Those passing in and out of Viacom’s Times Square Headquarters throughout June found a collection of Gibson Les Paul guitars nestled in a sunlit corner of the lobby. The exhibit flows effortlessly with the building’s groovy aesthetic, and could easily be an installation at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. It’s the brainchild of VH1 Save The Music Foundation, executed in collaboration with Art at Viacom and over 40 renowned visual artists and musicians.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of VH1 Save The Music, the artists worked in pairs to create 20 stunning, ornate instruments—enough to make any music fiend, art collector or investor swoon. And they will get their chance to do more than just admire them when VH1 Save The Music auctions off these guitars in October, partnering with Julien’s Auctions Los Angeles as part of their Idols & Icons: Rock and Roll sale. The proceeds are expected to fund musical instruments for at least 30 school band programs in the U.S.
Until then, these guitars are on tour—starting at Viacom headquarters and touring the New York-metro area until the fall, so fans and admirers can appreciate the majestic endeavor.
I spoke with VH1 Save The Music Executive Director Henry Donahue to learn more about what promoted this massive, creative collaboration, and what he hopes to achieve with such campaigns.
How long have you worked for Save The Music?
I began working here in March 2016. This is my second year. Previously, I worked at a digital agency called Purpose that just did social impact work, such as social media campaigns. We did a big one for Everytown for Gun Safety, and we worked with the White Helmets in Syria, as well as the ACLU.
What drove you to make the move from working at a traditional nonprofit to something more niche, like Save The Music?
[MTV President] Chris McCarthy and [MTV Executive Vice President] Amy Doyle are co-chairs of Save The Music’s board, and they’re extremely helpful. McCarthy convinced me to work for Save The Music. I wouldn’t have done that if I didn’t believe Viacom was committed to the pro-social cause.
Growing up, I played in concert band, did musical theater, show choir, pit orchestra and took advantage of every musical thing my school had to offer. It was a very robust set of musical programs. After college I played in a band for years.
Did it ever occur to you, while you were learning music in grade school, that other kids might not have access to this type of musical education?
It really didn’t. That’s something I learned when I started at Save The Music: millions of kids in the U.S. and millions more abroad don’t have access to music and arts education. This is especially true for economically challenged rural and urban areas.
And Save The Music does a lot to try and change that.
I hope so. Over the last 20 years, Save The Music has given away $50 million worth of instruments to over 2,000 schools. That translates to millions of kids, but the problem is millions of kids [still need help]. So we still have a lot of work to do.
Our goal is not to create successful musicians; our goal is to give kids the life skills that music gives you, such as teamwork and listening skills. And it’s not that these communities don’t have music. Kids are surrounded by music all the time. They have their headphones in. What’s missing is music education, and its benefits—both cognitive benefits for students, and overall improvements for the school environment. When the school has music education, attendance is better and there’s more parental engagement. Schools are more appealing for parents and students.
I imagine it helps keep kids out of trouble, too.
Right, there’s less disciplinary incidents, too.
Everybody is for music, and everybody loves music, but it’s not usually a top priority for [most nonprofits]. How do you convince people that music is the most powerful tool to bring to schools in order to make kids successful? It doesn’t immediately elicit the passion of a more straightforward philanthropy.
“We’ve seen great improvement in self-confidence, discipline, & connection to school.”- Principal at Patrick Henry Elementary in Downey, CA pic.twitter.com/d8aWfwPkxy
— VH1 Save The Music (@VH1SaveTheMusic) May 15, 2017
Let’s discuss this exhibit. It’s a very clever idea, and I’m curious about the development process.
It was mostly my idea, with a big assist from the Gibson Foundation and the people at the Gibson factory. About a year ago, I contacted Gibson executive Rob Senn and asked if they would like to donate guitars for us to sell for charity. The Gibson Foundation is a longtime supporter of Save The Music, and they’ve done this in the past. Senn challenged me to pitch an idea that had never been done before, something massive and challenging that would be really impactful. I came up with this: 20 visual artists, 20 musicians, and 20 custom guitars.
Have they ever done anything to this scale before?
Last year they did something called Guitar Town where they made huge guitars for public art. They had never done a project like this before, but they were supportive of the endeavor. We started talking to people at the Gibson factory about it. The more we talked about the artists, and how much artistic freedom we were going to give the artists, the more excited they got about it.
How did you find the musicians and artists? What was their reaction to the project?
Finding musicians wasn’t hard; we [work] with musicians all the time at Save The Music. But we hadn’t worked with visual artists before. Talking to Cheryl Family from Art at Viacom was an obvious next step. Art at Viacom was incredibly helpful, and gave us this open slot for June. It set a nice deadline—nine months from when we got the project started.
“I went to public school my whole life, and got my music education from there. Just that in itself, I was like, I have to do this. Music and art together. This is how I have to give back.”
– Visual Artist Lola Blu on creating a guitar for Save The Music.
Watch a clip of Lola Blu’s artistic process:
Did musicians get to choose the artists they collaborated with? Did they have preferences about that?
Some musicians felt very strongly about who the artist was, but connected them and they started collaborating, it all went really well. Rick Nielsen has been tweeting pictures of his guitar; playing it onstage. Some musicians have even contacted the artists to create album artwork for them.
It’s a great way to network.
Yes, and some artists are even being contracted to do visual work for Gibson. Gibson loves these guitars. Originally we were hoping to get 20 guitars for the 20th anniversary of Save The Music, but expected some drop off. So we picked 25 musicians, but all 25 worked out. So we had some work in groups of three.
That must have been a terrific feeling—to have to adjust your concept because it was so successful. What else made you feel like your vision was embraced by those who were involved in its design?
When we started showing the Gibson factory the guitars, they got excited. That Wyclef Jean guitar is covered in glass. Gibson was excited by the challenge of making a playable Les Paul that’s covered in broken glass.
Wyclef played it onstage.
— VH1 Save The Music (@VH1SaveTheMusic) April 30, 2017
If you could have any one of these guitars, which would it be and why?
It’s like asking to choose which one of your kids you like the most [laughs]. I’ll pick a couple. I love that Patti Smith one. She made that design freehand in Sharpie, which is super cool. Art-wise, I love the Dabs Myla one. I got to hang out with them in Nashville, and they were so nice and cool. They’re music fanatics. I got to meet Wayne Kramer and hang out with him while he played one of those guitars. He’s one of my guitar heroes.
Any plans to have the musicians play these guitars before they’re auctioned off?
Yes. Almost all will be played by the artists. Over the summer, any musician coming through the New York metro area. Some have already been played. Captain Kirk [Douglas] played that one on The Tonight Show with The Roots.
Robby Krieger signed his. Miley Cyrus played hers at the Robin Hood gala in May. Jim James and Gary Clark, Jr. are playing theirs at a show at Forrest Hills Stadium. The goal is to have them all played or signed.
What was it like to walk into the building when the exhibit was finished, and you saw your idea had come to full fruition?
It’s really satisfying. I had an idea, and thanks to nine months of hard work from a large group of people it came together. Linda Doyle from my team was the person on the phone every day, coordinating with all the different artists, employees from the Gibson factory, and more.
Overall, it’s amazing to come up with something see it exist in the world one year later. We’re hopeful it will be super impactful for the foundation, funding music education grants for at least a dozen schools.
How have Viacom employees reacted to this exhibit?
The feedback has been super positive. It’s very cool and it also is very true to the history and DNA of MTV and VH1, and that resonates with people.