main: June 2007 Archives
Arts writer Bill Van Siclen reviews the exhibition "Pulp Function" at the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, Mass. Writes Van Siclen: "[T]he show's real star is paper itself. Indeed, it's hard to think of another material -- including art-world staples such as canvas, stone and wood -- that crosses so many artistic boundaries so effortlessly."
(Thanks to Bill Van Siclen of the Providence Journal [Rhode Island])
Ken Ross previews Mikhail Baryshnikov's upcoming appearance in Hartford.
(Thanks to Ken Ross of the Springfield Union-News & Sunday Republican [Mass.])
Edward L. Loper, Sr., is 91 and still artistically active--making him a less-recognized contemporary of Andrew Wyeth. Christopher Yasiejko examines a current exhibition of Loper's work.
(Thanks to Christopher Yasiejko of the the Wilmington News Journal [Delaware])
Jeremy Harper's One to a Million Shot
He's going to count to a million live on his website (Millioncount.com) -- as far as anyone can tell, this has never been done before.
(Thanks to Kyle Whitmire of Birmingham (Ala.) Weekly)
Behind the Columbus Music Co-op
After Hurricane Katrina, Erin Moore and Jess Faller had a thought: What would happen to musicians in Columbus if disaster struck here?
(Thanks to Chard Painter of The Other Paper in Columbus, Ohio)
Just as Alex Ross was surprised in a recent New Yorker piece to find good orchestras West of the Hudson River, John Berendt, a former editor of Esquire magazine and author of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," was surprised to learn some years ago that New York hadn't yet cornered the market on (God love 'em) America's freaks, weirdoes and whackjobs.
The book, published in 1994, was a phenomenal hit, staying on the New York Times bestseller list for an incredible four years. It brought Savannah to the forefront of American consciousness, it changed Savannah's tourism industry forever (the city rakes in about $1 billion in tourism dollars annually) and it introduced everyone, thanks also to Clint Eastwood's really awful but no less charming and colorful movie, to Savannah's litany of off-kilter characters.
An inventor who strings a vile of poison around this neck and who could spike at any time the city's water supply; a road-rambling country diva who knows every single song by Savannah tunesmith Johnny Mercer; a ne'er-do-well con artist and attorney who covers his bad-check-writing tracks with oodles of charm; and a black transsexual by the name of The Lady Chablis who's fond of "hiding my candy."
The book is arranged around these and more: a voodoo priestess, a bevy of bedecked black debutantes, the Married Women's Card Club, a gay redneck gigolo. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," which we refer to around these parts simply as "The Book," has it all, including a mystery: It follows the eight-year trial of Jim Williams, a flamboyant antiques dealer, and Berendt's aristocratic and axiomatic protagonist, charged with killing his as-cranky-as-queer lover.
It's a great book, the stuff of fiction. In fact, a novelistic approach is certainly what Berendt was aiming for. In the tradition of Capote's "In Cold Blood," Berendt, as he confessed after the book's publication, did a tidy job of "rounding the corners" of inconvenient facts, which we can take as fertile ground for heightening the sensational elements of his story, such as the "Greek chorus" of characters, as the book jacket speaks with reverent literary delight.
What I'm getting at is this: As New Yorkers, Berendt, and Ross, express in their writing a gee-whiz attitude toward things they don't expect to find outside New York. I don't believe they meant to do this, but this tone of voice is ultimately patronizing even when its positive (Ross's praising of Midwestern arts groups) and entertaining (Berendt's focusing on a small Southern town's charming though no less marginalized and sad oddballs).
What's worse, though, is that such writers are missing what's really going on in the American Outback. As Joe Nickell notes, the question Ross is missing is what the Indianapolis Symphony is doing for the city of Indianapolis. In his quest to tell a story about Savannah (the subtitle is "A Savannah Story"), Berendt succeeds -- wildly and with wonderfully wry humor and often nail-biting suspense -- in telling his particular view of Savannah, but fails to capture Savannah as it is experienced by the people living here.
Berendt lived here for all of six months.
Let me say that again, with feeling -- six months.
