Interview with Bob Ulrich

This former Target CEO put $200 million into a fascinating collection of 6,800 musical instruments.

Former Target CEO Bob Ulrich loves museums. In 2005, he and a friend decided to start an unusual one. The Musical Instrument Museum (MIM) opened in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2010 with a spectacular display of 6,800 instruments from all over the world, organized by continent and country, plus rich interactive information on great artists and great music associated with various instruments. Ulrich has now donated $200 million to give life to this one-of-a-kind $250 million project.

Philanthropy: When did you start collecting objects? 

Ulrich: I started collecting African art in the late 1980s. I was on the board of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and became friends with the director, who is an expert on African ritual figures. I also became friends with Marc Felix, one of the world’s experts on art from that region. I liked pieces that were a bit Cubist in feeling.

At that time I had no intent to collect instruments, I was solely focused on things that were sculptural or beautiful in nature. I ended up with things like an ivory horn, an intricately carved drum. There were perhaps a dozen of those musical items within my collection, and some of those are currently exhibited at MIM. But it was just a side thing.

The idea for the museum was out of the blue. It started with a typical tourist conversation between me and Marc. We had spent a day museum-hopping near his home in Brussels and asked each other, “What did you like today?” I said that even after the second or third visit I still thought the museum of musical instruments there was so much fun. Marc replied, “You ought to build one.”

At first I laughed, said “Come on, give me a break.” But Marc kept talking about it, and eventually we were entertaining the thought, asking what form it would take. We knew that no one else had done the type of museum we were looking for. We wanted to represent the entire world. It seemed like an enormous void—the Met, the Art Institute of Chicago, other top museums represent cultures from around the world, but no one goes after music in that way. There are a few musical instrument museums around the world—in ­Berlin, Brussels, and France—but nearly all their contents are Western, and the tendency is for the instruments to be displayed by age chronologically, or by type.

Even though music is vastly different from culture to culture, we all use it in similar ways, for celebrations, weddings, anniversaries, for funerals. It has a tremendous impact on our lives. If executed well, a museum that showcased the music of the world could be fascinating to people.

I had been a museum junkie for a long time. So on trips through Europe or Asia, I would go to instrument museums. I’m no expert, but I did pick up ideas. Then I decided to launch one.

That was in 2005. We opened in 2010. That’s not necessarily all that fast for business, but it’s the speed of light in the museum world. For example, the Getty, which already had a great organization, a board, a collection, took seven years to build a new facility. We started with nothing. No collection, no board, no land. And in under five years, we opened the museum. 

Philanthropy: How did you pull off ­that timeline?

Ulrich: I called on a lot of friends and colleagues to help. We did research, sent people around the world. We hired a couple people with doctorates in musicology, and met with leading scholars. And we kept building and improving the collection. We bought a couple of fairly major collections, one from the Claremont University ­Consortium with about 1,700 instruments. We had, at one time, in excess of 100 different people around the world searching for instruments. Some regions were tough to acquire artifacts from. Occasionally, we got taken advantage of and ended up with junk that shouldn’t be displayed, and we had to throw it out.

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Visitors to MIM don headphones that activate when you approach an exhibit, filling the ears with music and culture notes.

We continue to upgrade, even to this day. Our preference is to get older things that have been used for a number of years, and of the very best quality. We try for the very best maker, someone who’s well-­respected in that country. We want anyone from any country to visit and say, “Wow, these people did a really nice job of representing my country. I can feel proud of this heritage and I can feel proud of what’s been done here.”

People from Target were great assets. At the time of MIM’s founding, when I was CEO of Target, the company was spending about $3 billion a year on capital projects, building between 75 and 100 stores annually. So we had people with creative expertise, people with taste in design and construction and a tradition of volunteering to help charitable projects.

We would go around the world, look at different museums, and talk about lighting, height, the atmosphere we wanted to create, what type of feeling we wanted to provoke. Not every resource came from Target, but we had an edge on talent, on people, that another nonprofit probably wouldn’t. We also set up an all-star curatorial council to make sure we were going down the right path operationally.

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A special exhibit deconstructs a Steinway grand piano.

Philanthropy: How is the museum doing financially?

Ulrich: We have not borrowed anything. MIM has no debt. Everything is paid for. We don’t discount prices, so our earned income is around 60 percent of our budget. We’re still trying to build our endowment, which we want to serve as a backstop. Organizations get into trouble when leaders have a special project and dip into their endowment, mortgage up, and then run into trouble. Their safety net is gone. I’m not saying that could never happen to us, but we have very strong bylaws. It takes a significant weighted majority to access endowment funds, and truly exceptional circumstances. 

Philanthropy: Tell me about the museum’s atmosphere and target audience.

Ulrich: We wanted the museum to be very friendly. We didn’t want to force anybody through pre-set traffic patterns. We wanted people to be able to enjoy what they like.

The target audience for this museum is everybody, not just music majors or those in a part-time band, or the musically talented. All of us have grown up listening to something. So we have displays for tweens. For little kids. Everybody can hook into music at this museum. We’re getting very good attendance right now, and have hosted about 70,000 schoolkids this year, and 60,000 people for concerts.

At many museums they’ll give curators a lot of latitude. So you’ll see a very influential piece of art and it’ll have limited explanation, and then three pages on the wall for another piece you’ve never heard of. Sometimes curators feel it’s necessary to go into an extraordinary amount of detail.

What we want at MIM is to get the visitor intrigued and interested. We’ll do research for an exhibition if the items call for it. But we don’t try to impress academics.

And I don’t want people in our organization to think, “We have to do this because that’s the way other museums do it.” So we eschew protective cases for our instruments, because we found that visitors don’t feel as emotionally close to the object when it’s in a case. For a while, we were pulling out white gloves and saying, “Don’t touch this.” But I thought, “Good grief, we’re talking about an $800 flute.” I’ve seen a director at the Smithsonian walk out with a $12 million Stradivarius in his bare hands. These instruments are meant to be played—so we let people play them. We made the lighting bright and cheerful—we don’t dramatize the collection by giving some objects good lighting and diminishing others.

Our team is always challenging itself to be the best museum ever. It doesn’t matter who visits, we always exceed the visitor’s expectations. Every single time.