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Future of Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame uncertain

March 18, 2018

MUSKOGEE, Okla. (AP) — The perfect pitch; as important in music as it would be for landing a museum dedicated to music. Tulsa music promoter Jim Halsey is waiting for a pitch that would bring his massive music archives into a new home. The Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, recently void of part of Halsey’s collection, isn’t going anywhere but could it, with the right pitch?

Jim Blair, former executive director of the OMHOF in Muskogee, left the position when funding became uncertain. It was just part of a string of events, the first being fading interest in G Fest, a music festival that coincided with Hall of Fame induction, which led to the City of Muskogee Foundation discontinuing sponsorship. Following Blair’s exit, Halsey pulled his collection, which Blair had said made up close to three-fourths of the exhibits. Questions continued to be raised about future funding and the future of the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame in Muskogee. How serious of a blow that is to the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame depends on who you ask.

“I don’t want to sound cold about it, but unfazed would probably be the best description,” OMHOF board president Jermaine Mondaine said in a phone interview with the News Press. “The board is still together. We have funding throughout the summer. We have events coming up throughout the summer that will create more funding, so that’s our focus, trying to create the sustained funding for the Hall. As far as others expressing interest in it, that’s nothing new. It’s been around since the beginning.”

The Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame was created by state legislation in 1996, the Stillwater News-Press reported. That resolution also designated its home in Muskogee. All the while, the nonprofit Friends of Oklahoma Music was the nonprofit wing of the movement. Gov. Frank Keating appointed the board in 1999. The OMHOF legislation sunset in 2013, but the board and the nonprofit remained.

“The representatives weren’t watching out for it. We didn’t even know it had sunsetted, but the 501c3 carried on,” former OMHOF executive director Jim Blair said. “Being that there had been minimal state funding, got a Centennial grant in 2007, the board didn’t see any use of being concerned about the sunsetting. They continued on, developed new strategies.”

G Fest was supposed to be a big part of the fundraising, as members had hoped it would become profitable enough to fund the museum and future events. The sale of a municipal hospital led to the creation of a foundation within Muskogee that is supposed to go to betterment within the city. That foundation was supplying the money for G-Fest, but some members of the foundation started to get nervous, according to OMHOF board member Hugh Foley.

“All industry research had told us that it would take a while for it to get going. But in the first year it lost money, after it lost money the second year, the city said, ‘Wait, we don’t want to take another hit,’ They wanted us to pay bills from the last two years and we did. Part of the city council did not want to spend the money on a third (G Fest). They had these other events, a Cinco de Mayo/Latin festival, a Juneteenth, that were successful,” Foley said.

It was also the beginning of the end for Blair’s tenure as executive director.

“Muskogee’s really got an excellent opportunity to exploit the Hall of Fame in that they’ve got a million dollar a year tourism budget and they have a foundation that has $140 million in it. The tourism budget is kind of controlled by city council, and really the only amount that went to the Hall of Fame is $15,000 a year in addition to the facility they provided,” Blair said. “It was just hard on an ongoing basis to kind of secure funding and that’s kind of why I exited. We had a solid strategy to do this festival (G Fest) as a means of sustaining it, we knew it was going to take five years. Your elected officials change, opinions change and the support stopped after about a year.”

Not long after, Halsey pulled his collection, which had been on exhibit since 2013.

Foley, a professor at Rogers State University, is among the founding forces behind the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, but is currently “rolled off” the board of directors. He said the Hall more than appreciates Halsey’s contributions and understands Blair’s exit, but said the “Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame is bigger than any one man.”

“Jim Halsey is an indelible part of Oklahoma music history. We recognize his value and his success in the music industry. We wish him the best with his collection and hope he gets what he wants out of it. We wish him well,” Foley said. “I understand Jim (Blair) having to do what he feels is best for his family.”

Foley has seen the Hall of Fame through every ideation. He takes umbrage that some point to a lack of support being a cause for talk of relocation.

“After the legislation created it, there wasn’t a ton of help outside Muskogee with individual and corporate partners to keep the museum funded on a yearly basis. The foundation money was a huge shot in the arm, but after backing G-Fest and then pulling out of G-Fest, the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame is really just kind of back where it started. With a handful of people who care deeply about Oklahoma music,” he said. “We built this from nothing. There are a lot of people in Muskogee that have spent countless hours volunteering for the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. They don’t get paid a dime . It’s not fair to say that Muskogee hasn’t supported it. That being said, if the board was approached by someone offering millions of dollars to build a new home for it, they would have to listen.”

