Merit Can Be More Easily Inherited Than Earned

There was an article on San Francisco Classical Voice website on September 1 about racism in classical music titled “The Last Water Fountain: The Struggle Against Systemic Racism in Classical Music.” The last water fountain phrase was coined by Lee Pringle, founder and artistic director of the Colour of Music Festival in Charleston, SC.

The narrative of the article orbits around Pringle and includes numerous anecdotes about the direct racist experiences different Black artists and professionals have experienced throughout their careers as well as ways in which the general framework of the classical music industry inhibits their careers. (e.g. don’t get offered many opportunities, but union membership prevents participation in non-union events organized to amplify the talents of musicians of color.)

There were many aspects of the article that grabbed my attention, but a statement made by the articles author, Robert Macnamara, early on really illustrated how the concept of meritocracy resulting in the best ensemble is undermined by the lack of access many Black musicians in particular have to “farm system” that begins to channel musicians on a career path at a young age.

In the system, support is assumed, and when the question arises, the answer is predetermined: “Oh honey, $1,800 seems like an awful lot of money for an oboe, but I guess, if you really want this, we can always find the money somewhere.”

And so begins the march; the route is fixed. White people and some ethnic groups follow a progression of youth orchestras and schools of the arts and then are often paired with principal musicians in local professional orchestras. Meanwhile, young Black musicians inevitably draw attention to their raw talent but can’t afford the coaching and mentoring to help develop technical expertise and to help direct the way through the audition maze. Having little or no experience in a youth orchestra, they arrive in college music departments with, as one musician put it, “a lot of heart and personality but may not catch every note.”

The effect of this closed system is that it’s pervasive, ingrained, and needlessly exclusive, a monoculture that white audiences often don’t know much about or, frankly, seem to care much about.

I have posted about this before in regard to internships. Studies have shown that internships tend to be valuable when it comes to getting a first job and establishing a career. However, those who benefit most from internships are those whose families support them financially and reinforce their choices through their expectations.

This idea that meritocracy isn’t the value neutral measure we think it is has been around for a few years, but in the last few months, and apparently few days as I searched for links to articles I recalled reading, it has come to the fore again and is something to consider as we examine the composition of our organizations their relationships to those being served.

Going To A Museum To Gather Information

I saw an article about an interview with Kimberly Drew on Slate that I really liked. Drew had a book come out, This Is What I Know About Art .

What grabbed my attention was Drew defining a museum experience as information gathering in the same sense as entering a library.

Museums fall within the larger field of GLAM—art galleries, libraries, and museums—where you’re not supposed to go there knowing everything. That’s the myth of museums. You don’t have to know every single book when you go into a library. You go to a library to gather information, and we should be looking at museums in the same way. We go into museums or enter museum websites to garner information, and hopefully we leave knowing more than what we came in with. But somewhere along the line, it became like, “I don’t get it,” or, “If I don’t know this, this, or this, then I shouldn’t go.” That’s one of the greater barriers to access

Drew is pretty passionate about museums. In the conversation between her and the interviewer, there is a fair bit of discussion about all the expectations of what an experience is supposed to be that weigh down the experience. They say that not only can’t a museum account for all contexts influencing how people are interacting with art, sometimes the person who normally spends hours in a gallery is coming in to get out of the rain for a half hour or because they feel like getting out during their lunch hour.

This is obviously applicable to all disciplines and their respective audiences. Along those lines, Drew acknowledges sometimes timing is everything. She says despite there being hundreds of visual arts related blogs out there before her’s, when she started her Black Contemporary Art Tumblr page, it aligned with a need from people who were passionate and curious, but didn’t have the resources to learn and were alienated by the way art was presented in museums and galleries.

Based on this, Drew is an advocate for providing different paths which allow people to interact with your organization: website, blog, video content, etc., as an accompaniment for the physical experience you offer.

There is a recording of the full interview from which the article is excerpted if you want to absorb the whole conversation. (There is also a transcript, but it is auto-generated by software and attributes Drew’s words to 4-5 separate speakers which gets confusing.)

The Man Who Decided To Raise Artists Instead of Chickens

It was with some sorrow that I learned this week that a great man who has literally been part of the grassroots effort to provide arts experiences to young people died last week. Albert Appel who, with his wife Clare, founded, or he might say floundered, into establishing an arts and music camp just turned 98 on July 5. A tribute to his life appears on the Appel Farm Arts and Music Campus website.

When I say he was literally part of a grassroots effort, it is because when he and his wife started giving music lessons to neighbor kids back around 1960, he was running a farm with 20,000 chickens, feed crops, and other animals. Gradually, the chickens began to be replaced by children. Again, literally. When I worked on the concert presenting side of the organization back in the early 2000s, two of the camp dorms were still refurbished chicken coops and were referred to as North & South Coop.

Albert, and his wife Clare, who had passed away before I started working there, are an admonishment against making assumptions about the artistic interests and capabilities of farmers. Albert trained to be a farmer, but he also played violin. He actually met Clare when friends told him they needed a violinist to fill out their string quartet.

The way Albert liked to tell it, he and Clare started the camp because kids would come over for music lessons and would never go home so he started charging their parents to let them hang around his house.

When I moved to South Jersey to take the job in winter 2000, I was told I could live in Albert’s house until I found a place of my own. I was given two room that used to be offices for the camp. As you moved through Albert’s house you could see that they had continued to add on to the house to accommodate camp activities. There were also some out buildings behind the house that got used. Finally, they moved a lot of the operations across the road–into the chicken coops, among other buildings. However, some of the original rooms continued to be used as living quarters for the camp counselors and staff during my tenure there.

