Songbook Foundation takes another step in museum pursuit

March 23, 2018
The foundation's current display space is in the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel. (IBJ file photo)

In January, the Great American Songbook Foundation took a huge stride toward realizing its ultimate goal of establishing a major freestanding museum in central Indiana when it received a real estate gift valued at more than $30 million.

This week, the Carmel-based foundation took another smaller but important step toward that goal when it was selected to participate in the American Alliance of Museum’s Museum Assessment Program.

The Songbook Foundation, founded by famous performer and preservationist Michael Feinstein, has maintained an exhibit gallery and vast historical archive at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel since its founding in 2007, but its long-term mission is to establish the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame Museum.

The foundation envisions an institution along the lines of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but dedicated to American popular songs and jazz standards from the 1920s to the 1950s that originated from Tin Pan Alley, Broadway and Hollywood.

The organization’s museum-funding questions might have been answered this year when Bren Simon, the widow of late real estate magnate Mel Simon, donated her entire 107-acre estate in Carmel to the foundation.

The estate at 10110 Ditch Road, known as Asherwood, includes a furnished 50,000-square-foot main house, an 8,000-square-foot clubhouse, a 6,000-square-foot guesthouse, several other structures and two golf courses.

The foundation is still forming a strategy for the donation. Its options could include establishing the museum on the property or selling the property to raise funds toward building the museum elsewhere in Carmel, possibly near the affiliated Center for the Performing Arts.

A 12-member group, called the Asherwood Oversight Committee, is evaluating the Asherwood options. The committee is composed of three foundation staffers and board members from the foundation or Center for the Performing Arts. Veteran central Indiana businessman Rollin Dick, treasurer of the center's board, is chairing the committee.

“All options are on the table,” said Scott Hall, communications and media manager for the Center for the Performing Arts and the Songbook Foundation.

While long-term decisions are made, the foundation doesn’t plan to let Asherwood go unused. Fundraising events are in the works for the property and will begin soon.

In the meantime, the foundation is laying the groundwork for the museum in other ways. The Museum Assessment Program, or MAP, from the American Alliance of Museums is one of them.

The program isn’t likely to help foundation officials make decisions about Asherwood, but it will help the organization be ready when those decisions are made, according to Hall.

“It’s more of an internal assessment to make sure the organization is on solid footing,” he said.

A description of the program says MAP will “guide the staff, board of directors and other stakeholders in analyzing strengths and weaknesses and developing a roadmap for sustainability and advancement. The one-year process emphasizes strategic planning and ensures that activities, resources and structure are aligned with the organization’s stated mission and benchmarked to the highest professional standards of the field.”

The MAP program, which has served more than 4,600 museums since its launch in 1981, is worth several thousands of dollars to the foundation but will cost it only a “token amount,” Hall said. The bulk of the funding will come from the Institute of Museum and Library Services—the primary source of federal funding for the nation’s 123,000 libraries and 35,000 museums.

The foundation has seen some major developments in the past year. In addition to the Asherwood donation, the organization last year became a cultural affiliate of the Los Angeles-based Grammy Museum, joining just a handful of institutions worldwide.

The employee count at the foundation also grew from four to 13 when it added a nine-person staff that maintains the Asherwood property.

“Our organization has come so far in such a short time, and these recent developments have surpassed any reasonable expectations,” said Chris Lewis, the Foundation’s executive director, in written comments. “Now, as we prepare to step up to the next level, this is the perfect time to take stock of our situation and make sure we’re on a solid footing for the future.”




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