Bill Miller is nothing remotely like the typical specialty museum executive director.
For that matter, the gregarious Californian, who founded The Johnny Cash Museum in downtown Nashville’s SoBro district earlier this year, is very unlike the average entrepreneur in general.
“When Shannon and I came to Nashville —not knowing anything about running a museum — we met with Terry Clements of the Nashville Convention and Visitors Bureau,” Miller recalls of the late 2012 trips to scout locations for his space that honors the legendary musician. “He said the one exception [to our being able to successfully execute a museum project with no experience] could be one involving Johnny Cash.
“[Our successful start] is all due to the healthy business climate in Nashville and a supportive CVB,” Miller adds.
Humble and engaging, Miller will acknowledge he is not — or at least wasn’t until he opened his for-profit specialty museum — a businessman. The 50-something collector of all things Cash is a former associate producer of live radio show Grand Ole Gospel Time.
“I think ‘entrepreneurism’ and ‘nonprofit’ are kind of at odds with each other,” he says. “Not that I don’t have immense respect for the Frist [Center for the Visual Arts] and the Country Music Museum and Hall of Fame. But as a ‘rebel entrepreneur,’ I could not operate under those guidelines and restrictions. I knew Johnny well and he did not like chains.”
Miller’s collection of Cash memorabilia is impressive. The museum is home to upwards of 800 pieces. Off exhibit, Miller has between 1,500 and 2,000 pieces.
“I add every day,” he says. “It’s been a lifelong passion collecting these things. I’m not just a hoarder. Now I’m buying for a specific purpose and getting to share with the world.”
Miller spends much of his day in his Corona, Calif., home working the phones to locate Cash memorabilia. But he also keeps, via phone and computer, a close watch on the museum, which also houses a retail shop.
“We visit the shop at least once a month for at least 10 days,” he says. “And we have a loft over the museum.”
When asked if his work requires administrative and nuts-and-bolts traits or more of a visionary and entrepreneurial approach, Miller responds as if influenced by the memory of Cash.
“I’m a big picture guy but then there are the vulgarities of the business,” he says. “This is for Johnny Cash and the responsibility I feel in my heart presenting Johnny in this venue is a [welcomed] burden. Every time we add an artifact or exhibit, I hear Johnny saying, ‘Bill, do it right.’”
And Miller is, in fact, doing it right.
Currently, the Cash museum spans about 7,500 square feet. Miller said he plans to use both the first and second levels of the building, which will add 15,000 square feet.
“It’s a two- to three-year plan, but anytime we can accelerate it, we will do so,” he says of adding space. “It’s all subject to space availability.
New exhibits will be fueled by collectors and people “who worked with Cash significantly,” Miller says.
For now, Miller is learning on the go.
“The major challenge in operating the museum is that there are no business models to compare,” he says, noting there are very few specialty museums devoted to the work of one person. “Most of the smaller single-subject museums have gone by the wayside.”
Miller has no intention of his museum failing. And he doesn’t have to be entrepreneurial to understand what will drive him to be successful.
“I use to meet people and they would ask, ‘Why should you have a Cash museum and not one of the other millions of fans?’ Until we began preparing the museum in late 2011, I couldn’t answer that question. The impact Johnny left on my life is a payback.”