DETROIT — Hitsville U.S.A. The Motown Museum. Many people know the tiny white building on West Grand Boulevard as the home of Motown Records. However, what you might not know is they are in the middle of a $50 million fundraising campaign for an expansion.
Robin Terry, CEO and Chairwoman of the Motown Museum, visited the University of Michigan on Wednesday afternoon. She spoke to students and other attendees inside the Ford School of Public Policy. Terry discussed the history of Motown Records, hosting a large-scale fundraising campaign and building a legacy among people of color.
“Berry Gordy is my great uncle…Esther Gordy Edwards is the founder of the Motown Museum,” Terry told the crowd. “I came up around my family’s business. I grew up around Motown and the museum as it was being shaped. I built a career in marketing and fundraising. In 2002, I took over the family business. It’s something that truly shaped our culture and our lifetime. Few things that have that kind of power. certainly technology. Motown was a phenomenon. One because it became a musical empire created out of one little bitty house in the inner city of Detroit in 1959. It went on to become the largest manufacturer of records in the world.”
She said that Motown Records created more iconic superstars than any other label of our lifetime. Some artists on the label include Stevie Wonder, The Supremes (including Diana Ross), The Jackson 5 (including Michael Jackson), Gladys Knight, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Contours and Rick James, among many others. Almost 60 years later, they are still musical icons.
“Motown has this unique way of uniting people who were different,” the CEO and Chairwoman of Motown Museum explained. “Black people and white people could look at each other and say there’s a little bit of me in you and a little bit of you in me. Suddenly this music made people forget about barriers. You are uniting people through music. The civil rights movement was being advanced. We’re more alike than different.”
During the civil rights movement, there were times when Dr. King couldn’t afford to pay his staff. He sent Jesse Jackson to Detroit. Terry said Berry Gordy paid the payroll for Dr. King’s staff a few times.
In 1972, Motown Records headquarters moved from Detroit to Los Angeles. Berry Gordy established Motown Productions in order to produce television specials for his artists. He also wanted to reach out to the motion picture studios in Hollywood so his musicians could appear on films.
“My grandmother [Esther] wanted to stay in Detroit,” Terry said. “She convinced my uncle to give her that little house, Hitsville U.S.A. She just said, ‘I just want to maintain a presence.’ People started coming to this house just to peek inside where these iconic artists came from. He sold her the house for $1. My grandmother saved everything. She personally managed a lot of these artists. My uncle was the creative. She had the business mind. The average age was 23 so they’re young. She just started putting things up on the walls. She would walk them around and tell the stories. The people just kept coming.”
By 1987, the Motown Museum became a state historic site. As of today, almost 3 million people have come through that space. That’s about 80,000 people per year and most of them are from outside the state. Hitsville U.S.A. calls itself the No. 1 international tourist destination in the state.
“Two weeks ago, Demi Lovato was recording a documentary at the museum,” the CEO and Chairwoman said. “Then we had a week over the summer with Jay Leno, Beyonce, Jay-Z. And Bruno Mars his whole team came to the museum this summer. We can’t do this without them to help them translate for the next generation.”
Her talk took place on the anniversary of the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, on April 4, 1968.
“In the 60s, Motown quietly did what it did. It created a platform and documented them. I think that’s what Dr. King recognized. What you are doing with the music is helping us. What we have to do is be it and create that example. Motown had a spoken word label that people don’t know about. MLK’s ‘I Have A Dream Speech’ was recorded by Motown. You wouldn’t have access to those today.”
When Terry’s grandmother founded the museum, her inspiration was about the next generation. It was considered an American success story. She wanted there to be evidence that it really happened and this is how it happened. Telling the story meant everything to her.
“Today, we are on a mission to take that particular vision and now translate in this day and time in century to create a world-class Motown Museum that wraps around that little house,” she explained. “How do we bring to it the opportunity to tell it in more dynamic ways? That’s the expansion that Motown Museum is on. We’re a birthplace to one of the greatest entrepreneurial stories of our time. Here it is in our backyard. To say to the next generation, somebody else did this.”
The Motown Museum has hired architect Philip Freelon from Perkins+Will. He was the lead architect from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture building in Washington D.C.
The $50-million project adds 50,000-square-feet of space to the current Hitsville U.S.A. house. It will feature interactive exhibits, a performance theater, recording studios, a retail store and meeting room spaces. The new Motown Museum will be built and designed around the perimeter of the current museum space.
What are some of the unique challenges in raising $50 million?
“A lot of them come down to capital and resources. Philanthropy is not something for us that’s second nature. It causes us to go to foundations and people who don’t look like us to support our storytelling. Now, we need your help. I’ve got to find a space that works for you. This expansion is a transformative project. Being an anchor institution in that part of the city. Low education, lots of unemployment and a lot of blight. Bring a development to that space that brings pride and creates jobs in that community and infuses dollars into that community. It will spark other small businesses in that space. We’re really proud of it.”
The CEO and Chairwoman said the expansion is a long time coming. She argued that it should have happened a few years ago. However, the development wave began downtown and is now expanding to surrounding neighborhoods such as midtown and Corktown.
“It took this wave of development to go…we need Motown to go with us,” she explained. “You have to understand what you bring to the table for folks. We were the only development in the neighborhood. All of the criticism was the development happening downtown but not in the neighborhoods. We had no interest in moving Hitsville U.S.A. We just waited and once development made its way down Woodward, by way of the QLINE, suddenly became this movement and this motion in the community. This is where the developers want to quickly get real estate. Now we are valuable to people.”
Terry mentioned that fundraising for the expansion project is being done in a traditional way. They are simply asking individuals and corporations for donations. To help support the expansion project, visit https://www.motownmuseum.org/motown-museum-announces-museum-expansion/
On the other hand, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was funded by a donor and the city of Cleveland. Meanwhile, Graceland is operated by an intellectual property company and the family.
Terry said she and her team walked away from one donor that was going to offer $15 million for naming rights because it didn’t meet the values of the Motown Museum.
“Something about it wasn’t right,” she explained. “They didn’t build this or bring this forward. The people created this history. I’m not saying we will find a creative way to do that. We have someone who wants to put their name on Hitsville. Unless a tasteful way to do it, we constantly navigate that question. We will walk away from money if its not positioning the history in the right way.”
The CEO and Chairwoman wrapped up her speech with some words of wisdom for U-M students: “Get them to tell their story. Record it and pass it on.”
The Motown Museum “Hitsville U.S.A.” is located at 2648 West Grand Boulevard in Detroit. For more information or to make a donation, visit https://www.motownmuseum.org or call (313) 875-2264.