I've lived here for six years. The Savannah I know is unlike the world represented in The Book. I simply don't recognize it. What Berendt did well was tap into the North's long-standing fascination with the South -- its claim to good manners, its gestures of grace and romantic "Gone with the Wind" gentility. As the North became less industrialized, more suburban and less connected, residents of the North -- they're called Yankees here; I'm one of them -- have developed over time a longing for the appearance of simpler times, which are associated with the South and its grand manors, folk customs and cultivation of hospitality.
But zippity do dah, it ain't.
Berendt also taps into an implicit condescension among outsiders that Savannah, and by proxy the South, is not equal in terms of culture. And by culture I mean not just art, literature and the life of the mind; I mean freaks, weirdos and whackjobs. Pointing out that Savannah has characters isn't much of a revelation to those who live here. Eccentrics live here, eccentrics live in New York, eccentrics live pretty much everywhere. The Lady Chablis pales in comparison to Divine (does anyone remember the ending to John Waters' "Pink Flamingos"?).
Berendt was bedazzled by the Lady (and let's face it, who wouldn't be?) because Berendt loved the delicious contrast between Chablis' ribald humor (her memoir is titled "Hiding My Candy," i.e., her penis) and Savannah's genteel grace, which was a contrast made entirely out of Berendt's imagination. He doesn't realize the socioeconomics of political power, race and class in the South, combined with a fiercely protected (sometimes at the point of a gun) sense of individualism, have conspired to create a climate rich in eccentricity.
Eccentrics thrive here in part because they are alienated and made voiceless by a cabal of (mostly white) power brokers who reinforce the status quo. Over the decades, those who didn't fit in or who were actively barred from the American franchise (as all African Americans were for generations), people, I think, tend to go crazy. The societal pressures to maintain a sense of individual decorum in the North don't exist in a South that institutionalized segregation for more than a century. As long as you didn't cross the color (or, let's not forget, class) line, you could be as odd, deranged or sociopathic as you like. Even homosexuals, like Jim Williams and his dead hustler, didn't have to live in the closet as long as the closet was inside, not in public.
That's what Berendt missed. Unfortunately, writers like this are blinded by what they think they already know about the American Outback, which is too bad. There's more out here (good and bad; for better and for worse) than you think.
While I had planned on writing this Tuesday about the role of readers in the quality and quantity of arts coverage, I am a) too pooped to take that on right now and b) inspired by Joe's post to take another look at coverage of the "Outback" by big-city media.
While Joe had some frustrations with the New Yorker's musical coverage, I enjoyed an article in the New York Times last week about the very small town (pop. 65 or so) of West Lima, Wis., which is home to an "intentional community" of artists and eccentrics. The Times piece ("Into Middle America but Staying on the Fringe," June 20), by Matt Gross, actually appears in the travel section, not arts, since it's part of the Frugal Traveler's "American Road Trip." While the community Gross writes about, Dreamtime Village, has already been covered by Wisconsin papers, I'm guessing this is its first national exposure in a major paper. Gross offers up a nice place-portrait that captures a sense of quirkiness without overdoing it.
As Gross notes, West Lima is not far from Spring Green, Wis., home of Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin. I've been to Spring Green twice in the past two weekends since it is also home to American Players Theatre (APT), a professional repertory company. I caught Saturday's opening night of George Bernard Shaw's "Misalliance," an excellent production that I find myself already mentally red-flagging for December's year-in-review piece of local arts highlights. (My review of the show will appear in this week's Isthmus.)
APT performs in an outdoor amphitheater that seats about 1,150 and, when Mother Nature cooperates, the result can be stunning. It's also a laid-back spot filled with pre-show picnicking and crowds that feel a little more alive than at most indoor shows. Sitting in the crowd last Saturday night, life seemed pretty good.
My aunt, who lives on a dairy farm between Madison and Milwaukee, forwarded me the NYT article and wrote in her e-mail, only half-jokingly, "Why would anyone live anywhere else but the Midwest?" While I can think of several cities I'd gladly give up Madison for, my aunt's got a point: there's some interesting stuff here, and I think living in any community is enhanced exponentially by being plugged into your local culture (in whatever form "culture" resonates with you).
Last week, I posted up a link to a piece I wrote for Montana Journalism Review, in which I took issue with New Yorker theater critic John Lahr's assertion that, "If it's not in The New Yorker, it doesn't exist in the culture." My main point was that America is not a homogenous culture; and as such, the culture that The New Yorker documents is only some small portion of what the rest of us experience and value.
