Spread over four floors, FARHOF is more of a museum than a hall of fame. The top floors of the Wang will house photo exhibits and exhibits of memorabilia and artifacts. Monitors will show performers talking – and their music playing – as visitors pass by.
The Wang’s lower lobby houses the Music Hall, a room filled with rotating exhibits that serve as a sort of microcosm of what’s upstairs, and will eventually be the site of lectures and readings. A backstage hallway leads to themed exhibition halls that will feature new exhibits every four months. On the theater stage, where additional exhibits will be rolled out, visitors can step up front and sing a song or just get a feel for what the pros are going through from this vantage point. An additional plan, down the road, is to set up large mobile screens in the large four-story lobby and bring them down to display music-related videos.
The brainchild of Boch Center CEO Joe Spaulding, Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame is the culmination of his various musical careers. Hailing from Manchester-by-the Sea, Spaulding caught the performance bug in the 60s after attending a Tom Rush gig. In the years that followed, he taught himself the guitar, wrote and recorded a self-titled album, formed his own label, sold the label, and began working with promoter Don Law.
Shortly after, a headhunter approached Spaulding with an offer to take over and help save the then struggling Wang Theater.
“At first I said no,” Spaulding said in his office overlooking Tremont Street. “But then I thought if I was successful, maybe my career would go in a different direction. So, I agreed to come for three years, and now it’s been 36 years.
Under his leadership, performers who have taken the stage at the 3,600-seat theater range from Bob Dylan to Aretha Franklin to Diana Ross, Neil Young to Hans Zimmer to Lake Street Dive.
But filling the seats for the concerts was not enough. Spaulding had something else in mind. About four years ago it began to take shape.
“I started wondering what we could do that would make us different from others,” he said. “I was talking about it with Mark Weld, chairman of the board of the Boch Center. I said, ‘We are the folklore capital of the world, so why not create a hall of fame?’ And Mark liked the idea.
But he would soon go beyond mere folk music. Spaulding and Weld hit the road.
“We went to the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Blues Hall of Fame and the Grammy Museum,” Spaulding said. “I knew a lot of people in the business, including artists, so we started picking their brains.”
There were all kinds of discussions, from buying a place to house the Hall of Fame to broadening the horizons of what would be represented there. Before long, the planners came to two conclusions.
“We decided to do it here,” Spaulding du Wang said. “That way we wouldn’t have to raise as much money as we would for a new building. We also decided that we had to represent all music.
Spaulding got in touch with Deana McCloud, who, along with Bob Santelli, owns the Museum Collective, a consortium of music museum professionals. McCloud is also the founding executive director of the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Okla.
“We were both going to be at Americana Fest in Nashville,” McCloud said by phone from his home in Tulsa. “He wanted to meet for coffee and ask very broad questions. We sat and chatted, then kept in touch as the project became a reality.
She and Santelli were hired, initially as consultants. They are now curators at FARHOF.
In 2018, Spaulding got the ball rolling in Boston. He hired architects, began amassing artifacts – some from his own collection, some from the David Bieber Archive and the Richard Vacca Collection, some from musicians and other collectors – and checked out available grants.
His first official step was to transform the Metropolitan Room – a former conference room in the lower hall of the Wang – and rename it Music Hall, a space that served as a preliminary version of his larger vision for the Hall of Fame. There was a series of concerts, with artists such as John Prine, Joan Baez and Neil Young. In 2019, Spaulding presented a gala featuring, among others, Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, Livingston Taylor and Ruth Ungar. Even Spaulding joined in singing a cover of Lori McKenna’s “Humble & Kind.”
“It was a huge success,” Spaulding said. “We raised a couple hundred thousand dollars that night, and then, bang, COVID hit, and we had to shut down.”
The Wang and its sister venue, the Shubert, died out in March 2020, but planning for FARHOF never stopped. With the opening, the public will be able to discover what is called the first phase of the project. During a recent visit, before the facilities were completed, Spaulding explained what they would find there.
