In my last post I referenced my recent five-week cross-country road trip, during which I visited a variety of arts venues (from galleries to concert halls to tiny black box theaters). One of the most fascinating stops was Marfa, Texas, home to the Chinati Foundation and the sculptor Donald Judd’s vision to permanently link installations to the landscape (both natural and man-made). All this on a decommissioned military base located in the Chihuahuan desert 60 miles from the Mexican border.
Marfa has got to be one of the odder high art destinations in the U.S. The town itself was created in the 1880s as a railroad water stop. Today there’s a decided cognitive dissonance built into a stroll around the central square and surrounding environs. We walked past rows of sunbaked disintegrating houses with 30-year old cars and trucks in their driveways, convenience stores and auto parts shops, a quaint town hall with a magnificent bell tower, groups of older men in dusty cowboy clothing silently smoking on benches, the endlessly charming El Paisano hotel (where James Dean stayed while making Giant), plenty of empty store fronts, a few coffee shops, a surprising number of high-end restaurants, hens and goats and barking dogs inside fenced-in lawns, a gallery sign with the word “lame” spray painted on top of it, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection station, the remains of Fort D.A. Russell (where German prisoners of war were held during WWII), and, tucked in between it all, a dozen or so galleries and artisan shops stocked with contemporary art and thirty-something curators dressed as if for a day’s work in Chelsea or Williamsburg.
But this post isn’t really about Marfa. It’s about the need for hospitality. It’s about walking into one of those galleries curious and excited to be there and leaving feeling, well, not cool enough to warrant attention.
The perfectly dressed curator was seated at the front desk. When my husband and I entered, she did a quick once-over, taking us in. Here’s what she saw: two middle-aged tourists, dressed like middle America (or frumpier—we had been traveling by car for several weeks by then and were no longer paying careful attention to sartorial or coiffurial matters). She asked what we wanted. I said, “Well, we’re here to visit.” She said, “You missed the tour for the day.” I said, “Okay. But perhaps you could give us some information anyway. It seems so interesting.” She paused, took a deep breath, stood up, and launched into a rehearsed paragraph. Eye contact: minimal. Affect: benignly disinterested. Message: you are clearly not an arts insider and thus you are not worth my time.
Hell, I thought to myself, I can get this treatment in New York. I didn’t need to drive 2453.7 miles to get it here on the high plains of West Texas.
We would have left. But in fact I am an arts professional and I was there for a reason. So I stayed, walked the grounds, took in what I could despite the (un)welcome.
And speaking of New York. When I was in town for several weeks in January to attend the experimental performance festivals I witnessed many gaps in front-of-house hospitality, from the box office worker who told a foreign tourist that he couldn’t understand her accent and could she pleeeease step aside now because there were other people waiting, to a series of house managers barking orders at the queues as if we were prisoners rather than paying guests. My favorite, though, was a fabulously dressed bartender who quite literally pulled a glass of wine out of a patron’s hand. The pre-filled wine glasses (lined up at one end of the bar) were intended for a group of invited seminar participants attending that evening’s performance, but there was no sign indicating such. When the naïve audience member expressed dismay at the disappearing glass of wine, the bartender told her in no uncertain patronizing terms: “This wine is for some really special people who are here tonight. It’s not for you.”
I understand that many arts professionals are trying to signify, with hip clothing and an air of importance, that they are serious about the arts. And I understand that the need to perform an insider status is part of being young. But in the end, this kind of behavior equals a profound lack of hospitality. It’s a behavior that imprints, one more time, an “us” and “them” divide.
Hospitality is defined as the “friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors, or strangers.” It derives from the Latin hospes, meaning host, guest or stranger. I find it fascinating that the same word was used to describe both the insider (host) and the outsider (stranger), as if to elide the differences between them in an attempt to create community.
Above all, hospitality is kindness. And kindness is always a good idea. In New York, in Marfa, Texas, and at all arts institutions open to the public.