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September 11, 2007

Arts programming, coverage and diversity in the Outback

Jennifer A. Smith

Madison's afternoon daily, The Capital Times, recently ran an item on how the current school year will likely be the one in which "minority students become the majority in Madison's elementary schools." Counted together, Black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American students will account for over 50% of elementary students.

For those reading this outside of Wisconsin, this number may be surprising given the state's largely Germanic image (and, frankly, I wouldn't exist were it not for German immigrants to Milwaukee). Yet while the makeup of Milwaukee and Madison is more varied than the state as a whole, numbers such as these do indicate that Wisconsin is an increasingly diverse place. And as the younger generation in particular becomes more diverse, so does our state's future.

What does this have to with the arts in smaller cities? Quite a lot, for reasons that are not hard to fathom. While part of the role of the arts is to give us glimpses into other worlds and other people's experiences, I think all of us also want to see our own experiences--whatever they may be--reflected in the arts from time to time. A pluralistic society needs a rich variety of arts experiences.

Some related questions that have come into sharper focus for me this year are these: How does the art we see in our community reflect our population? What do local arts programming choices say about us as a community? And whose stories are being told?

While these questions may seem painfully obvious, for arts writers they're also easily lost in the rush of doing a review of a particular play, art exhibition, etc. Sometimes, given all that there is to say about a specific work and the limited amount of space a writer has, larger questions of context and community fall by the wayside. And even when they're raised, they're not always appreciated; arts organizations can wind up feeling defensive.

For arts critics in small to mid-size cities who may be reading this: how have you addressed such issues in your reviews? Or do you feel you've not had the space to really delve into it? Or is it an issue you think is ill-suited to arts criticism?

On a related note, I've also been pondering issues of diversity in terms of local print publications. They, too, are a mirror of how Madison and cities like it are changing. In addition to Madison's two daily newspapers (the Wisconsin State Journal and Capital Times) and alternative weekly, Isthmus, there's a lot more in town, much of it serving specific populations: the brand-new Our Lives, which bills itself as "Madison's LGBTQA Magazine"; the multicultural papers Capital City Hues and The Madison Times ("The Paper That's More Than Black and White"); La Comunidad, publishing articles in both English and Spanish; and Wisconsin Woman--and I'm sure I'm leaving a few publications out.

While I have no grand insights to offer as I write this late on a Monday night, I do think that those of us lucky enough to write about our local arts scenes must take time to consider the community context of what we see--and don't see.

Posted by Jennifer A. Smith at September 11, 2007 10:00 AM


Jennifer, you ask excellent questions (and I love reading about Madison -- I went to concerts in Madison fairly often when I lived in Iowa City).

Another editor and I just finished reviewing 9 plays from Ashland, Oregon's Shakespeare Festival for our alt weekly paper (Eugene Weekly).

That's a large number to review in a cover story, and we did each play separately, which curtailed each review and didn't allow a larger look. I vaguely addressed issues of race in the OSF's production of The Tempest (the Prospero is African American and the Caliban white, with white makeup on the parts of his body that are visible).

I also wrote the review of August Wilson's Gem of the Ocean (which, at the OSF, was superb). I wanted to write about how weird it was to see the play with a nigh-on all-white audience (I believe there were two or three people of color, at least visibly of color, in the 600-person audience), and how I'd love for us to have been the two white people in an almost all African American audience. But the space! And also ... the potential to turn off people who might otherwise go to the play.

I wonder how the actors feel about the audience composition. I wonder how other audience members feel about it. It's not that I think a play about U.S. history should only be performed for African Americans; it's that I worry about a. the cultural divide based on money, the name of the festival and the location (Oregon is a pretty white state though Ashland caters almost entirely to people from the Bay Area, LA, Seattle and Portland) and b. the actors never getting the kind of feedback they might get if the play were produced in a city (a city that had an African American population).

I interviewed a local artistic director here the other day for another issue (yet to pub--the OSF reviews are also yet to pub), and he said that one problem with doing contemporary plays is that a lot of them require actors of color, and Eugene (with about 143,000 people, it's mostly white: 1 percent African American, a bit over 1 percent Native American, about 6 percent Latino, about 5 percent Asian American or Asian) doesn't always provide what a director needs from that point of view. Lots there to be investigated--who goes to theater camp? How do adults get involved? (And this combines class and race lines--theater takes a lot of time, and if you have to work or if you have a kid or if you're working 60 hours a week and taking classes at the community college, how can you do theater?)

I think you're right that in "the rush to review," we miss larger context stories. I wonder how covering the schools (with a much larger Latino percentage) and their theater programs would add to the conversation. (We don't usually cover the schools; the daily does that. But not usually in this way.)

