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My Dinner with Merce and its Connection to Cultural Policy

I wanted to end this very hot. humid, and WET New York summer week by recalling a swell dinner I had once with Merce Cunningham and Laura Kuhn, Director of The Cage Trust.

I won’t recount what the obits and testaments said very well about Merce as a truly giant, emblematic figure of modern dance and creativity in American during the 20th and early 21st centuries. I have something to add to it.
When I worked at the American Music Center, I was fortunate to have gotten to know Merce a little bit. Some parties at his house, many performances, funding for the music in a number of his pieces through the AMC’s Live Music for Dance Program, and in particular, through Laura Kuhn, who ran The Cage Trust (as in John Cage) was on the AMC Board of Directors.
We had gone through a very rough patch at the AMC, but managed to weather the storm and come out stronger. As a sort of reward for the hard work, Laura arranged for a dinner at Merce’s apartment.
Coming primarily from the music side of things, I was equally as interested in hearing from Merce about John Cage, and the countless other great, great composers he worked with and hung out with in that “New York School.” Earle Brown, Morton Feldman, David Tudor–gosh, there were so many connected to Merce’s life and work.
I remember just so very well, and probably will never forget Merce bringing me over to John Cage’s leather couch–positioned by a window. Merce said it was basically left where John Cage left it, where he loved to sit. It was in the little mind’s eye picture of John that Merce painted for me.
We got to talking about technology. If you don’t know, Merce did some quite remarkable work with technology over the past decade and a half. I had recently seen Biped a work that Merce partnered with two technologists: Paul Kaiser and Shelly Eshkar. Gavin Bryars composed  the music.
You can see a clip from the work here. I thought it was an absolute stunning piece.
It’s not really evident from my posts, I guess, that I am a technology nut. Okay, there was one post, but you probably missed it.
Back to the matter at hand…
So, Merce and I got to talking about technology and what seemed like a giant frontier in 1999/2000, which is around when that dinner took place.
I remember two things:
1. He was as nice, thoughtful, and respectful as could be. It was truly a lovely dinner and his gentle quality that night had a grace to it that I will never forget. He thanked me for my work at the American Music Center. Okay, that WAS a reward for the hard work!
2. He said something to me that I will also never, never forget. I think about it often, as it was and still is one of the most remarkable commentaries on arts in America that I have ever heard.
Okay, what did he say? When we were talking about technology, all sorts of ideas were popping, from Merce, of course, from Laura, and from me.
At one point Merce stopped, looked right at me, and said, “I have so many ideas, if I only had the funding.”
Here I was with Merce Cunningham, who was lamenting not having the money to create. One of the greatest American artistic treasures of the 20th century, was in many ways just like the rest of us, wondering what he could really do if he had the money, to create, to experiment. 
My thoughts in response were in hindsight policy-oriented. It felt to me that we were denying ourselves as a nation, by denying Merce Cunningham. It felt that we should as a matter of national policy, be fueling artists of this caliber.
Okay, it’s not the first time I had run into it. I knew of the hard work that Steve Reich had to do to get any number of projects completed. I knew, of course, of the support that Betty Freedman had given to both of these artists, Cunningham and Reich, and countless others, including John Cage. Some were near broke when Betty kept their heads above water.
There has been a lot of talk about cultural policy in America, fueled by those who called for an arts czar. 
Here’s a bit of “national cultural policy” for ya: when great artists such as Cunningham emerge, fund them. Give them money to create, to experiment, to fail, to succeed; to dream the biggest dream they can. Give them money, straight out of the Federal Reserve. Hot off the printing presses.
We say that there are companies “too big to fail.” In this case, there are artists too big, too great, to be working on an allowance.


  1. If avant-gardists such as Merce Cunningham and John Cage were indeed national “artistic treasures,” they should have been able to attract generous private support. The problem is that their work (unlike that of choreographer Mark Morris, for example) has never been able to appeal to a wider audience than artworld insiders.
    Forcing the public to foot the bill for their “experiments” is a deplorable idea. By their own admission, such experiments amounted to anti-art (that is why the public has rejected it). For evidence, see the analysis of their work and what they said about it in What Art Is (pages 220-29)–which I co-authored. The relevant pages can be viewed at Google Books:
    Michelle Marder Kamhi, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)

  2. That’s too sadly pissy a comment (Ms. Kamhi’s) to leave as a comment to a truly great artist. On the contrary, I was strongly impressed by the number of just plain folks who left tributes to Merce at his Salon obituary. I don’t know nuthin’ about dance, my wife isn’t an artist of any kind, but every time we saw Merce’s company dance we were blown away by the number of things you could *do* with dance that we never could have imagined, the number of dance issues we never realized we could understand. His work far transcended its experimental origins and became something for everyman.
    It’s a damn shame that this country won’t give great artists anywhere near the funding they need to do their work. Equally sad is the number of beginning artists who will never develop fully because they are not allowed the time and materials. Someday this country’s historians will look back on a stunted artistic world that was never allowed to blossom. Instead, we had reality TV (which I suppose fits Ms. Kamhi’s criterion for appealing to a wider public).

  3. Cunningham’s is and has been for many years now to a very wide audience, relative to the dance field. Cage’s star continues to rise and his influence on music continues to grow as well.
    I doubt that Mark Morris has greater appeal than Merce, however you slice “appeal.”
    I think that Mark would laugh pretty hard being presented as a mainstram counterbalance to Merce Cunningham. Apparently, Ms. Kahmi, you’ve never heard Mark speak and most likely know little about his work. For if you did, you might be using Paula Abdul rather than Mark Morris as your example of experiments and the deplorable state of public financing thereof.

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