The Bell Works, But It Needs You

A couple weeks ago, I caught a story on NPR about a temporary monument exhibit that has been placed on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  While a little more permanent than a pop-up exhibit, it is only meant to appear on the Mall for a limited time.   The project, Beyond Granite, was initiated by Monument Lab which commissioned six artists “.…to think about histories that haven’t been commemorated by the Mall and to look to moments when the Mall was charged by people, not statues.”

One of the pieces is a playground inspired by a picture of a Baltimore playground taken a few days after it was segregated showing black and white children playing together. Young visitors are able to play on the equipment which comprises the piece.

Another is a piece commemorating Marian Anderson’s 1939 Easter Day concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial after she was prohibited from performing in Constitution Hall because she was Black.

The piece that caught my ear was “Let Freedom Ring,” that plays “My Country Tis of Thee,” a song Anderson sang in her concert. The installation plays all but the last note leaving a bystander to step forward and pull a lever to complete the song.

“The piece is simply saying, America is not America without you as an active citizen,” Ramírez Jonas says. “It needs you in some way.”

Doing a little more research, I discovered the sculptor, Paul Ramírez Jonas, is chair of the Art Department at Cornell University. An article on Cornell’s website provided more information on the philosophy behind the piece and the bystander’s role.

Before participants pull the lever to ring the last bell measuring more than two feet tall and wide, Ramírez Jonas asks them to declare why they are doing it: Are they celebrating “freedom to” do something, or “freedom from” something? They can preserve their choice in a graphite rubbing of one of those two prompts, inscribed on opposite sides of the bell.

“I’m not telling you what your idea of freedom is,” Ramírez Jonas said. “I’m just suggesting that there’s flexibility, that there’s room for inserting yourself.”

Another inscription shows the song’s first verse with selected words missing, inviting participants to modify the lyrics – as Anderson did when she sang “our country” instead of “my country,” and “we sing” instead of “I sing.”

The process of “pulling together,” Ramírez Jonas said, occurs through awareness of others’ expressions of freedom and a sense of collective responsibility. Reflecting a bias toward optimism, Ramírez Jonas said, he never contemplated a design that might have rendered “America” unable to be completed.

“The bell works,” he said, “but it needs you.”

Reading a Bloomberg article on the project, I became aware of another piece by Wendy Red Star, an Apsáalooke (Crow) artist. It features an enlarged version of the artist’s thumbprint encased in glass and outlined in red soil. The names of 50 Crow leaders who signed agreements with the US government, often by using their thumbprints. The name of the piece, “The Soil You See…” comes from the words of one of the few survivors of Battle of Little Bighorn

“The soil you see is not ordinary soil — it is the dust of the blood, the flesh and bones of our ancestors. . . . You will have to dig down through the surface before you can find nature’s earth as the upper portion is Crow.”

August Wilson Biography Causing Some Buzz

The Atlantic recently ran a piece by Imani Perry reviewing a biography of playwright August Wilson by Patti Hartigan. The book has been getting a lot of notice over the last few weeks. This is one of many reviews.

To some extent Wilson’s story is not unexpected or surprising. A child voracious for knowledge who is poorly served by the education system. A playwright who struggles to get his work seen because audiences aren’t interested in the stories he wants to tell. When he does become successful, he feels the conflict between staying true versus selling out and is criticized for making white audiences feel uncomfortable, but not pushing so far as to cause them not to see his plays.

It was interesting to read that Wilson and his collaborators may have among the first to pioneer using regional theaters to develop works before moving them to Broadway.

Not least, Richards took on the challenge of attracting a producer. “Serious plays concerning minorities … are not considered a good risk,” he observed,…Together, Richards and Wilson came up with an unusual strategy, and in the process helped inaugurate a new and closer relationship between commercial and nonprofit theater in America. Work was first staged in regional theaters, which were free of Broadway’s commercial pressures and able to take chances, and Wilson got the kind of “long development process” he knew he needed, revising tirelessly in rehearsals and in reaction to performances.

His 1987 play, Fences, was the one he liked the least and felt he had compromised on to please audiences and critics. It was Robert Brustein who was among those who criticized Wislon most strongly and suggested Wilson was being too polite with audiences.

“Brustein implied that Wilson’s work in general was calibrated to elicit white guilt without jeopardizing white acceptance. Any Black artist who has acquired a modicum of mainstream acclaim while sustaining a sincere interest in Black life knows this kind of criticism intimately. Wilson’s experience is an aching reminder that no amount of professional stature insulates one from it. In fact, quite the contrary.”

Broadway Books Babysitters To Bolster Attendance

Ken Davenport recently posted that the Broadway Production of Here Lies Love was working on lowering barriers to attendance by offering babysitting during four upcoming performances.

“Here Lies Love” has teamed up with the Parent Artist Advocacy League (PAAL), Broadway Babysitters and Open Jar Studios to offer free childcare services at the Sept. 23 matinée as well as three additional dates to be announced. Any ticket holder for the Sept. 23 performance is eligible to sign up for the complimentary benefit.


“After years of partnering with Off-Broadway and regional theaters to offer caregiver support, the historical significance of ‘Here Lies Love’ being the first Broadway show to offer ethical, accessible childcare to their caregiver theater patrons is not only incredibly exciting, but long awaited by our team,” said a representative of Broadway Babysitters in a statement.

As you may have noted in the quote above, other venues had been partnering with Broadway Babysitters, which is based in and around NYC and Chicago, to provide childcare in conjunction with performances. The PAAL website notes the off-Broadway show, “Mary Gets Hers” will be offering babysitting for the September 30 performance.

This reminded me of a post I did in 2009 on a company called Sitters Studio which employed performing and visual artists to provide childcare in a manner similar to Broadway Babysitters. I received a database error when trying to visit their website so I am not sure if they are still in business or suffering technical difficulties.

Will Dwindling Supply Of Trained Piano Tuners Also Threaten Arts Orgs

Caught a timely article from The Guardian about the dwindling number of piano tuners in Australia. I am fairly certain arts and cultural organizations in other countries are having a similar experience when trying to schedule piano tuners. Personally, I have been in a situation where we had a choice of two-three tuners which dwindled to one that lives a two hour drive away and covers a large geographic area.

I am not sure what the situation is in the US and other countries, but people interviewed for the article note that there aren’t a lot of training programs in the country and a lack of effort to make people aware that training opportunities exist. It isn’t a profession that is entered lightly.

“People think, ‘I’ll learn to tune a piano, I’ll do it in a year and that’s it’, but no, it takes 10 years to learn how to tune a piano, and 20 years to master it,” Kinney says.

The training takes even longer for piano technicians who do broader work on repairing and refurbishing pianos. Tuning can only do so much before the instrument needs a major overhaul.

By “good tuners”, Kinney means piano technicians. These are people who have undergone a year of training as piano tuners before developing their skills at international piano factories or with mentors, learning action regulation, voicing, diagnosis and complex problem solving.


When Scott Davie, an Australian concert pianist, has toured through Australia, he’s played regional shows where the pianos had been tuned but not properly maintained. When this is the case, he must work hard to alter the way he plays to finish the show.

“I’d be remembering which notes are going out of tune and which notes are really badly out of tune, and leaving them out of chords or trying to play them so softly that you couldn’t hear them,” he says. “But it gets to a point where it sounds horrible, if a piano is really starting to break down.”

This article made me think–we are hearing about all the arts organizations that are closing or having a difficult time, but there are other elements of the infrastructure that are probably being overlooked that may cause on going issues as well.