Joshua Bell, Innovator or Heir To A Tradition?

From the “Nothing New Under the Sun” file comes the news that Gene Weingarten is pondering whether to return his Pulitzer Prize. Weigarten is the Washington Post columnist who won the Pulitizer for arranging and writing about Joshua Bell’s anonymous performance in a Washington D.C. subway station. Weingarten says he is pondering giving the prize up based on the fact it was awarded for originality and he has since learned someone beat him to it.

It seems that back in May 1930, a Chicago Evening Post reporter arranged for violin virtuoso Jacques Gordon to play incognito outside a Chicago subway station. Though he eventually drew a crowd, as with Bell, by and large no one stopped to listen and only one person recognized him. It also turned out that Bell played many of the same pieces Gordon did. I guess Schubert lends itself to outdoor concerts. Though he hasn’t played it in about seven years, for nearly a decade, Bell actually played the very violin Gordon used for the stunt.

While I have been critical of the experiment, I am not about to suggest he give the Pulitzer back. My beef is that the experiment seemed designed to maximize the opportunity to point out what philistines people are. We see enough evidence that people don’t value the arts every day without concocting situations to prove it. Just a year ago some students at Stanford University were miffed that NEA Chair, Dana Gioia, was speaking at graduation because they felt they deserved someone more famous.

The basic experiment is a valid one in my mind. It could have been used to measure when the best times for performing in myriad unorthodox locations might be as part of an outreach effort — or even a longer term change of venue. As far as I am concerned, the Bell and Gordon results just prove that subway stations are not the best place to reach people. So even if he had known about the event seven decades earlier, Weingarten would have been wise to verify the earlier results.

An additional reason why the more constructive approach would have been preferable. Weingarten notes that unlike the original which faded into obscurity after a day, his story gained feet thanks to the Internet. I honestly don’t think he knew it would become so widely disseminated. However, given it has it would have been much better if people were reading about a secret experiment aimed at serving them better rather than a secret experiment that proves what rubes people are.

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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