Editorial: EMP betrays public's trust

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's recent expose on the failings of the Experience Music Project only reinforces what many of us have come to think about that bulbous ghost museum at the foot of Queen Anne - if we think about it at all.

In a word, disappointing.

Whether you choose to discern EMP's shortcomings in the exorbitant admission price ($19.95 just to get in the door), poor planning, lack of vision or the inherent contradiction of turning a vibrant cultural force into a glass-encased relic, there appears little doubt that the museum has flubbed its initial promise of becoming a world-class cultural institution and an internationally recognized Seattle landmark.

The facts: Between 2001 and 2003, admission revenues fell 46 percent. All rotating exhibits have been either frozen or cancelled for the foreseeable future. Administrative offices were downsized.

Which brings us to the most damning aspect of the PI's report - namely, the lack of named sources: "More than a dozen (mostly anonymous) insiders...say EMP's woes can be blamed on its ruthless management style, its culture of secrecy and its lack of a community mission."

The only person to really come out swinging in the article is Larry Reid, whom EMP contracted to curate the 2003 Steven Jesse Bernstein exhibit. He said he'd never worked in a more "creatively stifling, torturous situation," calling EMP to task for its lack of democratic values. "People within the organization are very secretive about everything.... There's no transparency," he told the P-I. "The structure doesn't resemble a cultural institution."

A nonprofit is not a private corporation. For whatever help may be derived from running EMP as a business, it should be held to a higher standard of public openness and community dialogue than, say, Paul Allen's Vulcan Inc., to which EMP appears intimately tied. (Vulcan's Kristy Dooley stepped in as EMP's interim leader last December.)

Allen's pet project has become an opaque shell of vague promises and hushed dealings, and the so-called voluntary, roving gag order the nonprofit has imposed on its employees is a betrayal of public trust. Seattle citizens have an intellectual share in the development of EMP, and we deserve to know what's going on.

As Richard Ingram wrote in "Ten Basic Responsibilities of Nonprofit Boards": "The board should clearly articulate the organization's mission, accomplishments and goals to the public and garner support from the community."

The leaders at EMP would do well to take this advice to heart.

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