EMP lays off staff in face of dropping attendance; but Liquid Lounge bar picking up steam

Layoffs for 124 staffers at the Experience Music Project were effective immediately after they were announced Jan. 7, said Graham Keavney, a Queen Anne resident who kept his job at EMP's Turntable Restaurant. The number who got the ax was high so there wouldn't be more layoffs in six months, he said.
Paring back the 524-member workforce didn't come as a surprise, though.
"They warned us there were going to be dramatic layoffs," Keavney said of an announcement at a meeting more than a month before.
Everyone could also see that the numbers of visitors had shrunk since the $240 million interactive museum and music venue opened 19 months ago, he said.
Some of the decline in visitors was expected, said Bob Santelli, EMP's director and chief executive. New museums typically see a drop-off in visitors after the first year or so, but the faltering economy and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks made matters worse, he said.
Santelli said he has spent a lot of time on the phone with other museums in the country in the past couple of months to see how they're handling the situation.
"The general consensus is we all have to take a wait-and-see attitude."
Most expect to see a modest improvement this year, said Santelli, who came to EMP from a job as vice president of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Santelli is optimistic that the EMP will flourish because of the museum's focus on interactive high-tech exhibits.
"I like to consider the Experience Music Project as America's first 21st century museum," he said.
Indeed, the museum is a techie paradise, according to Brain Beaumont, a Queen Anne resident and EMP's director of information technology.
"All of the audio-visual is simply over the top," he said of ultra-fast connections and six to seven terabytes of information.
That's enough data to fill around 9,700 CDs, Beaumont said, and it is unnecessary to buy a ticket to the museum to tap into vast amount of information.
"A lot of people don't know we have a free digital library," he explained.
The Compaq Digital Lab is a 24-station multimedia computer library.
"It's more expanded than the (EMP) Web site," said EMP staffer Gwen Wilson, who added that the library features digitized versions of EMP's programs and artifacts.
Exhibit pieces such as the guitar Jimi Hendrix played at Woodstock are called artifacts by EMP. The guitar is featured in the digital lab's photos of the expanding number of artifacts - now at more than 80,000 - in the museum's collection.
Santelli said EMP considers itself to be part of the Seattle Center family, and he said that The Liquid Lounge is fast becoming a neighborhood hangout.
The bar features live music, a ticket to EMP isn't necessary to get in, there is no cover, and it is a smoke-free environment.
"The bar is one area that seems to be real busy these days," Santelli added.
The Liquid Lounge, the Turntable Restaurant and the museum's catering service are separate from the rest of EMP. Grouped under a museum food-services label, the three have their own payroll and can advertise separately from the museum's budget, he said.
The bar began offering a happy hour around three weeks ago, and business has improved, Keavney said.
"It's picking up literally on a daily basis."
He also said the bar is starting to draw a Sonics crowd before and after the games. Keavney said he thinks The Liquid Lounge is on its way to becoming a neighborhood attraction on its own merits.
"And I think the restaurant is going to benefit from that."
Santelli said the EMP as a whole is well on its way to stabilizing since the downsizing.
"The challenges are what they are," he said of his job. "But the rewards are just as exciting."
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