Highbrow and Mighty
"It's nice to take risks," says Edward Lifson, WBEZ's editor for arts, architecture, and culture, about one of the first flowerings of his work. The piece is called A Registered Patent, and it's both the station's first programming collaboration with the Art Institute of Chicago and a take-no-prisoners debut for Lifson. A companion to the Art Institute's Juan Munoz exhibition, it's billed as a radio play by Munoz (set to music by Alberto Iglesias and read by John Malkovich) but is actually a 20-minute exercise in reading and rereading the same unfathomable paragraph of instructions for building an optical-illusion machine. It'll get three airings on WBEZ because Lifson happened to hear it on German radio and knew the Munoz show was coming to Chicago. (Its second broadcast here is Sunday night, November 10, at 8.) Lifson is cooking up similar collaborations with three other visual-art institutions and says that's just the beginning: on the job since July, he hopes to "turn WBEZ into a powerhouse of a cultural institution in its own right--make it, even more than it already is, the place where the discussion about culture will take place."
A Wilmette native who wanted to be a broadcaster from the age of six (insert your own background music here, something like the New Trier rouser), Lifson spent a long "formative" period knocking around art and architecture schools and Europe before coming back to Chicago, where he started freelancing for NPR. He filed his first piece in 1988 and was soon working for the network full-time from his hometown. In '96 he was sent to Berlin to launch an NPR bureau there and wound up covering the war in Kosovo, "watching villages burn, driving roads planted with land mines, having a paramilitary stick a gun in your mouth and tell you he's going to kill you." WBEZ reached him in Berlin to talk about opportunities in Chicago; he returned 16 months ago as executive producer of Odyssey, the noontime talk show hosted by Gretchen Helfrich, working on the show's transition to national syndication. (So far stations in nine markets have signed on.) When the Graham Foundation came through with a grant to pay the first year's salary for an arts editor at WBEZ, Lifson made the switch.
Last week he got his staff: WBEZ's first full-time arts reporter, Diantha Parker. Parker, who used to paint and still plays the cello, was a book review editor at the scholarly Wilson Quarterly before taking a temp job at Talk of the Nation and finding her niche. She's held a variety of production jobs for NPR, spending the last five years in Chicago as director and associate producer for Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me!, but she took a month off in July to log some airtime as a WBEZ general assignment reporter. "I knew Ed from NPR," Parker says. "I was looking to get back into reporting, and we kind of cooked [the arts reporter job] up together." She's admittedly short on on-air experience, but says she knows "what sound can do and how to use the technology" and thinks she can answer to "a real hunger here for beautifully produced pieces." Parker was expected to be on the air this week with a piece about Soldier Field; by next week we should hear her talking about the Art Institute's "The Medici, Michelangelo, and the Art of Late Renaissance Florence."
Cultural coverage on the station's local morning program Eight Forty-Eight is out of Lifson's bailiwick, at least for now. Parker's pieces will usually air as local "cutaways" during Morning Edition and All Things Considered and then be run again, perhaps at greater length, on a weekly arts magazine of the air he's planning to launch soon after the first of the year. To be hosted by Lifson, the as-yet-unnamed magazine is likely to run on Sunday nights and could include interviews, poetry readings, and musical performances, making use of WBEZ's new Jim and Kay Mabie Performance Studio, a just-completed state-of-the-art space Lifson says is another sign of the station's heightened commitment to culture. His vision for the station includes conducting a competition for the next poet laureate: "We'd invite entries, work with the Poetry Center on a panel of judges, have the finalists read on the air, send recommendations to the governor."
A year ago, before either of these positions existed, WBEZ general manager Torey Malatia said he was interested in bringing diversity and fresh voices to the station and in covering institutions beyond mainstream giants like the Art Institute. With this in mind, Lifson ran on-air calls for arts contributors a couple of months ago. Swamped with responses, he pulled the announcements early. He says they yielded a lot of good ideas and contacts, and he'll run the call again in the future because "a multiplicity of voices" is still a priority. So far, Lifson says, a half dozen of those voices have been heard on the air.
We didn't get to hear the juicy stuff when the Chicago Humanities Festival showcased ten of the city's grandes dames of culture in its Saturday program, "My Life in the City." Any woman who survived the 20th century is an expert on the relative value of "Beauty and Brains," the festival's theme, but with ten interviews in little more than an hour, what we got was a puff of powder on the nose of experience. DuSable Museum founder Margaret Burroughs, reading her own autobiographical 1940 essay, was cut off just when she got to the part about going to work in fine Hyde Park homes, looking at Gold Coast mansions, and becoming aware that "something was wrong." And no one picked up on dance critic Ann Barzel's passing reference to the fact that while her male classmates at the University of Chicago were able to hear concerts at Orchestra Hall by working as ushers, she would stand in the lobby hoping to cadge a ticket from someone leaving early, then rush in to catch whatever was left of the show. Ushering, like most everything else then, was a man's job.
Famous Door Theatre is doing Take an Artist to Lunch one better: to bankroll its production of The Cider House Rules, opening in January, the company will ask patrons to adopt one of the 31 actors in the cast. Exclusive sponsorship of a main character begins at $2,500; other characters are available for $1,000 and up, and support for the orphans is welcome in any amount, says managing director Amanda LaFollette. A kickoff party is set for November 12 at the Mercury Theater.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.