That really strong pitch hasn’t come yet. Mondaine said he hasn’t taken any calls from prospective cities, but it’s something that comes up in discussion. Most of the discouragement he hears he chalks up to social media chatter.

“In part of our focus going forward, is to make it even more of a tourist attraction, but as far as the City goes, the City’s done a lot. The Foundation has done a lot. I think that’s one of the misconceptions that’s out there — that the City has let the citizens down because Jim (Blair) is no longer in the position. There are a lot of Jim Blair fans that basically feel like the City took funding from the Hall to pay for G Fest expenditures and it kind of left the Hall in a tailspin trying to figure out where to come up with the operation funding. All of that was public knowledge, so a lot of citizens felt as though the City didn’t do enough, so Jim ended up leaving the position,” Mondaine said. “I think what we’re seeing in the newspaper and on social media of people’s reactions is basically, Jim Blair supporters and Hall supports, and folks really appreciate what Jim was doing with the different concerts and things he was bringing in, the different vision about the Hall of Fame for the future, so they felt like with Jim leaving those visions were going to leave too. I can understand where all that comes from, but the reality is we’re not going anywhere and there is still vision and there is still planning going on and there’s funding in place. I think it comes from loyalty to both the former director and the Hall itself. No one wants to see it go anywhere and the minute a rumor gets out that because the director is gone and because Jim Halsey has pulled exhibits, ‘Oh my God, the Hall of Fame might be in trouble,’ so now we’re seeing the knee-jerk reaction of the community saying we don’t want to see it go anywhere. Our feeling is the same way. If you were to call any city council member or the mayor, they would say the same thing, that they think the Hall of Fame is a treasure here and don’t want to see it go anywhere.

“I shared with the board in one of our last board meetings, that the reality is that if we weren’t going to step up and take care of it and do what our mission’s statement says — which is to preserve, promote and protect Oklahoma music — if we couldn’t do that to our full capabilities, then by all means, we should love it enough to let it go to someone who could do that. But, the reality is we have everything in place to be able to do that.”

Foley feels much the same way.

“We’re going to induct more members, we’re going to have a celebration for those members. It’s open every day over there. We have a new executive director, it’s still going on. We have weathered tough times before,” he said.

There is a difference between Halsey’s archives and the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. Pieces of Halsey’s collection could go anywhere if he hears the right pitch. He’d really like a museum in the Brady District. The Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame, according to Mondaine and Foley, has always been attractive for cities seeking a boost in tourism. Stillwater’s Jim Beckstrom, who now chairs the Block 34 task force, a committee exploring ways to enhance Stillwater’s downtown area, has long been a proponent of a place that could exhibit Stillwater or Oklahoma music history.

“On a personal note, I would just love to see us, be able as a city, to land that. At a very personal level, I would love to see us have something that is bigger than that, something like a museum of American music,” Beckstrom said. “I’ve done a little research on that . There is no museum as far as I can tell, that speaks to the history of music generally, since people came across the ice bridge until now, from what I can see, there is actually nothing. There’s a huge indigenous music history element, that seems uncultured, compounding that to legacy in Stillwater rand Oklahoma.

“Otto Gray, that basically made country western music a national item, if it wasn’t their national broadcast we’d be in a very different place right now. There’s so much music history, I would love that. As a citizen, we haven’t discussed that at all really. I’d love it, and I’d love to see the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame here in Stillwater. I think it’s’ the right place for it. I could see a constructive partnership between OSU and the city.

“I think there are people that really have an interest about Stillwater’s music history and our role on the national scene, but has anybody kind of stepped up and said, ‘Here’s $3 million, I’d really love to be a part of that,’ that hasn’t happened.”

It always comes back to money. It would take money to acquire Halsey’s archives, and it would take money to relocate and fund the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame. But, for Mondaine, relocating the OMHOF would require a deep appreciate for Oklahoma’s place in music history.

“Even with Tulsa, and I’ve said this numerous times, with Tulsa they have the Woody Guthrie museum a multi-million dollar facility, that’s just one of our inductees. I think that whoever is going to attempt to do it would need to be able to honor all of our inductees, and shoot, even the future inductees that are coming up right now,” he said. “What everyone has to understand is how huge of an impact Oklahoma music has on the music industry as a whole. Whatever is in place needs to be able to honor that.”

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Information from: Stillwater News Press, http://www.stwnewspress.com

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