MoPOP’s Michele Smith Has Pop Culture in Her DNA

Smith joined Seattle's Museum of Pop Culture as CEO last year, becoming one of the only Black women at the helm of such a large institution.

A shining three-part structure of metal and glass
Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture was designed by architect Frank Gehry. Courtesy Courtesy he Museum of Pop Culture

Next to Seattle’s historic Space Needle is a techno-organic structure that looks straight out of sci-fi. Sporadically, a monorail travels through it. Designed by famed architect Frank Gehry, the structure houses the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP. The institution was the vision of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, who launched it in 2000 as the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame (EMP|SFM). It later became the EMP Museum before its rebranding as MoPOP in 2016.

The museum has several galleries, as well as one of the largest indoor LED screens in the world, and mounts exhibitions that cover everything from cinema and television to video games and music. Memorabilia abounds, but there’s quite a lot of education to be found among the edutainment, and MoPOP hasn’t shied away from the fine arts. In 2006, the institution held an exhibition built around Paul Allen’s art collection, with works by Lichtenstein, Picasso, Van Gogh and Monet.

Unsurprisingly, MoPOP has a soft spot for sci-fi and fantasy—and is home to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, with inductees as varied as actor Leonard Nimoy, manga creator Rumiko Takahashi and composer John Williams.

Today, exhibitions and events like the Science Fiction + Fantasy Short Film Festival and annual Pop Conference come together under the watchful eye and leadership of Michele Y. Smith, who came on as MoPOP’s CEO last year, becoming one of the only Black women at the helm of such a large cultural institution. She’ll oversee MoPOP’s first major exhibit of 2024, “MASSIVE: The Power of Pop Culture,” a comprehensive exploration of global pop culture and its impact on our lives.

A woman in a black top stands in front of dreamy lights
Michele Smith, CEO of the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle. Natalie Post, Post Productions

Observer connected with Smith to ask about her inspirations, what drew her to the Museum of Pop Culture and her thoughts on pop culture preservation.

Before coming to the museum, you were Chief Business & Financial Officer at the award-winning Woodland Park Zoo. I can imagine that was very different in some ways and not so different in others. How do you see that role as having prepared you for this one?

The zoo and MoPOP differ in their missions and products, but both organizations are highly regarded in their respective fields, contributing to the vibrant cultural landscape of an innovative city that values inclusivity and accessibility.

My preparation for the role of MoPOP CEO came from both building the reputation of the Woodland Park Zoo, as well as navigating the challenges posed by COVID-19. This experience served as a crash course in my career, forcing me to address major economic obstacles amidst a health crisis. I spearheaded the development of a comprehensive reopening plan for the zoo, ensuring the animals and visitors alike were safe and protected.

When I discovered the CEO opening at MoPOP, it presented an opportunity to bring my vision of organizational reimagination to life. Thanks to the rapid blueprint provided by Covid-19, in my new role to date, I have been able to implement significant changes within just nine months, resulting in tangible returns.

What drew you to this role? Is there something about MoPOP that you found particularly attractive or intriguing?

Arts and culture have been an integral part of my life. My mom was one of the first Black ballerinas in Philadelphia and instilled in me a passion for the arts. I always had a passion for music and learned to skillfully play both the piano and violin.

My DNA is infused with pop culture. I have an immense love for fashion, music and film. Being a part of the arts community has been a lifelong journey for me, and this personal connection drives my desire to lead an organization that aligns with my values. I have always dreamed of a job that allows me to be creative, drive revenue and provide extraordinary experiences. This aspiration is not just about passion but also about infusing a business lens to drive profit.

After a thorough interview process with the staff and board, I felt like I had found my new home, my new family. This dream job of mine revolves around being a people-centered leader, and the team at MoPOP is one of a kind.

My goals are focused on driving revenue through new memberships. I want everyone to understand that even a $1.00 donation contributes to our operating budgets and enables us to expand our educational public programs. I believe in inclusivity and want everyone, regardless of what they look like or where they came from, to feel like a philanthropist through community-based fundraising. It’s a simple thought—with just $1.00, anyone can contribute to something they are passionate about.

If you share my passion for pop culture and the transformative power of the arts, I sincerely hope you will help fund our future and make a donation. Together, we can continue to celebrate and support the arts, making a lasting impact on our community and beyond.

A collage of images of exhibitions from the Museum of Pop Culture in Seattle
Views of what’s on at MoPOP. Courtesy the Museum of Pop Culture

Who inspires you and why? It could be someone in the pop culture world or someone in your personal life.

Lenny Kravitz! He is a renowned musician, fashion icon and cultural influencer. He’s captivated audiences worldwide with his unique blend of rock, soul and funk. As a Black woman, I find immense inspiration in his music and style. I celebrate his contributions to pop culture and his amplification of women within his genre.

Kravitz’s music transcends boundaries. He effortlessly blends rock, soul and funk, creating a timeless and relatable sound. Songs like “Fly Away” and “American Woman” resonate deeply, addressing themes of freedom, empowerment and self-acceptance for me. His fashion choices challenge traditional gender norms and embrace individuality. It inspires fearlessness in self-expression. Kravitz’s cultural impact extends beyond music, breaking barriers in the predominantly white industry and providing a platform for BIPOC women in entertainment. Through his influence, Kravitz has empowered a new generation of artists to embrace their identities and make their mark on pop culture.

It’s fascinating for me to think that classical art was the pop culture of its day. What are your thoughts on preserving pop culture in the same way we preserve fine art—why is it important?

I am here to change the idea that pop culture and classical art are two different entities. They are one and the same. Classical art, with its timeless beauty and profound influence, served as the pop culture of its day. It holds a prominent place in some circles and shapes societal norms. Preserving pop culture akin to fine art is crucial.

Pop culture as an art form is vital as it mirrors the values, beliefs and aspirations of society. Like classical art offers insights into the past, pop culture captures the essence of contemporary life. It inspires and influences individuals, shaping identities and fostering creativity. Ultimately, preserving pop culture ensures the conservation of diverse cultural expressions for future generations to appreciate and learn from the rich tapestry of human experiences.

For instance, 1960s music, fashion and films vividly depict the counterculture movement and civil rights struggles, fostering historical continuity. I believe that preserving pop culture is crucial for conserving the diverse cultural expressions of different communities, protecting their heritage and identity. It also serves as a platform for marginalized communities to share stories, fostering inclusivity and understanding.

Where do you see yourself taking MoPOP in the future? What are your long-term priorities for the institution?

As MoPOP enters its third decade, my primary focus is expanding our membership base. This growth ensures our ongoing connection with the ever-evolving world and lets us cater to the diverse needs of our guests.

And I aim to diversify and expand our donor portfolio to better reflect the community we serve. This effort not only secures community-based funding but also fosters inclusivity across all demographics. It is crucial to me that our organization represents and supports the entire community.

I am eager to forge partnerships with like-minded corporations that share our mission of driving social change through gaming, film, music and fashion. Together, we can create a future where artistic expression and cultural experiences are accessible to every individual, regardless of their background. I am actively seeking collaborations with organizations that envision a more inclusive and diverse arts and culture landscape.

Let us join forces to build a future where everyone has equal access to the transformative power of art and cultural experiences.

MoPOP’s Michele Smith Has Pop Culture in Her DNA