“We believe the arts keeps us a civilized society.”
These are the words of Joe Spaulding, CEO of the Boch Center in Boston, which is home to the famed Wang Theater.
And in the past several years, Spaulding has pioneered the Folk Americana Roots Hall of Fame (FARHOF), which resides in the iconic building. The Hall of Fame is the first of its kind, as there wasn’t a formal hall that recognized influential musicians in folk, Americana and roots music where most genres stemmed from.
Led by industry experts and legendary musicians including Joan Baez, Bob Crawford, Keb’ Mo’, Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary) and others, FARHOF celebrates the lifeblood of America’s musical and cultural heritage.
FARHOF showcases this celebration through displays, memorabilia, artifacts, multi-media, lectures, concerts, and special curated exhibits put on by Deana McCloud and Bob Santelli of the Museum Collective as well as Spaulding himself.
From his college days in the late sixties as a long-haired and wide-eyed singer-songwriter, to a record label founder, to a 36-year run as CEO to one of the most renowned theaters in the world, Spaulding has run the gamut of positions in the music industry.
Per the words of Neil Young during a performance at the Wang Theater in 2018 stating, “Boston is the folk music capitol of the world,” Spaulding’s vision started to materialize. He has since created a must-see destination that honors the past, celebrates the present, and nurtures the future.
To date, the current exhibits include Boston: A Music Town, The Wang Theatre: A Century of Great Music, historic pieces from the David Bieber Archive, and Life in Six Strings, a guitar exhibit featuring electric and acoustic instruments with notable history and a profound impact on music. And with the help of artificial intelligence, a hologram of the owner of these guitars, Ernie Boch, Jr., personally shares each guitar’s unique story and will answer guests’ questions around the significance of the guitars.
Additionally, the Cultural Heroes exhibit are on loan from Alan LeQuire Galleries in Nashville, which include larger-than-life clay sculptures of artists who shaped the soundtrack of the Civil Rights movement: Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lead Belly, Paul Robeson, Woody Guthrie, Marian Anderson, and Josh White.
The only monkey wrench so to speak in this operation is that visitors can’t simply walk in and take a tour any time they want. As a living, breathing performing arts center that has shows to fulfill, which requires a team of people to execute, this can conflict with the daily schedule of the FARHOF. So potential visitors must make reservations ahead of time in order to coincide around the scheduled performances. But in that reservation, it doesn’t matter if it’s one person or 100, or 200. In fact, something tells me the larger the number of people the better.
We got to hop on a Zoom call with Spaulding to learn about the FARHOF, the famed Wang Theater, his experience in the industry, and much more.
Can you talk about the process and inception of FARHOF from idea to the Grand Opening, and what hurdles you may have endured?
We started with the idea in 2018. There’s been more and more competition for venues, and not-for-profits being different than LiveNation or AEG, they struggle to figure out their relevance. We have two incredible theaters, and the Wang Theater is considered one of the nicest in the world. Marcus Mumford [who performed there November 8th] said it’s the nicest theater he’s ever played.
Boston has a huge history of folk artists. We had a Neil Young show in 2018, and he’s played here over 50 years, and he said “Boston is the folk music capitol of the world.” I knew that, and thought what we don’t have is a Hall of Fame that celebrates this kind of music. So I figured, why don’t we make one?
So I went looking for a building. Neil was there again the next day, and he said, “Why don’t you just do it right here?” And I thought, that’s a really interesting concept. Doing a HOF in an existing, living, breathing performing arts center.
We started that process and had a big gala, raised $300K, and had legendary artists join and be board members. Then something called Covid came, and shut us down for two and a half years. We lost all that momentum.
But, we took advantage of that time. Because my bet was that live music was going to come back with the vengeance. And when it came back, we had to be ready. And to be ready, we had to have enough resources to support our performances, and we had to protect our audience. We had to redo all the air systems in both theaters, redo elevators, new security system, new hands-free bathrooms. It was millions of dollars which we raised and got all that done.
During Covid, though we knew livestreaming wouldn’t have a return on investment, we wanted to have the building wired for that and podcasts. So we created our own series called The Ghost Light Series. These artists drove to the Wang Theatre, and played their guitars and songs to an empty theater, no production, with just the ghost light. These are 26-minute-shows that got put on broadcast TV on NBC. 400,000 people saw these, and we raised a lot of money. This got artists excited.
We re-opened over a year ago, and we’ve had more sold-out shows since than I’ve ever had in my 36 years.
We do 250 shows a year or whatever it is, and we do theater and comedy and music- we do it all. I get to do God’s work. And if we make profit, we invest it back into the community. That’s the main goal.
Your Board of Directors is filled with impressive names from the likes of Noel Paul Stookey, Joan Baez, Keb Mo, and many others. How did you go about putting this team together, and was it a challenge?
My chairman of the board, Mark Weld, had to be a supporter of this, and we carefully picked people who I knew, and I knew most of these artists for a long time. It came together pretty seamlessly.
In your opinion, what are some of the most fascinating artifacts or pieces of memorabilia you’ve received?
Well two of them have just arrived. In fact, I opened one right before this call. It’s sitting on a guitar stand next door to my office. That one arrived today from Peter Paul and Mary. It says PP&M at the top and it’s been redone. It has all three signatures and caricatures drawn on the guitar.
