Roots That Tie Us Together

Recent events have kept me from writing entries of late. Some have been tiring, but others rather energizing. I don’t think I am going out on a limb when I say that some times when arts folks talk about how much what they do/are planning on doing is going to deeply impact the lives of others, they feel a little dishonest.

You propose a group on a grant application or to your board of directors talking about how exposing audiences to X is going to influence the thinking of people. But when the artist(s) perform, the results aren’t too much different from the groups that came before or those that follow. Attendance might have been up a little, but comments aren’t any different than those you get for the shows that weren’t billed as being extra special. The whole experience could be interchanged with any other experience.

One can be fairly confident that at least one or more people were touched and perhaps inspired by the work in a significant way. But even the most idealistic among us needs a little concrete proof that efforts made were worthwhile.

Then you get that one show that removes all doubt and I had that experience this past week.

We had a band from New Zealand called Te Vaka perform this past week. The group presents Polynesian music and dance from Tokelau, Tuvalu and Samoa. They use traditional log drums along with electric, acoustic and bass guitars.

Given that there is a fair population on O’ahu from each of these island groups along with regular fans, we easily sold out the performance. (Which did not please those who procrastinated about buying tickets.) I could have set up extra seats, but I heard the audience liked to dance—and good lord did they–so I left some room.

Honestly, a performance where ex-patriots got to hear music from home and watch traditional dance and would have been enough. Especially since the rest of the audience got carried along with the enthusiasm and could recognize some value in a culture that was somewhat similar, but not entirely so to the one in Hawaii.

However, our co-producing partner arranged for a school lecture-demo this morning. There was no doubt in my mind that the event was what funders had in mind when they sought to provide arts opportunities for at-risk kids.

The program was well suited for the school groups we had. It was familiar enough to them that they had a frame of reference (unlike, say if we had a modern dance program which they might not know enough about to begin comprehending.) and yet different enough to hold their attention for an hour. One of the teachers was almost in tears from gratitude.

Apparently, the last time Te Vaka was in Hawaii back in 2002, they received an email from a kid saying he was inspired by the group and was going to devote more time to his music. Today they actually got a similar email from a friend of a woman who attended Saturday night saying much the same thing.

After the performance, Te Vaka was invited to lunch by the students in the college’s halau (a type of school of Hawaiian culture). The students did a welcoming ceremony in Hawaiian chant and then had a lot of great conversation over lunch comparing notes about the similarities in each other’s languages and culture. An ukelele was broken out and the students performed some music and hula for Te Vaka.

As I started to urge the group toward the door so we could make it to the airport, the kumu (teacher of Hawaiian culture) offered a fairwell chant which one member of the group returned. Native Hawaiian instruments and dictionaries were pressed into hands as parting gifts and pictures were taken (as I chanted “To the airport, to the airport.”)

These wonderful and poignant moments reminded me that art doesn’t have to be a one directional exchange (the portraits on money notwithstanding). There is so much emphasis on going somewhere to stand or sit passively absorbing what someone else has produced.

This might be why people are intimidated by what they hear or see. They aren’t quite sure if they are receiving what is being transmitted correctly and if they are getting their money’s worth. There have been frequently observations which theorize that people often give standing ovations to good, but not exception performances, out of a need to convince themselves they have received something worth the money they paid.

I wonder if it would help matters if young students, knowing they were going to see a performance in a week, were required to create something of their own to exchange. I wonder if people’s view of art would change if they found themselves empower to create art that had value in an exchange for a different type of art.

Obviously, you don’t want to have it happen every day lest it devolve into a ceremony of motions empty of meaning and significance. Say a student creates something and then presents it with a sort of understanding of “You are a master artist and I am merely a beginner, yet we share the same spark. I present this thing that has meaning to me unto you as a symbol of my respect for sharing your gift with us.”

I wonder if that action, only performed a handful of times in the formative years, could plant the seed of a greater respect and comprehension of the artistic exchange in the adult.

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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