Thursday, May 03, 2007

MFA quietly hearts local art?

One of the little noted aspects of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ programming is its focus on local artists.

A good example is the MFA’s blockbuster Edward Hopper retrospective that opens Sunday. Hopper, a New Yorker, painted at Gloucester in 1912, 1923, 1924, 1926, 1928, 1933 and 1953. And he bought land on which to build a house in Truro in 1933 and summered there most every year for the rest of his life. Hopper’s Massachusetts work is not a sidetrack – I argue that his painting at Gloucester in the summers of 1923 and ’24 defined his mature style, giving it a “Yankee sobriety and austerity. It’s as if Gloucester’s crisp clear North Atlantic light had knocked the fuzzy fussy Frenchness out of him.”

But Hopper is not the only local artist being exhibited at the MFA right now. A mini retrospective of Cambridge artist Michael Mazur’s prints is on view through June 17. “War and Discontent,” on view through Aug. 5, features Bostonian Suara Welitoff and the late Philip Guston, who taught at Boston University from 1973 to ’78. And the recently installed Wein collection includes a painting by longtime South End artist Allan Crite.

Over the past year local artist exhibits included Lexington painter Ambreen Butt’s Maud Morgan Prize show; “Americans in Paris,” a major historical survey featuring many (dead) New England artists; Brookline photographer Laura McPhee’s “River of No Return”; and the “Traveling Scholars” show.

The MFA doesn’t tout it, but the evidence shows they quietly love local art. Notice all the different types of shows featuring local artists – single artist survey, historical survey, local artist prize, theme show, etc. This isn’t a token local artist ghetto show, but an example of a major museum consistently integrating locally-made art into its programming and not lowering its standards to do it.

Pictured at top is one of Hopper's Gloucester scenes, “Anderson’s House,” 1926. Below is his "Hills, South Truro," 1930. Both are included in the MFA's Hopper retrospective.

Edward Hopper

Here’s my review of the Edward Hopper retrospective at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. I write:
In Edward Hopper’s world, everyone is lost in an unending rut of office overtime, rattling El trains, cheap fluorescent diners, and bad dates. Everything has fallen tensely quiet. And this anxious, itchy mood haunts even the urban landscapes — perhaps half his work — in which the only person around is you, the viewer. Here every man is an island.

“Edward Hopper,” a career-spanning survey that opens Sunday at the Museum of Fine Arts, reminds us that Hopper has become perhaps the most famous and beloved American artist of the past century by picturing the disquieting film noir isolation lurking at the glass-and-steel heart of our modern metropolises, the frustration of being alone when we’re so damn together.
Hopper, a New York artist, did significant work hereabouts – in Gloucester, Truro and Maine.

I didn’t get the memo, but it’s apparently Nyak-native month at local museums. Hopper, who was born in Nyak, New York, in 1882, gets the retrospective treatment at Boston’s MFA. And Joseph Cornell, who was born in Nyak in 1903, gets the retrospective treatment at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

Their paths kinda sorta crossed when Hopper, struggling to make a living as an illustrator and teacher, taught classes to teens in his mother’s Nyak home in 1915. Gail Levin, who speaks about Hopper at Tufts University at 2 p.m. today, writes in her 1995 book “Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography”:
The youngest pupil, who was only ten or eleven years old at the time, Elizabeth Cornell (sister of the artist Joseph Cornell) recalled taking the class together with several other girls who were “quite a bit older.” She remembered Hopper as “a tall, serious person,” and “a patient, wonderful teacher who let nothing go by,” and recalled her great disappointment when Hopper, who never could relate to children, told her father that she was too “silly” to continue.
This sums up Hopper, the man, for me.

“Edward Hopper,” Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., Boston, May 6 to Aug. 19, 2007.

Pictured from top to bottom: “Chop Suey,” 1929; “Office at Night,” 1940, and “Nighthawks,” 1942.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Raphaela Platow leaving Rose Art Museum

Raphaela Platow, chief curator of Brandeis University’s Rose Art Museum, is leaving to become director of Cincinnati’s Contemporary Art Center, beginning July 1.

