Half of our mission statement," he said, "is about our duty to educate the world about the impact of this music on our lives and our culture."

Though library and archive space had been part of the original design, it had long since been sacrificed for office space and would have been inadequate anyway, chief curator and vice president of exhibitions Jim Henke said Monday. Giving a rare tour of the museum's archives-in-waiting — a cramped room stuffed with costumes, instruments, memorabilia, and documents currently inaccessible to researchers and the public — Henke said the museum is concentrating on collecting personal papers from artists, record company executives, Hall of Fame inductees, and others who had a part in rock history. Journalist Ben Fong-Torres and musician Lenny Kaye have been tapped to help collect material. Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler's files are already in the museum's possession, but, Henke said, "Record companies, by and large, don't have a great sense of history. We want to be a place where this kind of thing can go."

Previously, Stewart said the New York-based Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation had promised funds for the expansion. Further funding likely would be sought from private donors and grants.

At Monday's media luncheon, museum board chairman Jay Henderson also announced that attendance for the year 2000 hit 524,000, up from 512,000 the previous year.

Saying he's not expecting quantum leaps but would be happy if attendance edged upward each year, Stewart said, "We've started to understand how this place needs to be programmed and marketed."