Monday, September 19, 2005

Decentering the Arts

Wall Street Journalarts critic and dean of the arts bloggers, Terry Teachout, writes the following in his new weekly arts column (http://online.wsj.com/public/article/0,,SB112690528332043364-zN0_vTs8lrRTeobtYHCHiyesPoA_20051018,00.html?mod=blogs):

"I live and work in New York, and I'm happy to be here. Still, I learned
long ago that if you want to stay in touch with the best of what's happening
right now, you've got to look beyond the city limits -- no matter where you
live. The Alabama Shakespeare Festival, Carolina Ballet, Chicago Shakespeare
Theater, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Miami City Ballet, Opera
Theatre of Saint Louis, Washington's Phillips Collection, the San Francisco
Symphony: All rank high on my personal list of America's top arts
organizations, and all are a long, long way from Ninth Avenue.

"Time was when life in the provinces was very different. When Katharine Cornell took her productions of "The Barretts of Wimpole Street," "Candida" and "Romeo and Juliet" on the road in 1933 for a 17,000-mile American tour, she brought her acting company to city after city where professional-quality drama had never before been seen, setting up shop in movie houses and high-school gyms. Back then, and for a long time thereafter, you had to come to New York to engage fully with the larger world of art. Even those artists who were doing major work elsewhere, such as the California
painter Richard Diebenkorn or the West Coast jazz musicians of the '50s, found
it hard to get New York critics to take them seriously.

"Now it's possible to live in almost any large or medium-sized American city and be regularly exposed to a wide range of high-quality artistic activity. Yet this deprovincialization of the arts in America has been accompanied by what can only be called the reprovincialization of arts journalism. Not only has network TV largely given up on the fine arts, but surprisingly few newspapers now take the trouble to hire staffers familiar enough with the arts to cover them well. To some extent the new media are starting to take up the slack. More and more I find myself looking to blogs for thoughtful commentary on the arts, much of it by amateur journalists living
outside New York who write as well as any professional (many of whom are themselves practicing artists). But the new media as yet have a comparatively small readership, and they typically "narrowcast" to niche audiences instead of addressing ordinary Americans who long to learn more about art. "

I couldn't agree more, both about the arts and about arts journalism. For too long, New York has been regarded as the source of all things theatrically worthwhile. This continues to be the case as far as hiring is concerned, with all too many regional theatres doing their casting, and hiring their designers and directors, out of NYC instead of developing a vibrant local artistic community.

It was once said, back when Sean Connery was playing James Bond, that we would know that feminism had won when Sean Connery made love to a woman his age on the screen. Similarly, we will know that we truly have a regional theatre scene when the actors, designers, and directors are residents of the region where they work; when they are not using their regional theatre as a springboard to NYC and then films and TV; when our artists form a deep and worthwhile relationship with the members of their community.

People form relationships with people, not with buildings or with institutions. When I was growing up in Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre had a husband and wife team of actors, James and Rose Pickering (they're still there, in fact, thirty years later), and I know for a fact that there were many people who came to play after play at that theatre because they wanted to see what James and Rose were up to now. Is this any different than Richard Burbage and Will Kemp at the Globe? But most of our regional theatres are revolving doors. How long will it take for theatres to realize that their success depends on relationships, not advertising and marketing? How long will it take for theatre people to stop believing that a 100XX-zip code is proof of artistic superiority?

I am thrilled the Mr. Teachout will be traveling throughout the US to report on the arts -- heck, I might even subscribe to The Wall Street Journal just to support his venture. I certainly will continue to visit "About Last Night" (http://www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight/) to get his take on the arts world and a bit better sense of what is vibrant and alive east of the Hudson River.

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