FlyOver: January 2008 Archives

It's the 50th anniversary of Lego's. How many hours have I spent building imaginary creations with this wonderful toy? Countless. Since its invention in Copenhagen on Jan. 28, 1958, the company has made a staggering 400 billion Lego elements, or 62 bricks for every person on the planet. Lego's influence is so pervasive that even Eminem loves them. Well, at least his music was used in this wonderful short film using Lego's and the hip-hop star's alter ego, Slim Shady, to recast Shakespeare's tragedy of Macbeth. Enjoy.

January 28, 2008 8:11 PM |


The next time someone tells you art is something extra, something to be added to the fundamentals of life, like jobs and education, point this out: the impending fight over the likeness of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman at the State House in Columbia.

John Monk, a columnist for The State, characterized the politician today as "one of the leading white supremacists of his time who worked for years to deny African-Americans their rights. As S.C. governor, he advocated lynching black people. Later, he helped usher in the state's Jim Crow era."

Monk's piece ran the same day that Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, introduced a resolution to remove a huge statue of Tillman from the grounds of the State House. Evidently, the resolution is unlikely to gain traction, according to The State newspaper.

Lawmakers are already aiming for compromise.

Instead of tearing it down, some are proposing that a plaque be affixed to the statue that illustrates Tillman's racist legacy.

South Carolina has already changed the statue memorializing the late Strom Thurman, a former Dixiecrat and segregationist. It now lists Strom's daughter born of a black woman among his four other white children.

Two things to remember here: One is that Rutherford's effort is part of a larger nationwide push for greater accuracy in the historic record as African American history is represented the form of public art. The push intensifies, naturally, this time of the year when thoughts turn to Martin Luther King Jr. and his heroic push for civil rights.

The other thing to keep in mind is that art matters even when we don't think of the thing in question (i.e., a statue of Tillman) as art. Art is a reflection of society, of a literate culture's values. It tells us who we are and who we have been. It's no surprise to see people getting upset by an homage to Tillman, a man who embodied white supremacy and white violence toward black Americans. Statues evoke a sense of permanence, but most thinking people would likely want to leave Tillman in the past.

We'll see if anything happens. As of this writing (Jan. 17), an online poll on The State's website indicates 50 percent of voters wanted change: either remove the statue or put a plaque on it. But the other half said that nothing should change.

(image above courtesy of The State)

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

January 19, 2008 12:46 PM |

There are lessons here.

I used to joke with a friend who wrote about religion that she dealt with crazy people. She saw it differently. As an arts journalist dealing with artists and their temperamental ways, I was the one dealing with the crazies. She had it lucky.

There's some truth to it. Artists are indeed passionate about what they do and they are protective, too, knowing how fragile art can be in post-industrial America. Even institutions built as monuments to art and cultural heritage face uncertain futures especially when the time comes to change policies, attitudes, missions.

As the arts reporter for the Savannah Morning News, I had occasion to witness an institution's change of attitude, a process that was somewhat painful for those involved. The Telfair Museum of Art, the cousin of the Gibbes Museum here in Charleston, embarked on a search for a new director around the same time that it had to acknowledge that it was responsible for its own public image.

See, the Telfair was seen by many to be a bastion of whiteness, the preserve of Savannah's upper crust, a gentleman's club for for gentlemanly blue bloods.

Not that surprising. Ask any institutional leader if they have a public image problem and he or she will say, yes, who doesn't? That's the nature of being involved in these large, complicated, nonprofit entities. It's a messy business.

Ask the same people who's responsible for that image and they'll say we are. It's the institution's job to do two things: 1) make programs, events, etc. available to the public, to serve the public and 2) make it crystal clear that these programs, events, etc. are available by way of aggressive efforts at education and outreach.

More and more, you see art museums devoting more resources to education and outreach. They have to. Much of their funding comes from public coffers. To justify the use of that money, they have to not only open the doors, but send out invitations.

The Telfair didn't understand this, at least its former director, Diane Lesko, evidently didn't. She was adamant in denying the Telfair had a public image problem, especially among Savannah's majority (nearly 60 percent) black population. In an Oct. 7, 2006, op-ed piece, she said "it appears there are those who perceive us to be less than inclusive. Since perception is often confused with reality, I believe it is critical for the Telfair to set the record straight."

Not the kind of language you'd expect from a top administrator. But then again, Lesko wasn't known for her tact, much less her political savvy. After the Telfair opened a new $25 million facility, a spectacular facility designed by starchitect Moshe Safdie, she was pushed out of her job, according to sources close to the Telfair's board of directors. I was told more than once in private that she took too much credit in interviews with me for getting the new center built.