When the Pete Seeger banjo arrived, and I came into my office at 5:30 AM, I said, “Oh look, there’s a banjo in my office.” And I turned on the lights and saw it was Pete Seeger’s. It was like having a religious moment.
The other that just arrived was Gregg Allman’s acoustic guitar. There’s a great thing that happens with these instruments: they all arrive out of tune, so I tune them up and get to play them. So that’s a really cool thing.
How often do you plan to update or rotate exhibits and displays? How does that process work?
The goal was three new exhibits a year. And our fiscal year runs from June 1 – May 31, so it’s not a calendar year. So right now, you’re seeing some of the exhibits that we launched before because we had to close, so we’ve kept those exhibits. The new ones we have coming up are Daniel Kramer’s Photographs of Bob Dylan (1964-65) and Arlo Guthrie. And the other exhibits include the Cultural Heroes and Ernie’s exhibit, Life in Six Strings, will stay until the end of the year. We want to get people acclimated to these exhibits first.
Ernie Boch Jr.’s exhibit is especially unique, in that you’ve made an AI hologram of him to answer questions the guests have about the iconic guitars etc. Can you talk about the process of implementing this feature? Was it difficult to make a reality?
First of all, there are no HOFs in North America who are using AI like this- we’re it. We believe AI is of the future. We believe all these younger musicians who we need to attract will find this fascinating, and they do. You have to be prepared, and need to reach that generation.
We saw a feature on 60 Minutes about Stephen Spielberg who produced AI on Holocaust survivors who are still alive, and aims to preserve their stories forever. And I thought, “we need to do that with these artists.” We decided the first would be Ernie Boch Jr. because A) he is an important part the Boch Center and FARHOF B) he has an extensive guitar collection and C) he’s a hell of a good interviewer. We hired the same company that Spielberg did, and they came and spent a day putting [Boch Jr.] in front of a green screen, and asked him 250 questions.
I was down there today, and we had 20 kids asking Ernie a question, and he answered every single one. They were blown away. It’s almost kind of spooky. The idea was to use that as a guinea pig to convince other artists to do this- let them talk for twenty minutes, and they too can be on the hologram screens.
Can you speak on the educational mission of FARHOF and plans for lectures, and who you hope to have leading them etc.?
For my 36 years, we’ve had a major educational outreach program in the arts. We use the arts to teach 21st century skills. We do interactive readings, and work with underprivileged school systems where we provide in-class teaching using the arts. All of these artists that come, they can provide master classes, and love to be involved in those things. We had Galadrielle Allman here to talk about her father Duane, and we do the same thing with others. Our role in the performing arts is about involvement, diversity, inclusion, a wide variety of programming, and support that keeps us a civil society.
You have an expansive resume when it comes to different endeavors in the music industry, from artist, to label executive, to CEO of a famed venue. What would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in advancing your career in this business?
Well, first is your word is your bond. Sure there are contracts, but amongst a lot of businesses, you shake hands and do what you say you’re going to do.
I learned there was no job I shouldn’t understand how to do myself. I can still edit on two-inch tape. I mopped the floors. I run my operation as a team. Everybody is a member of that team, and my door is always open. I’m out there willing to go to every show and making sure I’m there to say hello and people know who I am. You need to do all that. When I wanted to be a record producer, I used to mop the floors at these studios before I started building them.
And the final thing is luck. Be in the right place at the right time. And the world gets smaller as you get older. It’s a small world [the music business] and you want to be respected in that world, and if you are, people are going to trust you. And if you do what you say, you’re going to succeed together, collectively.
Where do you hope to see the FARHOF in five years, and what kinds of advancements and traditions do you hope to create?
We talk about using our outdoor spaces here, as we have a big plaza for doing outdoor events. We’re creating our own proprietary programming, which we’re working with Don Was on, which would include jazz and other genres. We got a couple other exciting things up our sleeve that we’ll build on over the next three to five years, and we hope a million people come to see us every year.
The long term future is to use the stage for traveling exhibits. We developed a plan to have- think of it like a cargo container that the front flips up and it’s all glass, and inside are exhibits. We would travel our exhibits across the country, and we would welcome the same here. If there’s a non-show day, the forklift would bring them in and on the stage, so when we do tours, they can look at these exhibits on the stage.
How do you hope visitors feel when they leave the FARHOF?
Inspired. When you walk into our lobby for the first time, many will walk through the doors and what do they do first? They look up, and they go, “Holy… look at this place.” When they go to the third and fourth floor and lower lobbies, they see a living breathing Hall of Fame. They get to read why all of these things were important. They leave here and they’re inspired.
And believe me: these tours want to go backstage and see the dressing rooms that everyone was sitting in, and they want to go up on stage and look out and say, “Holy mackerel, I’m standing right where Leonard Cohen sang ‘Hallelujah’,” you know? It’s inspiring.
We believe the arts keeps us a civilized society, and that’s what we want to do. And I get to help facilitate that everyday. I get to watch people have fun, and know we did something good. With all of this, I feel like the world isn’t as bad as I thought it was.
Featured photo by Ron Pownall