The same day that my Montana Journalism Review piece went public, I was alerted by a friend to an essay by Alex Ross in The New Yorker, documenting Ross' whirlwind sampling of a trio of orchestras that don't perform in New York: the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra; the Nashville Symphony Orchestra; and the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.
On the surface, Ross' piece demonstrates what we've been trying to say here at FlyOver: that important art happens outside of the celebrated arts scenes of major cities on the coasts. Ross himself says as much: "I learned what touring musicians have been saying for years: that lesser-known orchestras can deliver sure-footed, commanding performances, and that the notion of a stratospheric orchestral élite is something of an illusion."
Unfortunately, as one reads along, it becomes evident that Ross still suffers from the same biases his road-trip supposedly cured. He mentions in a scoffing tone that, "Orchestras at the level of the Nashville used to be described as 'regional.'" The horror! The injustice!...And yet, a mere two paragraphs later, he declares the Alabama Symphony, "one of the country's most adventurous regional orchestras." (emphasis added)
Given the short list of intriguing factoids and subjective assessments that Ross provides about the Alabama Symphony -- anticipated performances of works by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood and a host of other young, international composers, all within a concert season that's considerably shorter than that of the New York Philharmonic; and a performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony that Ross declares to be "as potent a performance of Beethoven's revolutionary symphony as I've heard in several seasons" -- why isn't it simply one of the country's most adventurous orchestras, period?
The answer, it seems, is that it's still not the New York Philharmonic.
Well, no kidding.
This is the implicit bias that we outside of New York marvel at: It's not in New York, so it's not really worth the serious consideration of the New Yorker - unless, of course, some writer feels like it's time for a little junket out into the wilds of America.
Alex Ross is an open-minded music critic; I've met him and been impressed by both his studied standards and his willingness to listen. But it seems that he is still stuck in an antiquated way of thinking about culture, one that posits that a single standard should be applied to all art everywhere.
Instead of racing through town and trying to judge, on the basis of one performance, whether the Indianapolis Symphony sounds good enough to play in New York, perhaps he should have take a few extra days to get to know the local lay of the land, and to figure out: What does the orchestra do for the people of Indianapolis?
A pioneer of the modern sculptural ceramic movement, Autio was a towering figure in western arts. "Together with Peter Voulkos, Rudy helped change what it meant to be a ceramic artist in America," said Steve Glueckert, curator of the Missoula Art Museum. "Before 1945, ceramicists were potters. They weren't considered artists. Peter and Rudy broke all the rules and transformed what it meant to do what they were doing."
Dana Oland of the Idaho Statesman dives into the deep end of the actor's craft with Idaho Shakespeare Festival actor Lynn Robert Berg, dissecting the history packed between the lines of Shakespeare's plays.
We usually reserve this roundup for great stories about great art in the far reaches of America. But sometimes, a little public shaming is in order. Here, you can read the lead story in this week's "Arts" section of the Great Falls Tribune. It's about a rodeo. While there may be some artfulness in lassoing calves or...uh....painting the makeup on the clowns, the only mention of the word "art" comes in the section header. What gives?
County officials in Miami threaten to takeover poorly run arts center
"... an assessment of the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts found that the independent trust that manages the county-owned facility committed expensive errors in budget planning and failed to control costs, which could have stemmed an estimated $4.1 million deficit."
(Thanks to Daniel Chang of the Miami Herald and thanks to Rafael de Acha for pointing out this article to "Flyover")
The Museum Reborn
"The new Mississippi Museum of Art, set to open June 9, changes the rules on how we interact with art. When it opens its doors, it will offer the public more than just extra square footage; this is the first time in the history of the MMA that the museum's permanent collection will be on permanent display. The museum's collection, now numbering well over 4,000 pieces that have been sitting in a single, over-crowded storage room at the Arts Center for decades, will finally be accessible to the public."
