The Hunger That Propels Through Bad Weather And Troubles

Last week I was in Minneapolis for the Arts Midwest conference. (Minnesota Orchestra, what was that party at your place Friday night? It looked and sounded awesome.)

The conference was marked by the transition of Arts Midwest’s leadership from David Fraher’s 35+ year tenure to that of Torrie Allen, as the new President and CEO. I was initially worried about how Allen was going to fill David’s shoes, but from the moment he opened his mouth it was apparent he was quite comfortable in his own shoes.

Mary Anne Carter, current chair of the National Endowment of the Arts spoke of David’s career at Arts Midwest which spanned the tenure of nine  National Endowment for the Arts chairpersons. (Former chair Jane Chu sent video congratulations.)

You can read a transcript of his farewell address, but it doesn’t quite capture the emotion in his voice the way the recording does.

The one part that really touched me was when he enjoined the audience to think about a time you passed on the gift of a creative experience to someone and it lit a fire within them. He goes on to relate his own story at a performance of Death of A Salesman in a high school gym.

Nearly 40 years ago, I sat in a high school gymnasium in Pinedale, Wyoming and watched as maybe two hundred people… ranchers and oilmen, their spouses, and their children…arrived out of a cold and storming night. They came into the gym, shook thick snow off their hats and jackets, put blankets and cushions on the bleachers, drank coffee and hot chocolate from thermoses, chatted with their neighbors, and waited.

[…]

And while I was there to gather data for a site visit report, what I realized and understood in the end was much more powerful than any data point.

Those families had driven 50, 75, even 100 miles in a hard, early spring snowstorm. They were likely worried about their cattle and their sheep, their finances and their unavoidable drive back through the valley and the night. But for those two and a half hours, they were mesmerized by a stunning performance, by amazing actors, in a school gymnasium. And at the end of the play, they stood and hollered and clapped. Many…myself included…wept. And then they gathered their blankets and coats and said quick goodbyes to their neighbors and friends and drove home in the dark with the actors’ voices still echoing in their heads

The thing that touched me most about this passage was the acknowledgement of the worries and concerns of the audience members. Often when we talk about how people were affected by seeing a performance, there is a recognition that something has changed for people due to their experience. Seldom is there an acknowledgment of what audiences are bringing with them to a performance.

People these days may have so many options available to them that they aren’t hungry enough for an experience that they will drive 100 miles through a snow storm to see a play. Even if they are coming a shorter distance in better weather, they aren’t arriving as a blank slate upon which the memories of a great experience may be written or even as a jumbled slate which will be straightened by the impact of the experience.  They may forget their worries for a time or may be fortunate enough to have their perspective about their lives changed. The burden they bear may feel lighter for having the experience, especially for having shared the experience with family and friends, but it is still there.

He may not have intended it, but the organization of thoughts in his address resonated with my belief that the value of the arts is not prescriptive. The experience in the high school may have had a lasting impact upon them, one they will recall to this day 40 years later, but there was an underlying sense it didn’t cure the problems of their lives.

Still, even if people aren’t driving 100 miles in a snowstorm, toting their own snacks and seat cushions, to see a performance, the hunger needing to be satiated is still as great.

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 (artshacker.com) 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. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the 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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