|© AP Photo/Paul Sancya|
"I am instructed by my dean to have no communication with the press."
That was the response of the usually chatty Steve Ball when the Observer asked about the response to a widely circulated Associated Press story--one in which the U-M music prof fretted publicly about the neglect of the university's collection of historic musical instruments.
In addition to being the U-M's carillonneur and staff organist at the Michigan Theater, Ball is curator of the Stearns Collection. Originally donated in 1899 by wealthy Detroit drug manufacturer Frederick Stearns and expanded over the years, it encompasses 2,500 items that range from a 300-year-old viola da gamba to an early Moog synthesizer. In the AP article--headlined "Silenced musical treasures languish in Mich. Vault"--Ball estimated its value at $25 million.
AnnArbor. com reprinted the story with dramatic photos: Ball turning the pages of a huge seventeenth-century book of Gregorian chants and holding a beautiful early violin. Reporter Jeff Karoub quoted the curator as saying, "This is a national treasure--it deserves the dignity of either being properly housed ... or to be dispersed in such a way that it could be."
An indignant reader who saw the story on the Huffington Post agreed: "SHAME on them for sitting on the treasures and letting them deteriorate ... If THEY cannot do a proper job, I am POSITIVE that the Indiana University School of Music could ..."
Ball "sort of shot himself in the foot" by going public, says Chris Dempsey, a former assistant curator of the collection. Dempsey, who wrote his dissertation on the Stearns, doubts Ball's valuation--"my estimate is $5 million"--but says he understands his frustration. The collection has been shuffled from place to place on the U-M campus for decades, with some instruments damaged in the process. Though select pieces are on display at the music school and at Hill Auditorium, most are stored in an old factory near downtown.
Damage control fell to music dean Christopher Kendall. "We were in touch with people just
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