(Thanks to Nientara Anderson of the Jackson Free Press)
The Power of Poo-Poo
"You can't help but stare at his giant, yellow buckteeth. There's some black hair on his upper lip, but it's the teeth that are mesmerizing. Then the camera pans out, and you see the man's entire face. He has small hazel eyes and a black goatee. His long curly hair falls out from beneath a crumpled blue cap. He furrows his brow and speaks in a thick Cajun accent. 'Man, I don't know what it is this time of year when it gets cool like dat, if my lip is too short or my teeth is too long. But man, my lips get chapped this time of year! POOO! They chap, chap! I need some Carmex. Some Blistex or sumtin'. Some Vaseline.' Meet Poo-Poo Broussard."
(Thanks to R. Reese Fuller of the The Independent in Lafayette, La.)
Although there may not be much of it in most communities, political theater--and new works that respond to current events barely after they've passed--still has a place on American stages. This review examines a series of short works on American gun culture that achieve mixed results.
(Thanks to Megan Grumbling of the Portland Phoenix [Maine])
In another story from the Portland Phoenix that examines political art, writer Greg Cook looks at visual art addressing the theme of global warming, which he identifies as a growing trend.
(Thanks to Greg Cook of the Portland Phoenix [Maine])
I know, I know, D.C. is hardly the Outback, but I couldn't resist this: who knew that former Hüsker Dü frontman Bob Mould now has his own advice column? Not I. This piece is short but looks at a timely issue for musicians (and other artists): how to use new media tools to their advantage.
(Thanks to Bob Mould and Washington City Paper)
Last week was the week for theater awards in Lansing. Both the traditional daily, The Lansing State Journal, and the alternative weekly, the City Pulse, came out with its theater awards.
The City Pulse awarded Pulsars to any of 10 organizations that their judges felt represented the "best" in a 9-month period. They assigned three judges to attend each show and then tallied point totals from their judging forms. It's judges included their critics and readers from the community who responded to a call for participation. The awards were given out in a dinner ceremony which was open to the entire theater community for the low price of $5 if bought in advance, $10 at the door--a bargain even for starving actors. It was their second time giving out full season Pulsars (they'd given out two summer awards and been bullied into not handing them out last year).
The Lansing State Journal awarded Thespies for the 39th straight year. These awards are open to anyone doing theater in the Greater Lansing area and include "special" awards to recognize theatrical achievements in any area. These awards are decided by a committee that includes all of the staff's critics, arts writers, and a few recruited individuals--one who directs and the other whose background is only that of theater attendee. Committee members nominate, discuss, arm wrestle, and vote on each category individually.
Every year, the awards end up being controversial.
It was during a recital by super-diva Isabel Bayrakdarian, perhaps one of the best known voices in the world thanks to her soaring soprano contributions to the soundtrack of "The Lord of the Rings" and to a recent dance club hit called "Angelicus," that I learned what might have gone wrong with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra.
By the time Bayrakdarian performed at the Savannah Music Festival this past spring, the orchestra, then the most important cultural institution in this historic city for almost half a century, had been bankrupt with no sign of re-forming for almost five years.
During intermission, I found myself engaged in a conversation with a former member of the symphony's board of directors. At the time, she knew me, but I didn't know this woman personally. I knew her by reputation only. She is a prominent figure in Savannah's cultural and philanthropic circles. I'll call her Linda.
As Linda and I gabbed about festival performances past, present and future, the topic of conversation turned to the lost symphony, as these conversations often do in the wake of the its 2003 Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which required complete liquidation of assets, with no chance of reorganization under legal protection. At one point, Linda made a comment that illuminated one of the key reasons for its collapse.
"My social life was ruined," Linda said.
My fellow blogger John Stoehr recently forwarded the rest of us a piece Greg Sandow wrote for the Wall Street Journal ("Yes, Classical-Music Criticism is in Decline: But the last thing the industry should do is blame the press," June 16). In that article, Sandow explains the decline in classical music criticism from his perspective and argues that the recent flurry of outrage (among some) about cuts in positions may be a bit misguided.
Although I'm of a different generation than Sandow and have a different background as a writer, I also have mixed feelings about arts journalism cuts. While of course I generally feel it's a bad thing--having fewer people getting their critical voices out there can't be good, and I feel for anyone losing his or her job--we must look at the reader's perspective. Some papers have argued that freelancers will fill the gap left by cuts in staff-writer positions. While time will tell if that truly happens (and that's a crucial "if"), cutting staffers does not automatically mean less arts coverage within the paper. As a freelancer myself, I think there are positive and negative aspects to current trends.