This is a major loss for the Rose, as well as for Boston. Platow was instrumental in making the Rose the hottest museum for contemporary art around here. The 34-year-old organized the just-opened John Armleder exhibit, the recent Clare Rojas survey, last year’s Dana Schutz retrospective, 2005’s “Dreaming Now” and the 2004 Barry McGee survey.

The Contemporary Art Center is probably best known to art aficionados for being indicted on obscenity charges for the sexy photos in its 1990 Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. The institution and its director were acquitted six months later. The 68-year-old institution moved into its first freestanding home, the Lois and Richard Rosenthal Center for Contemporary Art, in 2003. The building is notable as the first building the celebrated Iraqi-born, London-based architect Zaha Hadid got built in the United States. However since then, the Cincinnati Enquirer reports, the institution “has seen the departure of two directors, two senior curators and other staffers.”

Platow, whom the Contemporary Art Center calls “one of the rising stars in the field of contemporary arts management,” has served as curator at the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the Kunstforum Munchen E.V. in Munich, Germany, her home town. She joined the Rose as a curator in 2002 and became its chief curator in early 2006. She served as the museum’s acting director after Rose director Joseph Ketner left in spring 2005 to become chief curator of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Michael Rush, who’d led the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art in Florida, was named director of the Rose in December 2005.

Platow’s move marks at least the third departure from the Rose's seven-member staff in the past year – the director of education and membership coordinator also left.

Monday, April 30, 2007

Anita Walker named chief of MCC

Welcome to Anita Walker, who the Massachusetts Cultural Council today announced has been named its new executive director. She begins work May 14, filling the shoes of Mary Kelley, who retired in March after serving as the state arts agency’s chief for 11 years.

Walker, who turns 54 this month, served as director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs from 2000 until the start of this year. The MCC announcement notes that she is a proud member of Team Creative Economy: “During her tenure in Iowa Walker engaged more than 400 state and local businesses to consider the role of the creative sector as a driving force in economic development, in part by leading the first comprehensive study of the state's creative economy. The study was hailed by economist Richard Florida, author of ‘The Rise of the Creative Class,’ as a significant advance on his work in this area, and resulted in several key regions of the state incorporating arts and culture in economic planning efforts.”

Walker’s hiring fills the second major vacancy at the MCC since Democrat Deval Patrick won the state’s governorship last November. Peter Nessen, the president of the MCC’s 19-member board, recently resigned and was replaced by Elyse Cherry. Just like Kelley, he led the agency during the 11 years Republicans coincidentally happened to control the state’s executive branch.

So I’m assuming it’s just another funny coincidence that Dan Hunter, another proud member of Team Creative Economy and head of Massachusetts Advocates for the Arts, Sciences and Humanities, the chief arts lobby in the state, is, like Walker, a former director of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs. Go Hawkeyes!

What does an audience owe an artist?

What does an audience owe an artist?

I’ve been thinking about this question since a public high school group walked out of Brooklyn performer Mike Daisey’s monologue “Invincible Summer” at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater on April 19 (which I blogged about here). Daisey has called the group cowards and fools and idiots. He’s furious that one guy – a chaperone, it turns out – emptied a water bottle over his hand-written notes. But his complaint ultimately is that the group of some 80 high students and 20 chaperones from Norco, California, walked out without explaining itself.

“I just want it to be known that no one on that side has behaved at all like an adult,” Daisey said in the April 26 Globe. “If I had not hunted these people down, and called them directly and compelled them to speak to me, they never clearly would have spoken to me. And if I hadn't had this video and posted it [to YouTube], they never would have responded at all. I think that says something about their actions and their character.”

Since when does an audience have any duty to explain itself to an artist?

Pissing off audiences is perhaps the most prominent and proud tradition of avant-garde artists. Back around 1910, the Futurists famously insulted their audiences, spouted nonsense and splashed hot tea on the front row. We gleefully remember the premiere of composer Igor Stravinsky’s dissonant “The Rite of Spring” accompanied by a jarringly “primitive” ballet in Paris in 1913 because the audience erupted in catcalls, whistles and fistfights, so much so that police arrived. A photo in Harvard’s “Multiple Strategies” exhibit, on view through June 10, shows Fluxus artists picketing outside a 1964 performance with placards reading “Social Climbers” and “The Rich Man’s Snob Art.” A number of the people involved were jokers who joined the protest after performing inside.

