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February 9, 2007

To be, or not to be....

Joe Nickell

Let's cut to the heart of what inspired this blog in the first place. In his keynote address to the NEA Institute mentioned in the first post, New Yorker senior theater critic John Lahr stated, with what at least appeared to be a straight face, "If it's not in the New Yorker, it doesn't exist in the culture." He went on to explain his belief that the New Yorker serves as the de facto publication of record for theater in America.

While it's true that the New Yorker consistently has some of the finest and most thought-provoking theater criticism in America, this assertion seems the exact kind of New York-centric thinking that is common in the arts world. If you're serious about theater, you go to New York. If you're serious about film, you go to Los Angeles. Yada Yada.

I, for one, would beg to differ, both in spirit and letter. For one thing, the New Yorker isn't exactly the most widely read publication in America; there are plenty of other newspapers and magazines that offer theater criticism (at least in some small doses) that reach larger numbers of people. The Los Angeles Times is but one example.

But beyond that is the implied question of whether art in other places really matters in our historical and cultural trajectory; whether serious and significant art happens in other places.

I live in Missoula, Montana, sharing a river valley with about 60,000 people. It's true that Missoula lacks the diversity of culture in New York. It's also true that the archives of the Missoulian newspaper aren't quite as widely or well preserved as those of the New Yorker (although that's changing as the paper's body of work online grows); so some things that happen in my city do become largely lost to history once they've passed.

Still, many of the artists I know in Missoula live here for reasons that are more about their art than about their exposure to the world: The mountains inspire them, fly fishing soothes them, etcetera. It's a quieter place than New York, and thus a great place for contemplation and focused creativity. There are important things that happen here.

And Missoula is just one place in a big, big country. It's a place that John Lahr himself visits on occasion, to fly fish. Surely he can understand why an artist might choose the big sky of Montana over the bustle of New York.

And in Missoula, I daresay our local culture matters more to us than what's happening on Broadway.

Posted by Joe Nickell at February 9, 2007 2:32 PM

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Bravo, Joe, bravo!

I know I walked away from the first couple days wondering whether New York was far more provinical than those towns that carry the name by the strictest definition.

When I heard the budget numbers, I remember thinking that one of those shows would be able to pay for the entire seasons of a dozen or more companies here in Lansing. While the production values are lower, the quality of performance rivals what I saw in L.A.

John Lahr talked about theater being the place where individuals are talking to individuals as opposed to corporations picking the pocket of people with the stories they are telling. I thought similar things could be said about theater on Broadway and theater in small cities across the country. Art is being created for the sake of art, not for the sake of ticket sales and box office returns. They don't have to answer to investors or grant-making organizations because they don't have any.

Ideally, though, we are all part of that vaunted ecosystem that we heard so much about and that the cultural centers and the rest of the world can each help to feed and enrich each other.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at February 12, 2007 5:28 PM