Every day in my work as an arts journalist in Montana, I think about the standards by which I should assess the art that I confront here. Montana theater is not the same as New York theater, for reasons not only of scale but of culture. While in Los Angeles for this year's NEA arts journalism institute in theater, listening to big-city theater journalists and critics talk about the particular challenges of their jobs, this became an even more poignant issue for me. My job is not like their jobs, because our theater is not like their theater and my culture is not their culture.
When I returned to Montana, I was asked to write an essay about my experiences at the institute for Montana Journalism Review, a publication of the University of Montana's journalism school.
I chose to use that soapbox as an opportunity to dive into the issue of what I now refer to as critical relativism. The essay was just published this week. Rather than rehash what I wrote, I thought I'd share the whole thing.
Sicko starts small
All right, so movies aren't the usual fare for Flyover, but this news item was so fitting our theme of the American Outback that it just had to be mentioned. Michael Moore's latest film is having its North American premiere not in New York or L.A., but in a small northern Michigan town of Bellaire. Tickets are $40 a piece and being sold in this town of fewer than 1,000 people.
(Thanks to Kevin Wright of the Traverse City Record-Eagle)
Promoting Wisconsin works
Three groups have joined forces to help encourage Wisconsin playwrights. They're hosting a Wisconsin Wrights New Play Project that will perform three premieres. " After weeks of intensive workshops, Normal Human Beings by Bruce Murphy, The Queen of Janesville by Greg Lawless and Recovering the Real Me by Kurt McGinnis Brown will receive staged readings in UW Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre from June 7 to 9, with 7:30 p.m. performances each night. Selected from a pool of more than 40 entries, these three finalists were scored by a team of expert readers, evaluated by a panel of judges, and finally ranked by lead judge and Madison native Bradley Whitford, the Emmy-winning actor of West Wing fame.
"Besides a public reading, Wisconsin Wrights finalists are awarded a week's stay at Madison's Edenfred Mansion and provided with professional dramaturges and directors to assist in their works' development. Once scripts are finalized, one of the three plays will be selected for inclusion in the Madison Repertory Theatre's 2007 New Play Festival."
(Thanks to Jacqueline West of Isthmus)
The troubled legacy of Rufus Thomas at Stax
"It's late February, and things are buzzing inside the Stax Museum of American Soul Music.
On the floor of Studio A, two dozen or so familiar figures are greeting each other with hugs and handshakes. Among them are Stax artists Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd and Steve Cropper, songwriters Mack Rice and Bettye Crutcher, and label executive Al Bell. They've assembled for a press conference for European journalists who've flown in on a junket to cover the 50th anniversary of Stax."
(Thanks to Bob Mehr of the Memphis Commercial Appeal)
Atlanta's breakdancing scene attracts attention, but at what cost?
"Breakdancing surged into the mainstream the first time in 1983 when Jennifer Beals' artful exotic dancer (and welder) in Flashdance gave her Julliard audition some street cred. Her moves were ripped from the Rock Steady Crew, whose members appeared in the movie, breakdancing in alleyways and on sidewalks. ... But by 1985, breakdancing had all but become a joke. Witness Don Ameche backspinning at a nightclub in the 'Seniors Gone Wild' antics of 1985's 'Cocoon.' By then, the pop music audience had decided that headbanging was more dignified, and I started stealing David Lee Roth moves from 'Just a Gigolo.'"
(Thanks to Thomas Bell of Atlanta Creative Loafing)
Mysteries of patronage: The gift that keeps on taking
"If corroboration were necessary for F. Scott Fitzgerald's assured cliché that 'the very rich are different from you and me,' it is conspicuously available in the current exhibit at the Yale Center for British Art. The philanthropist and notable Yale benefactor Paul Mellon financed the Center's Louis Kahn building, and then he filled it. 'A Passion for British Art' constitutes a recreation of the opening of the museum thirty years ago, with almost everything on view acquired by him, or guided by the standards he applied."
(Thanks to Stephen Vincent Kobasa of the New Haven Advocate, New Haven, Conn.)
