Rock Hall Takes Pandemic Lessons Into 2021, Plans Expansion

An overhead shot of the footprint of the Rock Hall expansion, between the museum and the Great Lakes Science Center.
Plans for expansion will be informed by new ideas about curation and staffing. [Practice for Architecture and Urbanism]
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Cleveland’s musical museum on the lake is looking to take some lessons from the past year into its planning for 2021. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame re-opened its doors over the weekend after a two-month COVID-inspired closure.

One of the long-standing knocks against the Rock Hall is the idea of caging a rambunctious musical form inside the walls of a museum. In recent years, curators have tried to break the “look but don’t touch” mold with exhibits like “The Garage,” a collection of band instruments that allow visitors to shred, bang and wail to their hearts’ content.

But then, along came COVID, and it’s back to hands-off and the online world of virtual exhibits.

“You can be jaded by that experience, just always looking online,” said Nwaka Onwusa, the Rock Hall’s chief curator.

Onwusa is trying to find a balance between real and virtual, because the pandemic has forced her and her staff to rethink what they do.

“There's so much amazing and new cutting-edge technology that's coming out right now and ways in which we can connect with people from all over the world, and that's going to impact the way that we curate,” she said. 

Rock Hall curator Nwaka Onwusa, musicians Valerie June and Mavis Staples and CEO Greg Harris at a 2019 tribute to Staples. [Rock and Roll Hall of Fame]

CEO Greg Harris added that they successfully tapped resources from the museum’s archives to attract global eyeballs, during two closures this past year.

“We put out hundreds and hundreds of never before seen performances,” he said. “Our YouTube views were off the charts. We were getting 15 million viewers a month in April, May, June, and they were consuming hundreds of thousands of hours.”

But, while the online numbers went up, the need for staff in the building plummeted.

“We were averaging approximately 30 percent of our typical visitation,” Harris said. “And we had to make some really aggressive staff changes. We ended up transitioning about 40 percent of our employees, and we're going to stay lean as we move into the new year. And we will, slowly, as business comes back and as the need is there, then we'll start looking at scaling up.”

As the organization scales its staff back up, it’s also looking to grow its working space as part of a $100 million building expansion to be built between the museum and the Great Lakes Science Center next door. Current drawings show a 50,000-square foot facility on a triangular patch of land.

“We're still in fundraising mode, but we've raised roughly about $73 million of the $100 million dollars, and we look forward to closing out the rest.

Harris said most of those funds came from board members and current donors. That pot was sweetened last month by $1.75 million from the state in capital construction funding designated for the Rock Hall and the Science Center. Plans for the building continue to evolve, he added. The fact that so many staff members are now working from home may inform ideas about office space. The current plan is to break ground in 2022.

Nwaka Onwusa is looking forward to having more space for her curatorial staff in the 25-year-old building.

“Oh, my gosh, more square footage, more exhibit space, more gallery space,” she said. “We have such a great collection, a beautiful library and archives, and so many things that are in our vaults that will be great to put out.”

Onwusa added that a big focus for her is to continue the path set by last year's "It's Been Said All Along" exhibit, which used the history of protest music to reflect on events in America's streets in 2020.

"We want to amplify those pieces of music history and just make sure that people can connect," she said. "You can connect to it in real time."

The next chapter in the Rock Hall's history will also be coming soon. Greg Harris said the nominating committee for the Hall of Fame class of 2021 is due to meet before the end of the month. They’ll create a list of potential inductees to be voted on.

“We'll announce the ballot in February,” he said. “And we will also be announcing that the inductions are happening in Cleveland, Ohio, in the fall.”

COVID willing, that is.

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