Long comment, sorry. But a couple of other thoughts: What's the percentage of arts editors at midsize papers (and alt weeklies) who are people of color? How do white editors and writers who want to stand up to white privilege and work as allies for communities of color keep ourselves accountable? Thanks for asking the questions.

(And as must be obvious, I believe that race and class, gender and sexuality, etc., all intertwine with what we're covering [and how we cover it].)

Posted by: Suzi Steffen at September 11, 2007 12:29 PM

Suzi, here's a suggestion re OSF: try doing a feature story about the actors playing Prospero in "The Tempest" and Aunt Ester in "Gem of the Ocean." The two roles are similar (both are their play's center of wisdom and magical power); you could use that as a frame for the questions of race that interest you (problems of race not lending themselves to the magical transformations that happen in the plays). What's it like to play "Gem" for an all-white audience? Chances are, the OSF cast has actors who are vets of multiple August Wilson productions before various kinds of audiences, and have given it some thought. I don't know what your space limits are, but since OSF runs its shows for months and months, it would seem you have a unique opportunity in Oregon to really explore plays and the issues they raise.

Posted by: Mike Boehm at September 11, 2007 5:10 PM

I am drawn to look at the work that comes out of the African diaspora. Regarding the other differences that are invisible...it's easier for me to "pass" in order to appear to others that I can live in those worlds. But actually I can. Art made by "others" transports me there.

Think how small the pool of art that's made by someone we think is very like ourselves. And how small the pool of readers. Here I have revealed that I am "passing" as a flyover writer when in fact I am based in NYC and have the advantage there of its diversity.

I do think the issue of cultural context is interesting when it's brought out in art reviews. (It often comes out unintentionally.) Perhaps even more so in an area where differences are more glaring.

Consider Judith Mackerell's review of Ailey listed on AJ today for an outsider's view that offers an interesting perspective.

I think that with fluency, cultural context becomes accessible for faster retrieval in writing about art.

Posted by: Lori Ortiz at September 12, 2007 6:40 AM

Here is that review in yesterday's Guardian by British dance critic Judith Mackrell that Lori Ortiz mentions in her comment: "Alvin Ailey's dancers need a new direction."

Mackrell writes: "In theory, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is a mixed-race, multicultural dance company. In practice, much of its core repertory trades in a style of black and Latin stereotypes that are old-fashioned and restrictive."

Posted by: Jennifer Smith at September 12, 2007 7:44 AM

I think the question of viewing the arts within a community and cultural context is most interesting. In reading the post, I found myself remembering four very different occasions upon which I was a member of the audience at a Rennie Harris/Puremovement performance (they are a hip-hop dance company that performs often in concert dance venues for those unfamiliar). The first viewing was as part of the Dance Africa Chicago festival, where the audience was 4,000 people, primarily African-American, and steeped in a particular culture. The second viewing was also in Chicago, but at the Museum of Contemporary Art with only 300 in the audience and nearly all white, upper-middle class. The two performance programs shared content, but the experiences as a viewer couldn't have been more distinct. At the first, audience members were vocal in their appreciation throughout the performance and physically moved by the dancers on stage. At the MCA, the silence was deafening, yet post-performance chatter indicated both enjoyment and respect. I can imagine that the experiences for the performers couldn't have been more distinct.

The other two occasions were performances of evening-length work as the company moved into a more dance theater genre of performance. One was their retelling of Romeo & Juliet, entitled Rome & Jewels, performed on a very diverse college campus. The other was the debut of Facing Mekka at Jacob's Pillow in Becket, MA (a longtime home of contemporary concert dance). Both the content and audience make-up differed in these cases, as did the expectations from these audiences of how to engage with performance.

Each of these audiences, if asked for their impressions of the same dance company and even some of the same work would likely provide very different responses. That I, as an audience member, was able to have such varying experiences of a single company over time in such diverse settings, I would surmise is quite unique. Yet my engagement with the work itself was absolutely deepened by the audience context in which I experienced it. I also found that my own behavior as an audience member usually mimicked those around me. I was up dancing around and cheering at Dance Africa, yet quiet as a mouse at the MCA and Jacob's Pillow.

Posted by: Deborah Obalil at September 12, 2007 10:06 AM

What is being described is not endemic merely to writers. Having been the Executive Director and Producer of New York's Dance Theater Workshop from 1975 into 2003, I learned in nurturing and producing performing artists from Bill T. Jones to Susan Marshall to Guillermo Gomez-Pena to follow Matisse's dictum (as I imperfectly remember it): A square inch of any color is not equal to a square inch of any other color. So with race and heritage in art-making - assume nothing, and try your damnedest to know everything.

Posted by: David R. White at September 12, 2007 1:50 PM