It began in the Lower Lobby’s Music Hall, a wood-panelled room filled with concert photos, album covers, guitars, and display cases of music-related ephemera. Just outside this room is the “Cultural Heroes” exhibit, a grouping of seven sculptures by Alan LeQuire – portraits of musical artists who have championed social issues.
An elevator ride brought us into the spacious, red-carpeted hallways of the fourth floor.
“There was nothing here before,” Spaulding said. “People were just hanging out during the intermission of the shows. Today it houses the “Wang Theater: A Century of Great Music”, a celebration of the concerts that have taken place there since it was called the Music Hall in the early 1970s. The hallway bays will contain boxes containing instruments.
A walk up a staircase to the third floor revealed a similar room, but the plans are quite different.
“Here we’re going to celebrate Boston music,” Spaulding said. “Panels on the wall will feature information and stories about blues, jazz, folk, rock, Americana, hip-hop and classical artists.”
Among the treasures that will be on display in different spaces are Pete Seeger’s five-string banjo Vega, a program from the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s first concert (October 22, 1881), the Charles River Valley Boys’ album “Beatle Country”, a November 23, 1962 issue of Time magazine featuring Joan Baez on the cover, an ashtray from Paul’s Mall, the cues and baton of bandleader Leonard Bernstein, a 1986 calendar from 1369 Jazz Club, and a black jacket belonging to the frontman of Cars Ric Ocasek.
McCloud and Santelli create the exhibits. McCloud is particularly fond of what they compiled for the third floor.
“The Boston exposure allowed me to meet people in a variety of different musical genres,” she said. “Academics, historians, collectors, musicians. And I collected their stories. A curator listens, researches and collects stories, then puts them all into a comprehensive, condensed format within the exhibition. So we tell the story of the diverse music that came from Boston.
Descending a few more steps, Spaulding led the way along a backstage hallway lined with photos of renovations that had been carried out on the building, posters of shows that played in the theater and, over much of this one, signatures of everyone – musicians and actors – who have performed there.
“There will also be showrooms here,” he said.
McCloud described what the chambers will contain. “They will have rotating exhibits from a variety of different artists. We start with “Ernie Boch’s Rare Guitars”. We will have 24 guitars [from the collection of the Boch Center namesake], and each has a story behind it. We made a hologram of Ernie, so he’ll tell the stories. And the show that follows is photos of Bob Dylan from the 1960s taken by Daniel Kramer.
Spaulding saved what he considered the best for last and climbed a flight of stairs that opened at the back of the Wang Theater’s huge stage.
“We also use the stage as an exhibition hall,” he said. “We developed a system of containers with exhibits inside. When we have shows, they pile up at the back of the stage. When we don’t have shows and we are touring, we move the containers and put them on stage.
“There’s a special relationship here between the audience and the performer,” Spaulding added, looking at the empty seats. “For a major artist, this place is intimate. And with this interaction, the audience is really going crazy here. That’s wonderful.”
Guided tours will be led by Scott Towers, Boch Center Historian and Director of Special Projects.
The only piece of the project that seems to be missing is an actual hall of fame. McCloud says it’s on the road.
“Until we start inducting people into a hall of fame, where we can have exhibits about them, we will focus on legacy artists,” she said. “We’re hoping to get Odetta’s guitar and caftan, we’d like to borrow Woody Guthrie’s violin from Arlo [Guthrie]. We want to make sure these legacy artists have their space, and we can grow from there. It is a living, breathing and changing entity.
Tours of the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame are available Wednesday through Sunday at noon. No complete visits will be scheduled on performance days at the Wang, but the exhibition halls will be open. Admission is $20; $12 for children 5 to 15 years old. For reservations, contact [email protected]. For more information, visit www.folkamericanarootshalloffame.org.
Ed Symkus can be reached at [email protected].