EMP chokes public trust with gag order

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's March 21 exposé on the failings of the Experience Music Project only reinforced what many of us have come to think about that bulbous ghost museum down the hill, 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 - even more problematic - the inherent contradiction of turning a vibrant cultural force into a glass-encased relic, there appears little doubt that the museum so far has flubbed its initial promise of becoming a world-class cultural institution and an internationally recognized Seattle landmark. More like a white elephant.

The facts: Between 2001 and 2003, admission revenues fell 46 percent; all rotating exhibits have been either frozen or cancelled for the foreseeable future; downsized administrative offices; and they sold the Electric Bus. As the P-I reported: "At EMP, last year kicked off with a massive round of layoffs, a corporate turnaround man as the new sheriff and deep budget cuts. Now the turnaround man is gone, the museum is on its third chief executive officer since 2003."

If EMP were a seagoing vessel, they'd be lowering the life rafts about now. In this instance, the rats - usually the first to leave a sinking ship - are holding tight.

Which brings us to the most damning aspect of the P-I's report: the lack of named sources. Listen: "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, Larry Reid, was contracted to curate the 2003 Steven Jesse Bernstein exhibit, where he ran in to what the report called "marketing complications" over a press release he wrote. Reid, who said he'd never worked in a more "creatively stifling, torturous situation," called EMP to task for its lack of democratic values. "People within the organization are very secretive about everything.... There's no transparency," he said. "The structure doesn't resemble a cultural institution."

Transparency. A nonprofit is not a private corporation. For whatever help may be derived from running EMP as a business, it yet 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 in December 2004 stepped in as interim leader at EMP).

Paul Allen's pet project has be-come an opaque shell of vague prom-ises and hushed dealings, and the so-called voluntary roving gag order the nonprofit has imposed on its em-ployees 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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