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SD museum with rare instruments seeks $15M revamp

Sunday - 2/17/2013, 8:48pm  ET

Cleveland Johnson, new director of the National Music Museum, stands in front of some historic keyboard instruments in the museum's Abell Gallery, Thursday, Jan. 10, 2013, in Vermillion, S.D. The museum is embarking upon a $15 million expansion to better showcase its more than 15,000 instruments. (AP Photo/Dirk Lammers)

Associated Press

VERMILLION, S.D. (AP) -- Grammy-winning fingerpicking guitarist Pat Donohue thinks a South Dakota college town of about 10,000 is an unlikely place for a wide-ranging collection of musical instruments that includes saxophones built by inventor Adolphe Sax, a rare Stradivarius violin with its original neck and a Spanish guitar on which Bob Dylan composed some of his earliest songs.

But that's part of the charm of the 40-year-old National Music Museum, a treasure tucked away in an old Carnegie library building on the University of South Dakota campus.

Donahue, a regular performer on Garrison Keillor's radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," got to play a 1947 D'Angelico New Yorker guitar and a 1902 black and wood-grained guitar built by Orville Gibson for millions of listeners during a 2006 live broadcast from campus.

"The only unfortunate thing that I can think about it is that not enough people are going to see it because of where it is," Donohue said. "But then again, that's one of the things that make it unique."

The National Music Museum has boasted a world-class collection of musical instruments since it was established, and officials now want to build a facility to match that. The museum is looking to raise $15 million over the next few years to triple its gallery space, improve the entrance and revamp the vast archives where music scholars can peruse the thousands of instruments and documents not on public display.

"We'll have a proper lobby and visitor reception area, which we really don't have now," said Ted Muenster, who's leading the fundraising effort for the USD Foundation. "It will be a pretty impressive complex when we're finished with it."

The expansion plans recently earned a federal seal of approval with the awarding of a $500,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Endowment chairman Jim Leach visited the museum in 2010 and found its collection of more than 15,000 items "astonishing."

"This is a national treasure," Leach said. "It could just as easily be called the International Music Museum as the National Music Museum. It is one of, if not the, centerpiece of musical instrument collections in the world."

Cleveland Johnson took over as the museum's director in November after the retirement of Andre Larson, who'd been at the helm since it was established in 1973. The holdings grew out of a private collection owned by Larson's father, Arne B. Larson, who continually added items while serving as a public school music director.

The 800 or so instruments on public display are the "superstars" of the broader collection of pianos, harpsichords, guitars, horns and drums.

A keyboard aficionado could marvel at a Neapolitan virginal and harpsichord from the 1530s or the earliest French grand piano known to survive, an ornate green and gold instrument built by Louis Bas in Villeneuve l
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