Talkin' Tags: An (Ex) Graffitti Artist Goes Public
"Compared with other small American cities, Burlington has a reputation for being hip and artsy. But when it comes to public perceptions of graffiti, that hip-hop-inflected, spray-paint-intensive artistic subculture -- fuhgeddaboudit. At least, that's the word from a former 'tagger.' He reports that average Burlingtonians don't have a clue about all the graffiti in their midst -- where it's done and who's doing it, let alone what those bubble letters mean. Then again, he doesn't really want them to find out."
(Thanks to Mike Ives of Seven Days, Burlington, Vermont)
Attending the 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Theater and Musical Theater was a defining event for me.
Before that fortnight, "arts journalist" was not really a tag I used. If I had to describe myself, I would call myself a writer, leaving out adjectives because I was pretty eclectic in the writing that I did. By day, I'm a textbook writer, writing curriculum content and training materials for the hospitality industry. I also do a great deal of freelance writing ranging from business writing to ghost writing to theater reviewing to performing arts articles to book reviewing.
While arts writing--whether it was about books, theater, or other performing arts--was my passion and my love, it was (and is) the least lucrative of the writing that I do. I write about the arts to feed my soul and I write about everything else to feed my family.
The Arts Institute, however, transformed much of the way I approached what I do as well as expanded my view of what is happening in the rest of the country. For years, I had been awed by what I saw theater doing in my community. Every year there is a new organization, many of them doing stunning work. While some people complained that resources were being spread too thin, most groups have thrived and audiences have grown. People have begun to speak with pride about the arts community in our town--even though few outsiders would ever think of arts and Lansing, Michigan in the same sentence.
I learned that throughout the country, arts communities were experiencing similar growth. More and more people are creating art with less and less money. In fact, if the people who spoke at the Institute were representative, it seemed that the arts communities in smaller cities were much healthier than those in large metropolitan areas that depended on big budgets to be successful. Perhaps that is because it becomes more about the business than about the art. More likely, though, the answer is far more complicated.
I returned home with a renewed enthusiasm and a determination that I would be an arts advocate both in my hometown and wherever else I wrote. Too many exciting things are happening to have them be ignored or go unchronicled.
There are exciting stories taking place in small cities and towns across the country. It is a testament to people's need for art and their need to create. I'm looking forward to helping to tell these stories.
I was a poor graduate student studying Shakespeare's comedies, sitting in a muggy apartment in Cincinnati, and probably smoking an "ultra light" cigarette, when I got the call. "It's so beautiful here," she said. "You would love it, John. They have seashells in the sidewalks."
My future wife, Gretchen, had just won an audition with the Savannah Symphony Orchestra. Now, flushed with that post-audition glow, she was falling in love with this old port city's 18th-century architecture, stately squares, live oaks, Spanish moss and penchant for decorating concrete with oyster shells. Like many old cities in the South, it was all about the charm.
Over the next year, we would end up living in two different cities, but we felt it was worth it. The disproportion of the number of orchestral musicians in the U.S. to the number of jobs for them is huge. When you win one, you don't turn it down, no matter how meager, which this was. Besides, Savannah, situated on a bluff on Georgia's subtropical coastal plain, and affectionately nicknamed the Hostess City, was 20 minutes from the beach.
Three years later, facing a $1 million-plus deficit, the management for the Savannah Symphony Orchestra stopped operations. Within days, there was talk of Chapter 7 bankruptcy, meaning complete liquidation of assets. A month later, there were pleas to the "community," meaning the city's "patron class," to give $450,000 to bail out the SSO. By April, it was over.
The SSO's collapse was one of six orchestra bankruptcies in 2003, many resulting from shockwaves still reverberating through the post-September 11 marketplace. San Jose, San Antonio, Tulsa, Colorado Springs and South Florida all saw their orchestras fall apart. All, however, have reformed in one way or another. All, that is, except the Savannah Symphony.
Such is the life of art in the American Outback, the area of the country between the Boston-New York-Philly-D.C. megalopolis and the cities along the West Coast. As the arts and culture reporter for the Savannah Morning News, I have witnessed numerous occasions when artists pour their hearts into something just to see it misunderstood, undervalued or taken away.
