Know When To Cut

So, as promised, a quick recap of my attendance of the event Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, spoke at last evening. It was a big affair. The line to get in stretched around the block and limos bearing consuls from about six countries pulled up as we were all filing it.

I was sort of disappointed because I thought he was going to speak about the NEA. However, he said he had spoken about it at two other gatherings already and didn’t feel like doing so again. Apparently I was not important enough to be invited to those meetings!

Actually, he didn’t speak until about an hour into the meeting. There were a lot of speeches whose whole point seemed to be the gratuitous mentioning of names over and over again to applaud and thank. Then there were exhibitions of performing talent to show the diversity of the arts in the state that ranged from the stinky to the sublime. It has been a long time since an NEA chair has been to the state so I understand why people wanted to show off as much as possible.

Mr Gioia was as good as speaker as I had hoped a poet would be. He spoke about the value of the arts, but didn’t harp on it too much and actually spent much of the night reciting his own poetry, most of which was pretty good. The anecdotes and commentary surrounding them really made his presentation.

The one thing I really noted was a poem he said he originally wrote at the request of National Public Radio on the turning of the new year. It was originally 36 lines long. However, after he had recited it, he decided it needed some trimming so he removed two lines, then another two, another two, and more and more by twos (except he skipped 14 lines and went right to 12 according to his story.)

Ultimately, it ended up being 8 lines long and no longer about the new year at all, but rather about what goes on inside oneself.

This was the real gem that I took away from the night. When we learn about creating art, be it written, performed, composed, painted, etc, we are often told never to become so invested and married to something that you are afraid to cut away extraneous bits or make changes. The best sculptors often talk about freeing the shape within the material rather than imposing their vision upon it. The best writers are not afraid to edit. Actors are taught to react to whatever changes in energy and situation might be occurring on stage rather than delivering the performance that got the biggest applause last week.

Of course, it rarely happens that way. Taking the leap of faith to discard or change is easy to talk about, but hard to do. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Gioia for having the confidence in his talent to be able to do that.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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