The Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon served for fifteen years as the state’s official music museum. The 43,000-square-foot building was home to thousands of documents and artifacts, including sound recordings, costumes, instruments, sheet music, photographs, recording equipment, and memorabilia from hundreds of the state’s musical legends. All eras of Georgia’s musical history were covered, from the earliest Native American instruments to the latest pop beats. After struggling financially for several years, the museum closed its doors on June 12, 2011.
In 1978 Lieutenant Governor Zell Miller named a Senate Music Recording Industry Study Committee to explore ways to attract the music industry to Georgia. According to early committee records, this group, in conjunction with the Music Recording Industry Advisory Committee, developed the first Georgia Music Week in 1978, which was designed to promote Georgia’s contribution to the world of music. The festivities, held in Atlanta, featured a reception and dance with three bands and food. In 1979 the first Georgia Music Hall of Fame Awards were presented in two categories. Ray Charles received the award for the Performer category, but he could not attend. Singer Isaac Hayes accepted the award on his behalf and performed “Georgia on My Mind.” The award in the Nonperformer category that year went to music industry pioneer Bill Lowery.
The Georgia Music Hall of Fame Awards evolved in the years after they were first presented. In 1980 a Posthumous category was added, followed by the Mary Tallent Pioneer Award in 1983 and a Group category in 1992. Instead of a small reception for a few invited guests, the annual awards ceremony was opened to the public, and Georgia Public Television began broadcasting it in 1983. By 2011 more than 100 performers, nonperformers, groups, and pioneers had been inducted and presented with a Tiffany crystal “Georgy” award.
In the late 1980s a movement took shape to honor Georgia’s musical legends. Under Zell Miller’s leadership the legislature allocated $6.5 million for the project. The city of Macon offered to donate property for the new building, and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame Authority was created in 1991 to begin the project. Groundbreaking for the site was held in May 1994, and the building was officially opened on September 21, 1996. Celebrities in attendance included Little Richard, Mike Mills and Bill Berry of R.E.M., the Pips, Travis Tritt, and MTV vee-jay Martha Quinn, among others.
Among the museum’s permanent exhibits was Tune Town, a 12,000-square-foot area devoted to all types of Georgia music. Each style of music was represented in one of Tune Town’s buildings, which included a rhythm-and-blues club, a chapel, a cafe, and “Backstage Alley,” an area featuring people behind the scenes in the music industry (such as songwriters, producers, and attorneys). The museum also housed two interactive theater venues, the Gospel Chapel and the Gretsch Theater. Artifacts on display included unusual instruments, performance costumes, obsolete recording technology, instrument makers’ tools, awards, photographs, and personal memorabilia of the artists themselves.
Tune Town also contained a gallery that hosted traveling and temporary displays. Exhibitions have included Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions (from the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service), Party Out of Bounds: Twenty-five Years of Athens Music, and Shootin’ Stars: Music Photography of Kirk West, among others.
In September 1999 the Hall of Fame expanded its exhibit space with the addition of the Billy Watson Music Factory. This area was designed specifically for children from prekindergarten through the fourth grade. The Music Factory encouraged children to explore the world of music, including the sounds and instruments of other countries, careers in music, families of instruments, and musical styles.
The second floor of the museum housed the Zell Miller Center for Georgia Music Studies, a library and archive for students, scholars, and researchers. This area featured more than 1,000 books on general music, Georgia history, and Georgia musicians, as well as files on the artists featured in the exhibitions.
In 2003 more than 48,000 schoolchildren visited the Georgia Music Hall of Fame with school groups, clubs, scout troops, and other organizations. As the decade progressed, however, the museum faced significant financial challenges, and attendance and revenues decreased. In 2010 the state legislature voted to cease funding for the museum, and the Georgia Music Hall of Fame Authority accepted bids from other cities interested in hosting the facility. None of the bids were deemed suitable, however, and the decision was made to close the museum in June 2011.
The museum’s collections were either returned to donors or deposited in archives around the state, with the bulk of the materials being sent to the library at the University of Georgia in Athens for storage. The archives at Georgia State University in Atlanta and the University of West Georgia in Carrollton also received artifacts, and the Tubman African American Museum and Allman Brothers Band Museum at the Big House, both in Macon, created displays for a small portion of the collection.