Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sharing Art through the Storm

“When you hit a wrong note, it's the next note that makes it good or bad.” -Miles Davis

A music-loving friend of mine swears that one of the greatest concerts he ever attended never took place at all.

Not quite, anyway.

Instead, a violent thunderstorm came pretty much out of nowhere on a summer night, leaving the Saratoga Performing Arts Center without electrical power. The unexpected storm hit just minutes before the Philadelphia Orchestra was set to take the stage along with a guest soloist, the violinist Sarah Chang.

Forty-five minutes later, the audience was still waiting, hoping power would be restored and the concert would get under way. That’s when Chang stepped onto the stage, alone except for her violin and a couple of stagehands equipped with flashlights to illuminate her and her music.

The orchestra remained backstage. But Chang began playing Fritz Kreisler's Recitative and Scherzo.

Maybe the rain was still pounding on the roof and flooding the lawn. Maybe the thunder hadn’t been muted yet by distance. Chances are, though, no one listening that night could tell you there was anything at all in the air except the music.

The performance was brief, but it was delivered with both virtuosic skill and exceptional grace—a sort of “Thank You” card for the audience.

The ovation was huge. Then several thousand music lovers made their way through pooling rainwater and back to their cars.

Maybe the story ends right there. But for me it has a resonance that reaches beyond the moment. The then-20-year-old musician’s respect for the people who had come to hear her music also says something about the essential relationship between artist and audience.

Creating art (even if that means performing before a large audience) is in many ways a solitary and intensely personal pursuit. But the moment a creative work touches someone else, it also becomes a shared experience, a sort of collaboration and even, in some sense, a transfer of ownership.

Maybe Sarah Chang understood that when she offered her music as a gift that night, unamplified and in the near-darkness of a summer evening storm.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Calling for A Secretary of the Arts

The idea isn’t really a new one.

Not for artists and arts administrators, and not even for musician and producer Quincy Jones, who has emerged as the standard-bearer for the cause.

But the concept of establishing a cabinet-level position devoted to our country’s arts and culture has gained a lot of momentum since Jones began pushing it in earnest in the weeks following the presidential election. He started the ball rolling during a November interview on WNYC radio in New York, when he called for the new administration to name a “Secretary of the Arts.”

In short order, others took up the call, notably bassist Jaime Austria, who created a web-based petition to enlist and document popular support for the idea (www.petitiononline.com/esnyc/petition.html ). By one recent count, as many as 150,000 people have signed on so far, and at least 15 organizations have hopped on the bandwagon along with Americans for the Arts to support the effort.

The president’s cabinet, the reasoning goes, is the place all the sectors that, collectively, make up American society come together – education, commerce, transportation, energy, agriculture, and the rest.

And the arts deserve a seat at that table, proponents say, in what is shaping up to be a spirited debate, “Yes, Yes, Yes. . . . This is about a society that recognizes art as important for a strong nation,” is the way one blogger on the Los Angeles Times website put it.

But a nearby posting represented a different view.“At best, such a government office would be a huge waste of money. At worst, government sponsored "culture" will be used for political purposes . . .” it read.

Others express worries about government spending in general, as well as an ideological aversion to “more government.”

“I'm all about the arts -- but THIS IS NOT THE TIME TO ADD TO THE DEFICIT. Hopefully there are enough SMART people who will be realistic about this and stop this senseless push for more spending,” one person wrote.Artists themselves are divided, with some enthusiastic and others raising a wary eyebrow, like this blog writer:

“I am a pianist, organist and composer. . . . I am an advocate of the arts, yet I would NEVER, support something like this—a petition to put control of something so precious as music, art, dance, poetry, and drama in the hands of bureaucrats.”Still, at least 150,000 petition signers embrace the idea.

“The fact is that a healthy society is directly related to its cultural and artistic successes. The arts make our lives more vibrant, more meaningful. The arts make our culture more attractive, our country stronger and our citizens that much more in-tune with the human experience. [And] the fact is that every dollar spent on the arts brings back 10 to the economy,” one supporter wrote.

What do you think?

How important is government funding for the arts?