But a life in the arts here -- whether doing it, observing it or consuming it -- is not all tragedy. There are enough TV news anchors lamenting the decline of high culture to last a long, long time. Here in "Flyover," we don't do that. Instead, we look at the arts in the American Outback as they really are, and what they really are is far more complicated than you'd think.
Thanks to Joe Nickell for getting us off to a great start yesterday and introducing the theme of this collaborative blog: arts and arts journalism outside of the major metros.
I'll be weighing in from Madison, Wis., a city of about 225,000 best known as the home of the flagship campus in the University of Wisconsin system. As a laid-back college town and also the state capital, Madison has its share of charms and frustrations, some of which I'll explore here over the coming weeks.
By day, I manage Wisconsin's statewide, nonprofit cultural Web site, Portalwisconsin.org, a project of the Cultural Coalition of Wisconsin. As an arts writer, I contribute regularly to Isthmus, Madison's alternative weekly, and other publications. While my academic background is in art history--and visual art remains my first love--I write about theater and books in addition to visual art.
My fellow bloggers and I share the belief that living in a smaller community does not necessarily doom one to a lesser cultural life in terms of quality or quantity. There's more happening in Madison than I would ever have the time to get to and an authentic local culture of which we can be proud. We Flyover bloggers look forward to sharing our local cultures with you and hope you'll join the discussion.
On an unseasonably cool evening last week in my adopted hometown of Missoula, Montana, under dour gray skies that threatened rain, several hundred people flowed into a riverside park to hear a concert by the Oblio Joes, a local rock band.
Virtually unknown outside of Missoula, the Obes -- as they are called by their fans and friends -- have been playing together for nearly 15 years. They have recorded several fantastic albums. They have assembled the kind of local fan-base that most bands would beg for. At their shows, teens and 30-somethings stand shoulder to shoulder, shouting out requests for songs from the band's extensive catalogue of catchy, jangly rock songs, singing along with every word, raising fists in the international sign of rawk.
This show was bittersweet. A few weeks before the show, lead singer and songwriter John Brownell announced to the band and his friends that he was done playing with the Obes. This concert in the park would be the band's last gig.
It was a great show, powerful, emotional, raucous. People in the audience screamed at the top of their lungs. The band played like they were on fire, ripping through their catalogue with a hunger that hadn't been evident in their most recent shows.
Then, it was over.
Thus seals the fate of one of the finest bands this town has ever produced, a band that -- had it relocated to one of our nations capitols of commercial music, as some others have done (most notably Colin Meloy of Decemberists fame) -- surely would have been better known around the country, perhaps the world. To my ears, Obes songs like "Don't Believe," "Ginger," and "Surreal" can stand up alongside the best pop-rock tunes of the past decade. The fact that you probably haven't heard those songs is a testament to what this band was about: keeping it real, keeping it local. They really never tried to make things any different, never bellyached about "making it big." They just thrived on playing rock music for their friends in town.
There are bands like the Obes in small towns all over America. You won't read about them in Rolling Stone or Spin, but then, maybe that's part of what makes them such a beautiful part of life -- real life, not the life you read about.
That's the life that is the focus of this blog, "Flyover."
"Flyover" is, specifically, about art in the American Outback -- the people and places usually given less attention by those hopping from coast to coast. It's a place for arts journalists and artists outside the major American urban areas to celebrate, discuss, critique and share what they do. While it was established to continue a conversation begun at USC Annenberg's 2007 NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater, we hope it will ultimately grow to serve a larger community of journalists, artists and institutions involved in the arts in America.
The four journalists blogging here live in small cities tucked away in the corners of America: Missoula, Savannah, Lansing, Madison. We have in common a deep love of and commitment to the arts; and we see great art around us. Just because it doesn't show at the MOMA, or show up in Rolling Stone, doesn't make it any less valid. In fact, to us, it makes it all the more precious.
I'm Joe Nickell. By day, I serve as arts and entertainment reporter for the Missoulian newspaper. By night, I play in a rock band called Two Year Touqe (yes, I know, how ironic -- a word-man in a misspelled band), and co-produce Rox, the world's first and longest-running online TV series. I'm a drummer, and a dreamer, and who knows -- maybe more. This week I found out I won some award for arts writing; but since the circumference of my balding head is already 3.01 standard deviations above the norm, it probably can't swell anymore. I have a six-week old baby who is very cute, a wife who inspires me, and I live in a place that feels like heaven.