Even so, the Telfair's board faced a bigger problem -- how to pay for the new center. It was going to cost $2 million in fund-raising from the ground up every fiscal year "just to survive," I was told. That meant getting as many people through the doors as possible and that meant becoming as open and transparent and accessible as possible. With Lesko being the face of the museum, the face that denied its image of exclusivity and elitism, it was time for her to go. So she did.

I wrote the following piece during the board's search for a new director. I was not a popular person after it went to press. Even so, I still feel it had a positive impact on the museum and its search for a new director.

Steven High, who was selected this time last year, told me straight away in our first interview that it was his and his museum's job to address the image problem, a statement illustrating a huge change in attitude and policy at one of the South's oldest museums.

Stung by charges of elitism, it is undertaking programs that reach out to the community as a whole

Late last year, Mayor Otis Johnson and Savannah City Council did something that sent shock waves through the Telfair Museum of Art.

They decided against underwriting two of the museum's community outreach programs, "Four Free Weeks" and "Family Sundays."

Aldermen questioned whether the programs were a good use of taxpayer dollars. It was unclear to them if the programs were effective in reaching disadvantaged African-Americans, especially adolescents.

More than $61,000 was tabled pending further review.

The move signaled a vexing issue for the 120-year-old museum: how to combat a public image as an elitist institution - exclusive, high-brow, inaccessible, anti-democratic.

It's an issue that plagues art museums across the country, said Barbara Archer, a former curator at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Museums that do not acknowledge the problem and move to overcome a troubled public image can expect to continue alienating those who perceive them as elitist, she said.

"There are a handful of people who support museums in a serious way," Archer said. "If they don't fix the problem, then all those wonderful exhibits will never be enjoyed by most people."

The Telfair's problematic public image may come in part from its history.

Mary Telfair, who bequeathed the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences to establish a monument to Western art and culture, came from a powerful, privileged Southern family whose holdings made them one of the largest slave owners in Georgia.

Her family owned more than 600 slaves. For many, that fact alone makes her gift not a legacy to creativity, community involvement and civic responsibility, but a memorial to cultural separatism, white power and black disenfranchisement.

Recent developments have served to compound the problem.

The opening of the $24.5 million Jepson Center for the Arts in March and news of an endowment now exceeding $23 million have perhaps deepened the image of the South's oldest art museum as the preserve of rich whites rather than poor and middle-class blacks.

As the new president of the Telfair's board of trustees, John G. Kennedy III has said his goal is to boost membership to 5,000.

So far, membership, spurred by the Jepson's opening, has doubled since the beginning of the year to 3,600.But Kennedy, whose tenure began this spring with a search for a new executive director, is aiming higher.

He wants the Telfair to have the level of community ownership the public library system has. Tens of thousands of Chatham County residents have library cards, he said. With all the Telfair has to offer, including the new center for the arts, he sees no reason why it cannot successfully make the case that it exists to serve the community.

But to achieve this, he said, the Telfair's image problem must be addressed.

"We need to market the museum to be viewed as inclusive, not exclusive," Kennedy said. "The big push is to make the community aware of what we have to offer."

That the leadership of the Telfair acknowledges the need to do more to convince people, especially the African-American community, of its openness and egalitarianism signals a change in policy, one likely to impact the museum's search for a new director.

Diane Lesko announced in May she was resigning as executive director at the end of October. One of the "critical issues" the new director faces is the ability to "energetically engage in aggressive outreach" to city and county officials, schools, the Convention & Visitors Bureau and businesses and organizations around the city, according to a document compiled by the search committee called the "director's description."

Another key need, according to the document, is "the ability to energize a widely diverse community while building a positive image and lasting relationships with the TMA." Moreover, it's essential the new director be able to "work in politically sensitive situations."

"This institution reflects the values of our time," Kennedy said. "Just one look at the Jepson tells you it's open and welcoming."

Part of the Telfair's awareness-raising campaign was convincing City Council of its merits.

The museum paid out of pocket for the first two Family Sundays (there are four annually). But by summertime, when the third Sunday was scheduled, museum officials feared having to cancel the program for the first time in more than 20 years. The Telfair doesn't make money during its free programs; in fact, it loses it, because tourists pay nothing as well.

Walter O. Evans, a member of the Telfair's board of trustees and one of the most prominent collectors of African-American art in the country, lobbied hard to convince City Council that the museum's prolific outreach programs and exhibits are indeed attracting diverse audiences.

