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Originally published Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 12:00 AM

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CEO of Florida museum to head Experience Music Project

Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum has named Christina Orr-Cahall, currently CEO and director of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., as its new CEO and director.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum has named Christina Orr-Cahall its new CEO and director.

Currently CEO and director of the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, Fla., she will take the helm at EMP/SFM on or before July 1.

Orr-Cahall will be taking over from interim CEO Josi Callan at a time when the museum is clarifying its focus, trying to reach out more to the community and working to get accreditation from the American Association of Museums.

"We were looking for a seasoned museum professional," Callan said.

The museum — a combination of rock-music and science-fiction memorabilia, interactive exhibits and programs — is a reflection of founder Paul Allen's interests.

Experience Music Project opened in 2000, and the Science Fiction Museum — in the same Frank Gehry-designed building — opened in 2004. The two combined into one museum in 2007.

What ties the two subjects together, museum leaders say, is that both are part of contemporary popular culture.

But the focus could be clearer, and even the full name itself — Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame — is a bit unwieldy.

"There's no question that the board feels that it would like to find a new name," said Callan. "It went through some iterations this year."

But the board felt the new director should have a say in a new name, to go along with a new vision.

"I would expect within the next year or two, we'll have a new, pretty interesting name," Callan said.

In the past three years, the museum has lowered ticket prices and started more partnerships with institutions such as Seattle Art Museum and the University of Washington. Attendance has risen to just under 500,000 a year, Callan said. The museum also has begun the accreditation process, meaning it's putting into place professionally recognized best museum practices.

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But the museum, which last year had an annual budget of about $17 million, is, like other nonprofit organizations, seeing less in corporate and individual donations. And it's weathered some hard times — including in 2004 when it laid off 129 workers, more than a third of its staff.

Orr-Cahall, 61, speaking by phone from West Palm Beach, said some of the top goals she identified for the museum were the same as those the board already had set: trying to increase the museum's value to the Seattle community, looking at ways to effectively engage the public, and "defining that scope of popular culture and trying to make the current pieces fit together into a larger whole."

Orr-Cahall said she didn't yet have firm exhibitions or programs in mind for EMP/SFM. But "there are exciting subjects that come to mind. Some crossover things that incorporate music, science fiction, other aspects of popular culture that get your mind running and thinking and engaged."

Some examples, she said, might include looking at the subject of tattoos or heroes and how they've been treated in music, in science fiction and in general popular culture.

"I really am interested in the whole visionary side, the fact that it pushes boundaries, that it's experiential," Orr-Cahall said of the Seattle museum. "I see interesting ways in which it can grow and develop."

Both EMP/SFM and Orr-Cahall declined to say what her salary would be. A 2007 IRS form shows Callan was paid $339,192 by the Seattle museum.

At the Norton Museum, which Orr-Cahall headed for 19 years, she is credited with improving and expanding the exhibitions program, doubling the size of the permanent collection and quintupling the endowment, according to EMP/SFM.

Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or jtu@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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