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Songwriters Get a (Traveling) Museum of Their Own

The Songwriters Hall Of Fame Songwriting Experience is free and currently in NYC. The exhibit boasts artifacts and interviews from icons like Woody Guthrie, Carole King and others.

The 50-plus-year effort to one day establish a Songwriters Hall of Fame Museum home of its own has evolved into a traveling exhibit, with New York City housing the launch show. Dubbed the Songwriters Hall Of Fame Songwriting Experience, the exhibit is currently housed at the CUNY Graduate Center James Gallery in Manhattan through July 24.

Artifacts on display represent the work of legendary songwriters including Sammy Cahn, Desmond Child, Steve Dorff, Woody Guthrie, Toby Keith, John Mellencamp, Alan Menken and Carole Bayer Sager, among others. Moreover, visitors can watch video highlights from past SHOF events including interviews with inductees such as Jimmy Jam, Toby Keith, Carole King, Smokey Robinson, Carole Bayer Sager, and Diane Warren, as well as Hal David Starlight Award honorees John Legend, Taylor Swift and Nick Jonas. A songwriting interactive exhibit also features Toby Keith, Carole King, Smokey Robinson, and Don Schlitz discussing their songs.

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The traveling Songwriting Experience exhibit was curated by Bob Santelli, founding executive director of the Grammy Museum; and by co-curator Jasen Emmons, chief curator and Grammy Museum vp of curatorial affairs.

Songwriters Hall of Fame traveling exhibit
Courtesy off Songwriters Hall of Fame

At an opening preview celebration in mid-June, Santelli said the traveling experience “is a taste of what’s” in the Grammy Museum at LA Live, where the Songwriting Experience has a permanent home. Still the desire to one day have a home of its own evolved into the SHOF Songwriter Experience traveling exhibit. Later this year, the org expects to announce when the exhibit will travel to other cities.

To get to this point of having a traveling exhibit has been a long time in the making, or as National Music Publishers Association chairman Irwin Robinson put it in his opening remarks at the exhibit’s premiere, “it’s been a long and winding road,” quoting the Paul McCartney song as he gave an abridged version of the history behind the museum.

With the birth of the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1969, an annual event was created to honor and induct deceased and existing great writers, with the goal of hopefully raise funds to build an eventual museum, Robinson said. The originators of both the organization and the museum were music publishers Howie Richmond and Abe Olman, and songwriter Johnny Mercer.

“The first induction ceremony took place in 1970 with Johnny Mercer presiding as [SHOF] president and Frank Sinatra, who was the honorary chairman. Among the songwriters inducted that night were Richard Rodgers, Irving Berlin and Cole Porter,” Robinson said.

While the annual SHOF awards event grew in stature, “Fundraising for the museum, however, became problematic,” he related. “As the cost for the ceremony increased each year, any profits went to maintaining a small office in New York with one employee.”

Still, in 1980 SHOF was able to open a small exhibit in One Times Square — but that space was lost after a couple of years, he added.

In 1999, another effort was made to establish a SHOF museum but that too fizzled. By 2000, Linda Moran was working for SHOF, and she “had the organizational skills and contact to put SHOF in a strong position for the future, which she did,” Robinson said.

Eventually, according to Robinson, Moran suggested that SHOF hire a consultant to determine what type of cashflow a museum would need to operate, and the finding came back that there wouldn’t be enough cashflow to fund an ongoing museum. Instead, the consultant suggested a traveling exhibit—and after many starts and stops, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Songwriter Experience traveling exhibit became a reality in mid-June at the aforementioned CUNY Graduate Center at 365 Fifth Avenue in the old B. Altman department store building.

The exhibit is open for free to the public from noon to 6 PM Sunday through Wednesday; and from noon to 8 PM Friday and Saturday; it is closed on Thursdays. All visitors must present proof of vaccination and government issued photo ID for entry.