Art Works Blog

Postcard from New York, New England, and San Diego

Washington, DC

Rocco as Pharaoh in the "Discover Egypt" section of the San Diego Museum of Man.

I started my recent whirlwind trip at the Academy of Arts and Letters in New York, where I delivered the Blashfield Address. I think it went very well. I was eager to have a chance to talk about art in ways other than the meat and potatoes approach that we have generally been taking. Usually, I make our case for art as an engine for economic development, neighborhood revitalization, community building, and child welfare, all of which are instrumental. But I wanted a chance to talk about the value of art just as a fundamental component of our humanity and why it is important in and of itself---why it is essential. I think whenever you start asking why we behave in a certain way, or why we do the things we do, you almost always go to anthropology. So I got to immerse myself for a little while in that. I came to what I thought was the essential conundrum, which it that art is universal---it’s found in every society throughout all of history---and yet doesn’t seem to be an element of what Darwin called the survival of the fittest, or in the selection process for the protection and propagation of the species. I was fascinated by why something would be this universal, and yet perhaps not necessary. So the speech wrestled with that conundrum and I offered some ideas about how that played out. It was a great chance for me to be able to take a more philosophical and poetic approach to the work we do here. One of the great aspects of this job is that you have a bully pulpit. To be able to use it for something like this, something as prestigious as the Blashfield Address, was great. I was very flattered to be asked to give that speech; it was a great beginning to this whole two-week sojourn.

From there, we went up to North Adams, Massachusetts, where the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is located. This is this incredible organization founded and run by Joe Thompson, who is a legend in his own right. The New England Foundation for the Arts, run by Rebecca Blunk, was hosting their annual meeting at the museum, and it was a great chance to see some old friends. For instance, I got to catch up with Randy Rosenbaum, whom I got to know when I was in Providence. We had a luncheon and a panel, and interestingly, there was a reception in the Sol LeWitt galleries at MASS MoCA. The NEA’s logo is taken from a Sol LeWitt painting, Isometric Figure---we borrowed the colors from it---so that felt like a point of intersection that I hadn’t thought about before. All in all, it was a great day. MASS MoCA is really a great example of what we are talking about at the NEA. It is creative placemaking at its best. It created something that was never there before, it is an obvious tourist attraction, and it is an economic engine for that whole area, not just North Adams but also Williamstown. People make a point to visit there, it’s a destination. There is a lot of data about how economic levels have improved as a result of MASS MoCA’s presence. There are 19 galleries---it’s an amazing installation. It is thrilling to walk around and see what they’ve done over the years, and how the museum has been able to become the success that it is. It was great to learn how that happened and to be able to get to know Joe.

Then it was on to San Diego, where we did the second Blue Star Museums kickoff. This year I got to meet with Mayor Jerry Sanders, who is one of the most arts-enlightened mayors anywhere in the country. He really gets the value of the arts; the arts have had a tremendous role in the rejuvenation of downtown San Diego. Balboa Park, of course, is a great example of creative placemaking. There are six or seven museums that are there---it’s a real destination. The Old Globe Theatre is there also, which I’ve been to many times. When I was actively producing, we even started one of our shows, Into the Woods, there. So San Diego has become a great arts city, and I think Mayor Sanders has led the way. This year’s kickoff for Blue Star Museums was great. Lieutenant General Milstead, a Deputy Commandant in the Marine Corp, was there with his wife Suzanne to give this a very high-level, prestigious send-off. Of course, Kathy Roth-Douquet was there as well. She is really the spiritual and practical force behind Blue Star Families and now Blue Star Museums, and she has become one of my best pals. We then did a tour of the San Diego Museum of Man. It was great to see how the museum appeals to kids, and how interactive it is. They’re really doing some neat things there. I’m at a point now in my tenure where even when I’m on official travel, I feel like I’m going back and seeing old friends, and continuing relationships that have been formed and are deepening. San Diego and the Blue Star Museums kickoff was a great example of that.

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