The founding philosophy of the camp was that every kid has the capacity for creative expression. Come to think of it, working there may have serve to form my own views along those lines. A camper’s day was spent pursuing one major and two minors. The major was the area they identified as their core interest or area of experience and the minors were things they hadn’t really done, but wanted to explore. The subjects ranged from acting, dancing, music, ceramics, painting, photography, creative writing, video production.

Due to security concerns, folks like myself who didn’t work for the camp program weren’t generally allowed on the grounds past the administration building. However, I frequently helped distribute the mail and even without hearing them say it, it was clear that for a lot of those kids camp was a place they felt they could be themselves surrounded by people with similar interests versus who they had to be at home and at school.

But as I said, I wasn’t directly involved with the camp. My job was to run the operations for the concert series and music festival as well as to support the school outreach efforts. I count myself lucky to have lived in Albert’s house for a short time because even after I moved out, I would get invited to join him and his second wife, Peimin, when they were entertaining guests. Often it was groups like the Corigliano Quartet who were staying over in preparation for school residencies.

Albert would often pull out his violin to play or talk about his children’s music lessons on various instruments. Nearly all of Albert’s children play an instrument to some extent or another. His son Toby is a violist on the Julliard faculty. One story I recall involved inducements for him to practice piano. There are also a couple wild stories about Albert I heard from his kids.

Albert was definitely a character. Even though the livestock and poultry mostly departed the farm, all campers were required to work in the camp garden and the vegetables all made it to the kitchen for meals. Albert often gave the gardeners a hard time about how they were going about planting. A farmer can never really retire. He was just as passionate about creating an environment for people to cut loose with creative expression. At 80, he was pulling out his violin to play beside the campers. You would also hear the low drone of the instrument across the fields in the middle of the winter.

Obviously at 98, his death wasn’t unexpected but it is still saddening. Though at his 80th birthday party, he kept joking that if he had known he would live as long as he had, he would have taken better care of himself and he might have already made it to 90. Apparently someone was taking good care of him if he was so seriously pushing 100.

His legacy runs much deeper than thousands of kids attending arts camp over 60 years. As I mentioned, when I worked there the other nine months of the year were devoted to a concert series, school outreach programs and a pretty active conference calendar. Shortly after I left, Appel Farm started offering afternoon and evening arts classes to kids and adults and were the arts content provider for a local school district.

Now they have added a Families to College program that works with the whole family to provide an environment aligned with increasing the chances of success for college bound students. They are also involved with providing a charter school STEAM program. In a rural portion of southern NJ, programs like these can have big impacts.

I am sure there has been some positive impact on the economy of Elmer, NJ and Salem County that wouldn’t have existed if Appel Farm Arts and Music Center wasn’t there. But when we talk about the value of the arts, few would have the patience to wait 90 years, or smaller increment thereof, to see the result of giving 8 year old Albert music lessons. (Or his wife Clare for that matter, I am told she eclipsed him in passion for the camp’s mission.) And yet, there are thousands upon thousands of people who will attest to the immeasurable value of their experiences.

Flippin’ Piece of Art

While I am not really plugged into the visual arts gallery/museum world, one topic I have seen come up repeatedly is the sense that the creator of a piece should realize some benefit when the price of their work skyrockets during resale. Apparently there has been some specific concern about buyers targeting the work of contemporary black artists with an intent to quickly flip works for significantly higher prices.

According to Artnet, Christie’s  Auction House worked with curator Destinee Ross-Sutton to create a type of covenant placing conditions on the resale of art works in their “Say It Loud (I’m Black and Proud)” show.

Each artist will receive 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of their work. All buyers must also sign a contract with extensive conditions. They must agree not to resell the work at auction for at least five years; if they do want to sell, they must give the artist right of first refusal; and, if they sell to someone else, they have to give 15 percent of the upside back to the artists.

I was initially skeptical about how effectively this type of agreement could be enforced. Though if Christie’s had the will to enforce it, they certainly have the clout and capacity to penalize bad faith purchasers. According to the article, the conditions didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of buyers and most of the pieces have already sold.

According to the specialist at Christie’s coordinating the show with Ross-Sutton, the buyer covenant will benefit the auction house by providing them with insight into sincere collectors of works by artists of color.

The project also has the benefit of giving Christie’s access to collectors it might not have met otherwise, and insight into their preferences and holdings. “We’re excited to cater to this emerging clientele as well as develop programs that specifically cater to collectors of color,” Cunha adds.

Curator Ross-Sutton sees the success of a purchase agreement backed by an organization like Christie’s as an important message to artists not to underestimate their ability to insist on similar conditions.

Ross-Sutton hopes the experience will empower artists to take charge of their careers, including by pushing their gallery representatives to implement similar sales restrictions. “Many artists do not realize the power they have,” she says. “We cannot only put the blame on these so-called ‘flippers’—artists have to be more discerning and so do galleries.

I was trying to think of a parallel situation in the performing arts. Even though the value of a performance is more variable and transitory, I am sure there is some corresponding situation, perhaps with playwrights, choreographers, designers, etc, with which this situation might have relevance, (other than the lack of representation of people of color in many of these roles), but I feel like I am suffering from a momentary lack of imagination.

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