If you don't like EMP, then you'll really hate my introduction to it. In March, my little brother helped me move out to Seattle, and I figured the least I could do was take him to the top of the Space Needle like a good tourist. After staring at Mount Rainier for a while, he looked down and said, "What is that?" He was, of course, referring to the 140,000-square-foot, multicolored, Frank Gehry–designed structure that houses the EMP Museum. The next day, we swung by to nerd out over Star Wars costumes. So that wacky building and I got off to a good start.
It wasn't until I was discussing the museum's June 23 15th anniversary with some of my colleagues that I realized my warm opinion was not shared by the majority of Seattleites. This surprised me, so I began to conduct some informal research.
One coworker said, "It is a late-in-life hair band of a piece of architecture, and its programs are monuments based on concepts of anti-monumentality." Another claimed, "My main feeling is that building looks like a spaceship threw up," before I was led to Herbert Muschamp's positive New York Times review of the Seattle Central Library, in which he wrote that EMP "looks like something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over, and died." Others were slightly more forgiving: "The exterior looks like a crumpled up '90s cyberpunk outfit in Pottery Barn colors," one friend said. "But the Sky Church is pretty dazzling."
The real surprise was the percentage of people who hate EMP without having been there. Architectural aesthetics aside, the big criticism seems to be conceptual, resting on the premise that music, and specifically rock music, is not meant to be confined or contained within museum exhibits. It's the old, tired principle that the form should be all about expression and emotion, as opposed to objects and factoids. To which I say, does that same logic extend to your private stash of vinyl? To say nothing of T-shirts, ticket stubs, and other memorabilia—I mean, come on. We've all seen High Fidelity. I'm all for a passionate relationship with popular music, but let's not pretend objects have nothing to do with it.
I'd argue that the issue is less about the objects themselves and more about who they belong to. One term I heard on multiple occasions when I asked people about EMP was "Paul Allen's playground." Former Stranger music editor Kathleen Wilson went so far as to call it his "giant toy box." Allen paid $240 million to build the controversial building, and for the first five years, his company provided a substantial share of the museum's roughly $20 million annual operating budget (63 percent in 2001, down to 52 percent in 2003, back up to 54 percent in 2004, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal). Since 2005, Allen's annual contribution has been roughly half of what it was in the first five years; the majority of EMP's budget comes from a combination of visitor revenues and charitable donations. Allen is obviously a very visible part of the organization, and his enthusiasm for music is a major part of why it exists to begin with—which seems to be the single biggest obstacle for a lot of people—but the pervasive idea that EMP is a giant warehouse for his guitar collection is inaccurate.
There's no denying that EMP has struggled to establish a consistent identity. The museum has been plagued from the outset by high staff turnover and lower-than-anticipated attendance. (A reported 800,000 attendees visited during its inaugural year, but in the 2013 annual report, only 661,164 were noted, and that was with a 15 percent increase in ticket sales from the previous year. Any way you slice the numbers, there's been a steady decrease in visitors since EMP opened.) And to be sure, the inside can feel like an unwieldy, cavernous mess. Last time I was there, my friend and I walked around in circles, confused about the location of various exhibits. A third of the equipment in the Sound Lab didn't work. The entrance to the science-fiction exhibit is basically an unmarked basement. Criticism of EMP is not unwarranted, but there's a lot of good stuff to be seen within those magenta and teal walls, too. While I wasn't blown away by the heavily advertised Infinite Worlds of Science Fiction, I spent a good 45 minutes watching the videos of directors' commentary in Can't Look Away: The Lure of Horror Film. Like any good child of the '80s, I got a special little thrill when I saw David Bowie's costume from Labyrinth and Princess Leia's golden bikini from Return of the Jedi. I appreciate the museum's effort to include some form of digital interaction in each of its exhibits.
I also stumbled upon the EMP Pop Conference in April, which had the theme "Get Ur Freak On: Music, Weirdness, and Transgression." (Slap Queen Missy Elliott on anything, and I'm in.) Several acquaintances from New York were speaking, so I walked over with the intention to attend one lecture. I wound up staying the entire weekend to hear talks on Poly Styrene, Prince, Big Mama Thornton, Joni Mitchell, and Gangsta Boo.
Please note, none of what I enjoy about the museum has much to do with Paul Allen.
I realize the city has complicated issues with Microsoft's cofounder. And I'd agree it was an ill-advised move to smash a glass guitar that Dale Chihuly designed at the museum's opening. (Kid Rock also played at the kickoff celebration, and no one needed to see that.) But I haven't heard many complaints about Allen's 10-year, $1.6 million contribution to the transformation of KCMU into the much-loved KEXP. And Seattle clearly loves the Seahawks and the Sounders. I don't mean to put myself in the position of defending a billionaire, but I can't help wondering why the indignation I detect in Seattle's rejection of EMP feels so moralistic.
People say it's about the mission, when they haven't been inside. People say it's about the building, but they don't seem to have a problem with Gehry's other projects. (Honestly, it's not so far from Gehry's usual aesthetic, aside from the inclusion of color.) My sense is that these criticisms reflect an unwillingness to look beyond surfaces, a defensive entitlement that presents itself as healthy skepticism. Now, I could be a bit defensive in light of the suspicion that has greeted my own appreciation of pop music—as though acknowledging the existence of Taylor Swift in The Stranger means I'm incapable of appreciating La Luz—but I refuse to believe that there's something fishy about a person's intentions just because he is wealthy. There are worse things Allen could do with his fortune than build a museum dedicated to his teenage obsessions while donating $100 million to Ebola research.
Either way, I find I have a soft spot for EMP, in spite of its flaws. I like its lofty aspirations. I like how it never seems quite sure of what exactly it wants to be. I like how the building feels unattached to the surrounding landscape and completely out of place (probably because that's often how I feel these days). It doesn't bother me that it was founded by a billionaire, and I'm not convinced it should.
On June 23, in honor of the 15th anniversary, admission to the museum will be free. I think you should go, especially if you've never been. If you're going to hate it, at least have the goods to back it up.