Blurred Perceptions: The Report From Art 21
"Art 21: Art Reaches Into the 21st Century," the first and maybe the last ever national arts conference, has come and gone. Conceived in a rush, as NEA chairman Jane Alexander admitted at its conclusion last week, Art 21 produced a blur of perceptions, a mix of hope and fear for the future of the arts. Commented Remains Theatre artistic director Neel Keller: "I don't know that the conference accomplished much except for reminding us that everyone who attended faces many of the same problems."
Approximately 1,000 artists, arts educators, and arts administrators from across the country participated in the conference, which cost an estimated $500,000 to mount, all of it from corporate, foundation, and individual sponsors. Art 21 was the brainchild of Alexander, the sixth person to hold the 29-year-old organization's top post and the first working artist to do so. She maintains the time was right for such a conclave because the arts have been "a dirty word in this country for the past four or five years," and she wanted to remind the nation that the arts can still serve the community. "We [artists] want to participate."
During the three days of speeches and discussions with panelists who mostly ranged from mediocre to abysmal, attendees kept complaining that not enough artists had been invited. Later, when working artists were asked to stand and be recognized, everyone looked shocked at the sizable number of bodies that popped up. It seemed the substantial contingent of arts administrators in the audience simply couldn't recognize around them the kind of people with whom they presumably interact on a regular basis.
The opening speaker, writer Thulani Davis, vividly highlighted the artist's plight. "We live in a society that denigrates art," she said. "We live in a world where the places you might find artists are closing down." She went on to lament the humiliation artists endure when they are consistently asked to work for minimal fees that clearly indicate what little respect the marketplace has for them or their efforts. Richard Loveless, director of the Institute for Studies in the Arts at Arizona State University, was far less successful illustrating how art and cutting-edge technology will come together in the 21st century. The conference came alive on the second day with the arrival of movie-star-handsome Henry Cisneros, the former mayor of San Antonio who now heads the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. A slick Cisneros waxed eloquent about the need for artists to join the search for solutions to crime, violence, and drugs in our communities. Noted Cisneros: "Young people who live in crime-ridden public housing need to be inspired and uplifted." But by far the best speaker was saved for last: Carnegie Foundation president Ernest L. Boyer simply and emotionally reaffirmed the importance of art in a fulfilled life.
During the discussion sessions, intended to explore aspects of the keynote topics in greater depth, dull arts administrators droned on and on about nothing in particular and too much in general while obviously uninterested listeners filed in and out of the meeting rooms. But in one session Nancy Jones, an associate curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts and clearly a renegade within her own institution, created some welcome sparks. Jones talked bluntly about the elitism she insists is an ingrained barrier to progress in many major arts organizations. Though Jones says she has worked hard to bring poor, uneducated, and disenfranchised people into her museum, her efforts have won her only the enmity of most of her coworkers, who would rather see the institution continue catering to the privileged few. In the same session Bruce Marks, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, told how he resurrected a near-moribund dance company by resolutely refusing to do things the way they're usually done. "We actually have female dancers with breasts," boasted Marks.
Alexander says she'll take all the comments and observations made during the conference into account as she begins to create a national policy for the arts as well as a five-year plan for the NEA. In her closing remarks she suggested that federal funding for the arts in the 21st century may hinge on how successfully both young grass-roots organizations and established arts institutions reach out and connect with the social goals of the larger federal government. Said Alexander: "By connecting with other federal agencies and with their missions, we reach beyond the scope of our budget....[and] we can be a force in reinventing government to be much more than the sum of its distinct parts."
Wisdom Bridge Makes a Move
The financially strapped Wisdom Bridge Theatre soon will be leaving 1559 W. Howard, its home for the past 20 years. In a move intended to save the organization, Wisdom Bridge has cut a two-year deal with producer Doug Bragan to mount productions in Bragan's Ivanhoe Theater, which he regains control of August 1. Wisdom Bridge producing director Jeffrey Ortmann says the Howard Street theater's small seating capacity and the rapidly deteriorating neighborhood were "financially crippling" the company. The new game plan calls for the immediate sale of that theater, though no buyer has been found as yet. Ortmann maintains that his company's imminent move does not interfere with its previously announced plan to produce in a new performing arts center scheduled to open in Skokie in two years. He says Wisdom Bridge might opt to extend its arrangement with the Ivanhoe when it moves into the Skokie facility and begin producing year-round using both venues. He also talks about doing additional "site-specific productions" at other locations, such as the Body Politic Theatre. But the question remains: Does a company that was bouncing payroll checks as recently as last fall have the money to carry out such ambitious plans?
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Sue Hostetler.