Motown Museum aims for $50 million expansion

Michael H. Hodges
Detroit News Fine Arts Writer

Detroit’s Motown Museum may be on the verge of becoming a much bigger tourist attraction.

On Monday, the museum announced a $50 million capital campaign to fund an expansion adding 40,000 square feet. Planned improvements include new interactive exhibits, a theater, recording studios and an enlarged museum store to the current 10,000-square-foot attraction.

Museum Chairwoman and CEO Robin R. Terry stressed that Hitsville — the modest West Grand Boulevard bungalow where the early Motown hits were recorded — will not change.

“Hitsville is the crown jewel, and will remain the authentic crown jewel of the expanded museum,” Terry said. “Hitsville will look the same. The new construction will just enhance and complement it.”

Terry declined to give a timeline for fundraising or groundbreaking, saying only that more information will emerge in the coming weeks and months.

“But I think it’s something we’ll be able to do fairly quickly based on the response we’ve been getting,” she said. Motown founder Berry Gordy, Terry added, is very interested in the project.

The proposed new structure and parking would sit on 10 city lots on Ferry Park Avenue behind Hitsville, Terry added — real estate the museum acquired over the past 18 months.

“You can’t build if you don’t have land,” she said, “and we know parking is at a premium here.”

Last year the Motown Museum had more than 70,000 paying visitors.

The question, of course, is whether Motown — a relatively small institution that in 2014 had revenue of $2.35 million and a $1.76 million operating budget — can generate $50 million quickly enough to get a huge project off the ground.

Juanita Moore, for one, is optimistic. Before Moore took over the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, she headed the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.

“Fundraising is always a heavy lift,” Moore said, “but I think it’s definitely doable with Motown’s visibility and product. And,” she added, “music is far more marketable than history.”

The museum scored a famous architect for the new structure in Phil Freelon, who designed the Smithsonian Institution’s striking new $540 million National African American History and Culture Museum in Washington, D.C.

Freelon’s crisp, modern Motown design could revolutionize the entire neighborhood. In renderings, the proposed structure sits just behind Hitsville, rising several stories above it, with illuminated images of Motown greats on the walls facing the boulevard.

A $50 million capital campaign is not out of league with other Detroit cultural institutions.

The Michigan Opera Theatre announced a $50 million campaign this year. The Detroit Historical Museum launched a five-year, $20 million capital campaign in 2012.

And the Detroit Institute of Arts raised $178 million starting in 2000 to completely renovate the museum and reinstall its collection.

In that case, however, several big donors including A. Alfred Taubman got things going with $50 million right out of the gate.

Many local foundations have had a relationship with the museum for years, including the Kresge Foundation and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

It also gets regular grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs, which in the past year gave $50,000 for improvements and $30,000 in operational support.

And many musicians beyond the Motown orbit have a soft spot for the place. In 2013, Paul McCartney paid an undisclosed amount to renovate the museum’s 1877 Steinway grand piano, once used by Motown greats.

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Twitter: @mhodgesartguy