Milwaukee Talks: Harley-Davidson Museum curatorial director Jim Fricke
For someone not fitting the typical Harley guy stereotype, Milwaukee's Jim Fricke is one of the Motor Company's most authentic and inspirational brand representatives.
As curatorial director of the Harley-Davidson Museum since 2004, Fricke works with a cool and quiet confidence developing the museum's unique design, exhibits, events and music playlists. While Fricke often defers the bright Harley media spotlight to others, he is as passionate and knowledgeable as anyone on Harley legend and lore.
Prior to joining Harley-Davidson, Fricke spent 12 years helping lead the Experience Music Project (EMP) contemporary pop culture museum in Seattle, which included authoring an acclaimed book on the beginnings of the New York hip-hop culture in the 1970s.
Born and raised on the West Coast and a former professional musician, Fricke brings a refreshing perspective to his job at the museum and to the cultural scene in Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee.com recently took a ride with Fricke as he discussed the Harley-Davidson Museum's mission, local arts and culture, and his musical influences and preferences.
OnMilwaukee.com: You have an extremely cool job, but what are some little things that make it cool?
Jim Fricke: As curator, it's like being an investigative journalist where you have the opportunity to move from one subject to another. With exhibits, you become an expert in something that you maybe only have a cursory knowledge of and then move on to the next thing.
Since it's such a short walk for me right into the museum, the most consistently rejuvenating experience is going in and talking to people. Sometimes, you really get to make somebody's day.
OMC: How often do people tell you that your job is cool?
JF: I get it a lot. I don't necessarily fit the Harley guy mold. I don't always wear the MotorClothes and can just walk up to people in the museum. I'll start talking to them, and they think, "Who's this guy?" Then, they get that I know what I'm talking about. At EMP, there was an undertone of, "This kind of sucks because I should have your job, so how come you got it?" Here, that's what they say about Bill Rodencal. He's the guy who works on the bikes. For Harley enthusiasts, that's a cooler job than sitting at a desk.
OMC: Are there any challenges or downsides to such a cool job?
JF: Having spent so much time playing in bands prepared me for this work. I'm honored to work with people who are really passionate, smart and creative with strong opinions. Bringing it all together to make something happen is often a highly emotional operation. One of biggest challenges here is that pretty much everybody you talk to, if they haven't been here, they are pretty sure they know what it looks like. They come here, and they had no idea it was going to be this cool. But that preconception can be a barrier. I really want to quit surprising people.
OMC: How did the job at EMP in Seattle prepare you for the Harley Museum?
JF: I would not have gotten this job if I hadn't done that. Things like this don't happen very often, and I've got to do it twice, which is great. They decided to hire me because I had been through a process that is complicated and often stressed. Dealing with important stories, big money, negotiations and doing something that's making the people who are powerfully influenced by the subject matter proud.
Willie G. (Davidson) was my last interview, and he was highly skeptical. We had a good conversation that ended with him saying, "I pictured somebody with more gasoline in their veins." But as I talked to him, the subject matter was similar to exhibits I did on punk rock. If you love punk rock and consider yourself part of that culture, then your life revolves around that music and lifestyle, and you define yourself by that. People define themselves around not just the motorcycle, but all the things that surround it.
OMC: What are your impressions of Milwaukee?
JF: Before I came here, I honestly didn't know Harley was in Milwaukee. Like most people, I knew "Laverne & Shirley." When I wandered around, it felt like Seattle in the mid-'80s, but for different reasons. It's kind of like Seattle, but the buildings are cooler. The oldest buildings in Seattle are from the turn of 20th century. On the West Coast, we couldn't dream of a brick house because everything is wood. The architecture here is beautiful, and so are the people. We love Seattle, and I always thought that people there were friendly, but not like here.
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