It was and remains a badge of honor to freak out the squares. And as the Modernists knew, an upset audience is one of the best things that can happen to performers, often boosting their careers. That’s why many aimed to create a ruckus. It was often partly a put on. Video of the ART walkout that Daisey posted to YouTube has gotten more than 120,000 hits as of this morning and the, uh, unpleasantness has gotten television and national newspaper coverage.

The yelling and insults that Daisey unleashed upon the Norco students and school – and by his actions encouraged others to unleash (the liberal blog Daily Kos bizarrely called the students “Choir of Thugs”) – reveals a thin-skinned, square artist and a thin-skinned, square art world. The ART is billed as a radical theater, so you’d expect Daisey and the theater to be a bit more good, giving and game about this sort of shenanigans.

When I go to poetry slams, with all their fun cheering and hooting and hissing, I wonder: why are art audiences usually so dreadfully quiet and polite. The art experience creates a situation somewhat akin to carnival – in which the world briefly goes a bit topsy-turvy and behavior usually considered inappropriate in society is tolerated, even encouraged. But is this relaxing of society’s norms only for artists – or for the audience too?

What if theaters handed out tomatoes to everyone before shows? What if audiences heckled and walked out? What if audiences began challenging artists the way artists play at challenging audiences?

In the Providence Phoenix, Brian Jones recently wrote about attending a play that tried to get its anti-torture message across by acting out a bunch of torture. He says “the acting is so real, the hurt is so deep,” that he felt he should jump on the stage and say: “How can we just sit here and watch? Are we are no better than this bastard? Ladies and Gentlemen, maybe we can’t stop what’s going on at Gitmo. But we don’t have to watch it in Pawtucket. Stop the play!”

Jones is not intending a protest of the play – which he appreciated – but thinking that maybe a disruption in a theater could encourage others in the audience to take action outside the theater to stop the very problems the show was addressing. He says, “I think a lot of unpleasant human behavior in entertainment is vicarious violence disguised as a morality exercise” and that sometimes this calls for walkouts and turning off the television. But he struggles with the difference between denouncing something you disagree with and censorship, between protest and hooliganism.

I struggle with the same question. Part of the way free speech is meant to work is that it allows us to criticize – even shout down – what we disagree with and we sorta sort it all out in this raucous democratic exchange of noise. But when do complaint and protest go too far?

It seems as an audience our responses should begin from respect and generosity and a sense of humor. Ideally we would give artists a chance to win us over. But it’s a two-way street. We aren’t obligated to quietly endure insult or offense or boredom. And we aren’t obligated to explain to artists why their work doesn’t – or does – float our boat.

I don’t believe artists have to explain themselves either, but if anyone has explaining to do perhaps it’s the artists – especially after a century of intentional aestheticized antagonism. If artists want a dialogue with their audiences, they have to meet them halfway, they need to begin with respect and generosity and a sense of humor, they must work to understand their audiences and help their audiences understand the art.

Mike Daisey’s poor sportsmanship

There’s been a lot of huffing and puffing in art circles since a public high school group of walked out of Brooklyn performer Mike Daisey’s monologue “Invincible Summer” at Cambridge’s American Repertory Theater on April 19. Daisey has called the group cowards and fools and idiots – and many, many people have agreed with him since he posted video of the walkout to YouTube.

The incident brings up fundamental questions about artists’ responsibility to their audiences, and vice versa – which I’ll get into in my next post. But I feel I need to provide this rundown of the incident and critique of Daisey’s response as background.

Daisey had a right to be upset, especially in the charged vulnerable moment of a performance and because of one guy who walked up to the Daisey and silently emptied his water bottle on Daisey’s notes before leaving. But Daisey has overreacted, and remains mean-spirited in his responses. He’s been a terrible sport about all this. And he owes the school group an apology.

