That Ineffable Value

A post on ye olde Twitter feed led me to a piece on The Globe & Mail site structured as a conversation between J. Kelly Nestruck (theatre critic) and Kate Taylor (visual art critic). In it, they reveal some of the benefits and detriments of watching a livestream performance.

Reading it, I felt like there were some unrealized gems that may become regular features once they are fully developed as well as some points of friction that people will either get used to, fully resist, or accommodate in a way that leads to the development of a new practice.

Early on Nestruck observes that the Stratford Festival’s supposed archival materials look highly polished and he expresses “one of my concerns as a theatre critic is that I fear many of the Shakespeare productions at Stratford are now being created with filming in mind.”

A few sentences later, he says lauds the viewing party he attended as a great experience that probably echoes the environment of Shakespeare at The Globe Theatre:

My best experiences came tuning in to “live viewing parties” to restore the feeling of watching along with others. These are online appointment viewings where you can chat with other viewers in the comments.

The one for Stratford’s Macbeth, for instance, was fun because I could read what folks watching in Winnipeg, Montreal and Cleveland had to say in real time. A recent immigrant from Syria living in Toronto even chimed in to say it was the first time he’d seen the play.

Many actors who had been in the show watched as well, and shared backstage anecdotes. A chatting audience and meta-theatrical asides may sound ghastly to some Shakespeare purists, but I actually thought this was probably more like what the boisterous original outdoor audience was like in Shakespeare’s time.

Taylor says she can see the attraction of having that chatting environment as a frame for viewing the production, though she likens it to the distraction of texting while driving, but she doesn’t think it is a good substitute for live attendance.

Nestruck mentions sometimes the live communal experience is artificially manipulated. He describes how one of the last shows he saw before the Covid shutdown in March actually used canned cheering to get the audience going–though the sound design intentionally tapped into the live audience reactions as well.

“I later learned this chanting and cheering was actually part of the show’s sneaky sound design – though the recorded disembodied shouts then did lead to real cheering. (The sound designer Gareth Owen told me he sometimes also places microphones around a theatre so that an audience’s audible responses can be amplified at certain moments.)

All of which is to say that technology can help foster a feeling of belonging, at the theatre as much as at home.

As this conversation continued, Taylor admits that based on the examples Nestruck has cited, it is becoming difficult for her to definitively say a live experience is the best experience.

So, you’re really challenging me to explain why live performances, with the audience’s and the actors’ minds and bodies occupying the same space and time, are special and important.

It’s odd, but the pandemic has made me recognize the weight of theatrical rituals that I used to dismiss: booking the date, dressing up, applauding all performances. One artist told me that your ticket is a contract with the performer, both literally and figuratively. I will show up; you will show up. There will be a transaction. Somehow, I don’t think that happens when you watch something on a screen. I don’t feel I have entered into a transaction with Brad Pitt or even Greta Gerwig.

In the end, both say there is an ineffable value in the live performance/museum experience that can’t be replaced.

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.

Fulfilling Mission Vs. Fulfilling Design

Drew McManus has recently rolled out a video podcast on the Adaptistration site with the goal of addressing topics facing the orchestra business. Today, he posted the second episode title, Art Has Always Been Political, with guests Jason Haaheim and Weston Sprott.

They get to discussing the familiar topic of how the non-profit model in the U.S. has tended to reinforce the values and demographic composition of those who had the money to support non-profits. Right around the 23:10 mark, Sprott approaches the fact many arts organizations reflect a very wealthy, Caucasian demographic from the point of view of mission vs. design.

He says that many arts non-profits fail to live up to their mission statements, mostly by virtue of the fact that those statements are idealized visions of reality.  From the design perspective, they are operating exactly as intended:

“…if you shift the paradigm and think, is this organization serving the group of people that it was designed to serve, then that is yes…Now that doesn’t mean that the group of people that it was designed to serve is the correct group or an inclusive group, but it is what it was designed to serve.  If you have an administration and a board and everyone that funds you fits in one, in general, to one demographic, then it’s not surprising that the people that perform and the people that attend the concerts…all fit into that demographic.  It was designed to be that way.

I don’t think that a lot of opera companies or The Met, for example, were designed with the idea that we want to make sure that people from all cultures and backgrounds, including black people and brown people and other groups who are marginalized feel like they are truly comfortable in our space. So that is a different question..Does our mission say we reach those people? Yeah it does. Was our organization designed  to reach those people and is it structured to reach those people? It’s not.

This reinforces what Nina Simon says in The Art of Relevance  about needing to create more doors through which the people you wish to serve can enter. While some of those doors may indeed be physical if you are designating space for new people, in most cases they are conceptual. But require no less effort than a construction project in order to properly revise staffing, board composition, funding, programming so that the organization is designed to serve this broader range of people.


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