Seattle Culture

MoPOP, Hip-Hop, and the Power of Pop Culture

Michele Smith leads MoPOP into a new era

By Linda Lowry February 7, 2024

Left to right: MoPOP Director of Curatorial, Collections + Exhibitions Jacob McMurray, CEO Michele Smith, and Vice President of Operations & Government Affairs James Vegas

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2024 issue of Seattle magazine.

Michele Smith is coming up on a year as chief executive officer of Seattle institution MoPOP. Her passion remains as strong as ever.

The veteran business leader promises more programming, diverse voices, and collaborations with local communities as MoPOP celebrates its 23rd year. 

Seattle magazine recently caught up with Smith, who served as chief business and financial officer at Woodland Park Zoo before being named MoPOP CEO last March. During her time at the zoo, Smith helped the institution navigate the challenges of the pandemic, and achieve significant growth in revenue, events, guest services, admissions, automation, and finance. 

Q: What is your vision for MoPOP? 

A: We’re steering MoPOP in a new direction. Some might have assumed our focus was solely on music, but it goes beyond that. We’re expanding into film, gaming, and fashion, emphasizing a commitment to diversity. Our focus extends beyond the physical exhibits, encompassing comprehensive programming and educational initiatives. We’re committed to partnering with the community to promote arts and culture, especially considering the diminishing presence of arts and culture in schools. In my school days, we had the chance to learn, create, and explore poetry, among other things. MoPOP aims to fill that void by offering a place for people to learn, enjoy, delve into art history, and showcase diverse voices on our walls. 

Q: What events and activities are currently unfolding at MoPOP? 

A: In January, we had the closure of the Contact High exhibit (a visual history of hip-hop. In March, we unveil our in-house exhibit, Massive: The Power of Pop Culture. This exhibit explores how pop culture is a universal language, influencing our lives globally. The pandemic highlighted this impact, as people turned to platforms like Netflix and embraced changes in their daily routines. Our exhibit delves into the role of pop culture during transformative moments, addressing significant events like the Black Lives Matter movement. Additionally, we’re introducing new themes focusing on activism and preservation, underscoring our commitment to these crucial aspects. With over 80,000 artifacts, we’re dedicated to preserving diverse voices and cultural moments within our museum.

Q: How does MoPOP approach the issue of accessibility?

A: We’re passionate about preserving artifacts and diverse voices, with a keen focus on accessibility. Our latest initiative is launching the world’s most extensive online hip-hop collection, providing unprecedented visibility. We’re committed to enhancing accessibility, not just for onsite visitors but also for those engaging with us online. Soon, you’ll have the option to purchase retail items from our online store. With a daily influx of visitors, we invite you to explore, learn, and experience dynamic changes in our exhibits. We aim to be both a scholarly resource and a welcoming space for community members to read, learn, and celebrate our daily offerings. Additionally, we’re introducing sensory-filled days in collaboration with our public programming team. We aim to create a museum environment suitable for individuals who may find lights or noise challenging. We’re actively working on unique ticket options to ensure affordability for everyone. This initiative is part of our commitment to accessibility, focusing on communities such as BIPOC, Asian Americans, and LBGTQ+. We believe in co-creating programs with these communities to enhance the museum experience. I’m eager to collaborate with like-minded sponsors or organizations to drive social impact in pop culture.

Q: What drives your passion? 

A: Personally, my passion lies in pathways to employment, internships, and demystifying the business operations of a museum. There are diverse roles here, from facilities management to customer service, extending beyond exhibits. Our spirit is geared toward making the museum accessible to everyone, and we’re dedicated to fostering mentorship and passion among our employees. We’re still fine-tuning the details of the program, but my objective is to offer initiatives in arts and culture consistently. Additionally, we aim to incorporate a focus on the business side of running a museum. This includes understanding contracts, obtaining intellectual property rights, and navigating the intricacies of the art world. Starting at a young age, we want individuals to grasp the importance of business alongside creative pursuits, fostering financial literacy. Recognizing the gap in traditional education, we’re collaborating with community leaders to secure funding for these crucial programs. 

Q: What presents the most significant challenge for MoPOP?

A: MoPOP’s significant challenge lies in the misconception surrounding our funding status. Some believe we still receive external funding as a 503(c) organization, but since 2017, we’ve been entirely self-funded. This operational independence is both a strength and a challenge. We seek contributions to continue making a positive impact. Operating solely on ticket revenue isn’t sustainable, so donations are crucial. We aim to expand contributions through fundraising initiatives, enabling us to enhance our operations, including impactful programs like internships. Clarifying our financial structure is critical to fostering understanding and garnering the necessary support.

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