Here’s what happened based on the Globe’s intrepid Geoff Edgers' reports, Playbill, video of the performance Daisey posted to YouTube, Daisey’s blog and the school’s hometown paper. (Note: I’ve not personally interviewed anyone.)

Some 80 students and 20 chaperones from Norco High School – located in a city of 27,000 people that local boosters say offers “city living in a rural atmosphere” 50 miles west of Los Angeles – were in Boston for the school choir to sing at the Boston Heritage Music Festival. And school chaperones, which included faculty, in an apparent bit of impromptu behavior decided to expose their charges to some Boston culture by taking them to the theater. They bought tickets to Daisey’s performance on the day of the show.

“Invincible Summer” is a Bill-Cosby-Spalding-Gray-style comedic monologue about New York’s self-congratulatory chutzpah, trying to write a book, the Sept. 11 attacks, and, early on, “fucking Paris Hilton.”

“You’re fucking her, you’re thinking, ‘Oh, my god, oh, my god, I’m fucking Paris Hilton,’” Daisey said that night while rocking his arms as if he was jiggling around atop her. “Paris Hilton is thinking, ‘Oh, my god, oh, my god, I’m Paris Hilton.’”

Many in the crowd laughed. Then the Norco folks quietly walked out. Daisey sat there stunned. And then a guy – one of the chaperones, it turns out – walked up to the table Daisey was sitting at and emptied his bottle of water all over Daisey’s notes. To Daisey, it was the act of a latent Nazi – “It is a face I have seen in Riefenstahl's work,” he later blogged.

Daisey collected himself, then got up and shouted: “Hey do any of you people who are leaving want to stay and talk about this or do you want to run out like cowards?” On the video you can hear a woman off camera saying something like “We really don’t want to hear the F-word.”

“Mam, please take a message back to your people,” Daisey proclaimed. “In the future find out what you’re going to see before you see it.” The remaining audience applauded, drowning out Daisey screaming at the departing crowd – mostly teenagers, mind you – something about: “Do it to my face!” A student tells Playbill: “Many kids were in tears of embarrassment and scared of him.”

Daisey calmed down and bantered wittily with the remaining audience. Someone off camera apparently asked why the people left. Daisey replied jokingly, “Usually terrorists say what they’re doing.” The audience laughed. “I don’t know. There was no statement. They just left. I don’t know. I assume I’ll have a death threat in my email or something.” Then he sat down, still shaken, and slowly settled back into his monologue.

In the aftermath, Daisey has voiced five main complaints:

1. Daisey says the Norco folks should have found out what they were seeing before going to see it.
It turns out that the Norco chaperones did due diligence. You can argue about how well they did it – but good luck figuring out if the show is appropriate for school kids based on the ART’s description, the Globe review and a chaperone’s conversation with the theater.

Norco principal John Johnson tells Edgers that a chaperone called the ART beforehand: “She said, ‘These are high school kids between 15 and 17. Is this appropriate for them?' According to her, they told her it was appropriate for them and, in fact, there was another high school that was there.”

Edgers reported Thursday that:
Nicholas Peterson, the [ART] marketing associate who dealt with the sale … says he told the Norco representative that Daisey's show contained “strong language, adult situations, powerful and emotional imagery, and also that The New York Times has referred to Mike Daisey as a ‘master storyteller.’”

Peterson says he told the Norco adult that another school group would be attending the performance; it was a senior English class from the private Brooks School in North Andover. And Peterson says he stated that “the imagery is not any worse than what students would see on television and the language no worse than what one would hear at the movies.”
The Norco folks thought this sounded hunkey-dorey. But before Daisey’s show began an announcement was broadcast in the theater: “Turn your fucking cell phones off or we’ll shove them up your ass.” Suddenly they realized the show wasn’t what they thought it would be. Oops. And they concluded that despite their pre-show intelligence being wrong, they didn’t have to stick around to prove exactly how wrong. Daisey in the meantime began monologueing about Paris Hilton.