City Manager Michael Brown corroborated the claim in a June report showing nearly 4,700 African-Americans - more than half of the total number of patrons - took part in "Four Free Weeks" in 2005. (3,438 were white; 252 were Asian or Hispanic.)

Without fanfare, City Council voted to reverse its earlier decision, restoring the money before a July 6 council session.

Harry DeLorme admits the Telfair is undergoing a transition of leadership as well as establishing a persona of egalitarianism.

But as the museum's curator of education for the past 18 years, he insists the transition has been happening for a long time.

The Telfair reached about 6,000 schoolchildren last year and expects to bring even more in to the Jepson Center's classes, workshops and seminars.

"We've always offered programs to provide greater access and opportunities for education," he said.

Still, some changes are a direct result of City Council's early skepticism.

In response to the city's desire to see more programming for adolescents, Telfair curators are creating a Teen Advisory Council to help design educational programming and exhibits intended to appeal to teenagers.

The museum is poised to launch a quarterly film series for children that DeLorme said he hopes will gain enough traction to be presented on a monthly basis.

It has also streamlined its 2007 proposals for city funding to be more collaborative with other city-sponsored events, such as the Savannah Asian Festival and the Black Heritage Festival.

One indirect solution to the image problem is the formation of the Friends of African-American Arts, an auxiliary board to the Telfair's board of trustees.

Chaired by Shonah Jefferson, a lawyer with Hunter Maclean, the group makes its official debut during the Oct. 11 opening of the Telfair's retrospective on the work of Sam Gilliam, one of the country's leading African-American artists.

"Our mission is to raise awareness of the importance of the Telfair to the African-American community and the importance of the African-American community to the Telfair," Jefferson said.

"Given that Savannah has a more than 50 percent black majority, it's important to know the Telfair is everyone's museum."

Savannah Morning News
September 4, 2006

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

January 13, 2008 5:59 AM | | Comments (1)

The day after Christmas, President Bush signed an appropriations bill that included $144.7 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.

The amount was about $20 million more than NEA funding for 2007: $124.5 million.

According to this report by the Akron Beacon Journal, this is the largest increase the once-belabored federal agency has seen in 24 years.

The highest level of NEA's funding was $175.9 million in 1992. But after the fall-out from the taxpayer-sponsored Piss Christ, it seemed the NEA would forever be aligned by social conservatives with urine and the bullwhip lodged firmly in Robert Mapplethorpe's ass.

It's taken nearly two decades, and mountains of change led by NEA Chairman Dana Gioia, a poet and former corporate executive, but it's finally happened -- the conversation about the arts has grown up.

In other words, we're no longer stuck on poopy jokes.

Perhaps the testimonials by leading artists and administrators like Wynton Marsalis had some impact on members of Congress and the President. But it's also possible, perhaps more likely, that the United States has just gotten savvier when it comes to the arts.

Some writers, like Artsjournal's Doug McLennan, have talked about the rise of an arts culture. But there's also the enormous amount of research that has gone into studying the arts as they relate to medicine, psychology, education, urban renewal, and quality of life.

Perhaps I'm being a bit of a Pollyanna in thinking that we've turned a corner of some kind. Maybe we can set aside the deleterious notion that the arts have to justify themselves somehow -- lately, with reams of paper devoted to economic impact studies. Maybe we can embrace the assumption that the arts are a good thing unto themselves.

Cross-posted from Unscripted.

January 9, 2008 5:53 PM | | Comments (10)

Greetings from a fellow NAJP fellow. Enjoyed Joe Nickell's post on the Nutcracker and sports. I did something similar last year, with a story called "the Guys' Guide to the Nutcracker," that played up the athleticism of ballet (and the prospect of seeing fetching foreign young ladies in revealing clothes).

But the link between sports and arts goes deeper, I think. It something I might address somewhere, assuming the paper gives me the room (the once-arts friendly tulsa world is getting subsumed by readers' poll troll, it seems). People have a connection to certain things because they can imagine themselves performing these feats. Most kids dream of being rock stars, and even the tone-deaf can "air-guitar" with the best of them. Even those whose idea of exercise in yawning can imagine they can execute a football play, hit the ball perfectly between fielders, sink the shot from the top of the key -- or at least coach those who can do these things to do them properly (see: all the portly pontificators at any gathering, pointing out all the faults that cost some team a victory). But the fine arts -- classical music, opera, ballet, sculpture, etc. -- are activities most people cannot envision themselves doing. And therefore they have no personal connection -- or interest or curiosity -- about them.

Or maybe I just haven't had enough coffee this morning.....

all the best,
jim watts

January 6, 2008 8:39 AM |

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by FlyOver in January 2008.

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