Prince of the Mag Mile

“Prince: the Immersive Experience” begins with purple light through stained glass. Guests in groups of ten to 15 are led through double doors to a replica of the “When Doves Cry” music video set: portraits hung on purple walls, bouquets scattered on the floor, and a white claw-foot tub to pose behind. The only thing missing is Prince himself.

Open to general admission as of June 9, the 20,000-square-foot exhibition about deceased Minneapolis pop star Prince occupies prime real estate on the Mag Mile. Tickets start at $39.50 each for approximately an hour of touring through photo backdrop installations, infographics on Prince’s life and work, and a few personal artifacts. It’s a sensual if sometimes superficial introduction to the legendary musician.

The exhibit is the brainchild of Superfly, an “experience company” that brought tourist attractions “The Friends Experience” and “The Office Experience”to the same Michigan Avenue location in which you can now find bigger-than-life-size images of Prince. Once the company decided to focus on music for their next endeavor, “the shortlist was easy,” Superfly COO Richard Gay told me. “Who are the stars that are multidimensional? You wanna talk about the gear, you wanna talk about the talent, you wanna talk about standing for something like social justice and artists’ rights?” Gay, a Chicago native, reinforced his enthusiasm by reminiscing about seeing Purple Rain in theaters as a teen and watching Prince’s famous Super Bowl XLI halftime show with his son. Superfly soon secured full collaboration of The Prince Estate, now representing three of Prince’s siblings and music management company Primary Wave, and Paisley Park, the artist’s home and studio turned neo-Graceland in the Minneapolis suburbs.

An installation from the exhibition mimics the exterior of Minneapolis club First Avenue, where Prince first performed. Credit: Superfly and Alive Coverage

The most immersive parts of the experience are the sets that allow visitors to pose within the visual worlds of Prince, chiefly from his cultural peak in the mid-80s and early 90s. You can recreate the Purple Rain cover and straddle a hulking purple motorcycle, artfully arranged at an angle away from a dimly lit alleyway door. The rest of the set is filled with references, like a graffiti message signed by “Nikki,” a faux storefront for Erotic Cities Electronics, and a wall mimicking the silver star exterior of famed Minneapolis club First Avenue. Another room echoes the Caligulan vibe of 1991’s Diamonds and Pearls, including a tongue-like pink leather chair culled from the set of the title track’s music video. Murals of performance photos and Prince quotes, some rendered in his charming proto-leet speak, provide additional fodder for posing throughout the exhibit. 

Superfly presumably brought the same level of detail to this exhibition as it did to duplicating Dunder Mifflin’s office, but it’s strange to see one idiosyncratic man’s art presented with the same approach as a network TV sitcom. Prince’s biggest hits are played throughout the exhibit, but there is little discussion of his actual musicianship. His near-constant recording and technological innovation are summed up in a faux studio where guests can control the volume of individual instrument tracks on “Let’s Go Crazy.” The song is not a great example of mixing or arranging process even in the simplified context, since Prince’s famous “Dearly beloved . . .” monologue occupies the first minute with only vocals and church organ anyway.

The other music-focused room is the “Glam Slam” dance studio, meant to approximate hearing a Prince song on a nightclub dance floor for a few minutes, until the group is shuffled into the next area. The room is surrounded on three sides by a kaleidoscopic mirrored lighting installation designed by LeRoy Bennett, former lighting designer for Prince. The DJ dropped “1999” just before I entered, gamely bouncing in place and occasionally filtering out the low end to approximate a drop. It is an impressive display worthy of Prince’s many dance floor classics, but in a small preview tour group on a Monday evening, no one mustered up any moves beyond enthusiastic nods and knee bends.

The exhibition includes a few personal artifacts from Paisley Park’s collection. Three flamboyant outfits are exhibited on 5’2” mannequins alongside sketches from their designers. The next room showcases custom instruments, including a hot-pink keytar, held under such high security that only one had arrived when I visited three days before the exhibition opened to the public.

“Prince: The Immersive Experience”
Through 10/9: Wed 3-8 PM, Thu noon-8 PM, Fri-Sat 10 AM-9 PM, Sun 10 AM-7 PM; the Shops at North Bridge, 540 N. Michigan; $39.50-$65, princetheexperience.com

Prince continued to record and release music until his 2016 death, and the exhibition attempts to balance his most famous albums with a four-decade career. One hallway features a timeline of every album released in his lifetime with a tracklist and description. After the “When Doves Cry” room, touch-screen displays scroll through an interactive timeline of Prince’s childhood and early career in 70s Minneapolis, culminating in the musician’s major label recording contract—signed at age 18—and the excited newspaper coverage of his debut in local clubs. 

Along with his lifelong ties to his hometown, the exhibit highlights Prince’s charitable donations and pro-Black activism with photos of private benefit concerts and pro-equality interview quotes. It also highlights his public fights for artists’ rights, including criticism of invasive 360 deals and streaming’s low payouts. As he explains in archival interviews, he changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and wrote “SLAVE” on his face in protest of Warner Bros.’ efforts to control the master recordings of his work; his 1996 New York Times quote “If you don’t own your masters, your master owns you” is etched in bold letters alongside graphics from his album Emancipation

This felt a little ironic in the middle of a deeply branded experience. For all his visual sense and impeccable logo, part of Prince’s appeal in life was his sense of remove; you might have to sign up for a proto-subscription service to hear his music, or wait until the wee hours of the morning to get into the aftershow, but Prince was worth it for his unpredictability.

Prince performing in concert in 2011. Credit: Brian Ach

The exhibition culminates in the playlist lounge, where visitors answer Buzzfeed-esque personality quizzes on touch screens to receive a Spotify link to a suitable Prince mix. I chose the color of my aura and my favorite Prince headshot and received Freedom Fighter, a playlist of heavy rock deep cuts whose obscurity I begrudgingly respected. Each display offers playback through purple headphones from sponsor BOSE, which the guide cheerfully informed me will be exclusively available at the gift shop. 

I was disappointed that the exhibition didn’t discuss Prince’s influence on modern music with specific examples; when even a soft-rock moppet like Harry Styles is earning Prince comparisons in the press just for dabbling in some falsetto, it might benefit younger listeners to better understand that artistic lineage. It is a stark contrast to “David Bowie Is,” the 2014 retrospective held at the Museum of Contemporary Art that took great pains to place the British icon’s work in context with its contemporaries and numerous artistic progeny. 

“Prince: the Immersive Experience” is a good introduction to Prince, and the actual artifacts will be worth it for any devotees who aren’t ready to make the pilgrimage to Chanhassen, Minnesota. But the exhibit’s superficial focus on Prince’s positive brand attributes fails to convey the unique scope of his art. The best way to learn about Prince is to stay home and listen to his albums, but there’s not much money to be made in music lately.

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