2. Daisey says the Norco group is “intolerant” and – horrors! – Christian.
“It's common to think things will never happen where you are – never in Cambridge, never in New York, never in Seattle,” Daisey blogged on April 20, the day after the walkout. “Then it happens, right in front of you, and you realize you were blind to it, that you forgot that intolerance and zealotry and viciousness are human currency everywhere, and it takes your breath away.”

Here Daisey is talking about the whole group and misunderstands them.

Try to put yourself in the position of the Norco teachers charged with the welfare of these kids some 3,000 miles from home. Before the show begins there’s the “fucking cell phones” announcement – which surprisingly is not the sort of language used or tolerated by staffers in most high school classes, pep rallies or field trips. How do you respectfully get 100 people to exit this suddenly inappropriate show?

School officials say the Norco choir director asked the theater’s house manager to pause the show so they could leave but was told the show must go on. Edgers reports that: “In the lobby, after some discussion, a plan was hatched by ART staff and the Norco chaperones to have the house lights raised slightly and the group to file out. There was no way to explain this to Daisey, who was visibly rattled when nearly a third of the seats in the theater emptied.”

Daisey and Playbill report subsequently hearing from students who weren’t offended by the performance. That’s probably true for a lot of the students and chaperones. Maybe even most of them. But taking a bunch of high school students to a performance like this – a bit racy, a bit potty-mouthed – is the kind of thing that can get teachers in hot water or even fired. It doesn’t matter if the teachers themselves are liberal or conservative or Christians or atheists. It doesn’t matter if most of the students – and their parents – aren’t offended. Your boss might be offended. Or maybe the right combination of people complain – and it doesn’t have to be a lot of people.

A comment a chaperone apparently made about Christians in the group has Daisey obsessed in subsequent interviews and on his blog with their faith, suggesting their behavior was unchristian. Is this relevant? Is Daisey’s harping on this anything more than a demonstration of anti-Christian biases?

3. Daisey complains that the Norco group didn’t explain itself.
The Norco folks tried to respectfully and quietly walk out – well, except for Water Bottle Guy – and Daisey screamed at them. He had a right to be upset right then, but if you’re a student or teacher quietly leaving and this is the reaction you get, why would you stop to talk? (A student tells Playbill that most of the Norco folks didn’t know about Water Bottle Guy until after they left.) And Daisey hasn’t stopped maligning their character since.

4. Daisey’s notes were “destroyed” by Water Bottle Guy.
Water Bottle Guy’s actions are petty vandalism – much like the guys who stuck the Mooninite signs around town – and he deserves a stern talking to.

After the walkout Daisey told the remaining audience: “It is an extemporaneous performance. I don’t use a script. … This is so heartbreaking. … I actually write all my notes on this one original that I keep.” He apparently adds to these notes over a long time and unfortunately the papers doused were his only copy. So the damage done to them really sucks.

Water Bottle Guy, another Norco chaperone, the school principal and a student who talked to Playbill have all apologized for Daisey’s notes being damaged.

But were Daisey’s notes destroyed? On April 23, Edgers reported on his blog that: “Daisey’s handwritten outline … was soaked, but salvageable.” Daisey blogged today that his notes were “destroyed.” Who’s correct?

5. Norco folks say they left because of “safety issue,” according to Daisey.
After the performance, Daisey tracked down the Norco folks by telephone. He complains that they called their concerns about the content of his performance a “safety issue.” He says, “I think it is tremendously chilling that that language of the war on terror, the language of security, has been appropriated for even this.” He fumes that this lingo “ends a conversation before it has even begun.”

Right. (Fortunately for him calling people Nazis and terrorists does not.) Despite the sinister motive Daisey intuits, the Norco folks’ semantic games seem to be about using a broad blah bureaucratic term in an awkward attempt to politely diffuse the tempest Daisey has created in a teapot.

What we have here are two misunderstandings – the Norco group’s misunderstanding of the show before they saw it and Daisey’s misunderstanding of the group when they walked out. The Norco folks respectfully – except for one knucklehead – rectified their situation. Daisey responded with yelling and insults. Water Bottle Guy deserved rebuke, but does all of Norco deserve to be tarred because of one knucklehead, one percent of a group of about 100 people?