Over the course of this week, you'll meet the rest of the "Flyover" bloggers. I hope you'll visit us regularly and jump into the conversation. And we thank Doug McLennan for inviting us to move into his ArtsJournal world. If you care to see what we've been talking about already, there's an extensive archive of previous posts written when this blog was hosted at rox.com.
Today, Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Americans for the Arts released detailed data from the third in a series of studies on the economic impact of the arts. Titled "Arts and Economic Prosperity III," the survey compiled data on the impact of non-profit arts organizations in 116 cities and counties, 35 multi-county regions, and five states across the nation during 2005.
The study is the third produced by Americans for the Arts; previous studies were published in 1994 and 2002.
This new one shows, essentially, the same thing that the previous two showed: that non-profit arts organizations contribute significantly to local economies. To quote the summary of the results:
"Nationally, the nonprofit arts and culture industry generates $166.2 billion in economic activity annually--a 24 percent increase in just the past five years. That amount is greater than the Gross Domestic Product of most countries. This spending supports 5.7 million full-time jobs right here in the U.S.--an increase of 850,000 jobs since our 2002 study. What's more, because arts and culture organizations are strongly rooted in their community, these are jobs that necessarily remain local and cannot be shipped overseas.
Our industry also generates nearly $30 billion in revenue to local, state, and federal governments every year. By comparison, the three levels of government collectively spend less than $4 billion annually to support arts and culture--a spectacular 7:1 return on investment that would even thrill Wall Street veterans."
Here in Missoula, MT, the results released today are particularly -- perhaps suspiciously -- promising. In the past five years, if we are to trust the results of the previous 2002 study and the current one, non-profit arts and culture organizations and their patrons have more than doubled their contribution to the local economy, from somewhere around $16 million per year to over $34 million.
I've lived here all that time, and things have indeed been good. But that good?
Maybe. Maybe not. A 2001 study by the RAND Corporation found that past attempts to quantify the economic impact of the arts (including the Americans for the Arts surveys) suffered from "noteworthy weaknesses" and "holes in the evidence."
Only time will tell whether this new study will stand up to the analysis of the stat-geeks among us.
Due to the construction of the Overture Center for the Arts, Madison's downtown performing and visual arts complex, the Wisconsin Triennial--a showcase of contemporary visual art organized by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art--was knocked off its every-three-years schedule. The first Triennial since 2002 is now on view.
My review of the show ran in a recent issue of Isthmus, Madison's alternative weekly. Brief interviews with two of the included artists and one of the curators ran alongside the review. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel's visual art critic also covered the show.
Simply put, the Wisconsin Triennial is one of my favorite things on the local visual art calendar. I'd love it if it were an annual tradition, but the scope of the show makes that nearly impossible. (This year, the curatorial team whittled about 500 applicants down to about 50 exhibiting artists.) I'd also like to see it get wider coverage - I just did a quick Google News search on "Wisconsin Triennial" and only four results turn up. While the show might not be able to get national coverage (even if it deserves it), we are living in a regional arts economy, so to speak - Madison, Milwaukee and Chicago form a sort of triangle and it's not unusual for residents of one place to attend theater, visual art, etc. in another. While farther away for me, Minneapolis is not out of the question, either.
I can't help but think that with all the coverage in recent weeks about arts journalism cutbacks in places like Minneapolis and Atlanta that it will be even harder for worthy events and artists to attract attention beyond their immediate environs. There will be fewer people out there with their radar attuned to noteworthy, high-quality events. But unless the reading public responds to these cuts in arts journalism positions with an outcry (and I doubt they will), such cuts are unsurprising.
Bloggers We Love
Bridgette Redman and Lansing Theater
Drew McManus' "Neo Classical" at the Partial Observer
Marc Moss (Missoula, MT artist)
Mary Louise Schumacher's "Art City"
Other Great Sites
American Composers Orchestra
Arts & Letters Daily
Center for Arts and Culture
Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive
National Arts Journalism Program
NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera
NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater & Musical Theater
New Music Box: American Music Center
USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Program