Art Works Blog

Postcard from New York State

Here I am with Louise Slaughter (and Rochester's News Channel 10) during our visit to the George Eastman House. Photo courtesy of George Eastman House.

I’m just back from a fairly intense and jam packed trip to western New York. We started in Schenectady where they were having the annual convention of the League of Historic American Theatres. My host there was the CEO of Proctors Theatre, Phillip Morris, who showed me around that amazing facility, which has really been a lynchpin for the revitalization of downtown Schenectady. Schenectady has certainly [taken] a page from the NEA playbook, if our playbook isn’t a copy of Schenectady. The Historic Theatres’ convention was neat because that’s something that has been near and dear to me since I was at Jujamcyn. In fact I was introduced by Jim Boese, who is the president of the League of Historic American Theatres and is a top executive at the Nederlander Organization, and so I go back to the beginning of my theater operating career with the Nederlanders, and that was kind of full circle. I also saw Roger Morgan, who is one of the most preeminent theater architects and designers in the country, and he was there as part of the convention. Proctors is first of all a beautiful theater, and upstairs instead of having warehouse, or retail or a storage space, they have a power generating system, which supplies a lot of power to the neighborhood, it’s a very creative use of that space.

From Schenectady I went on to Rochester, where I was hosted by my very close friend U.S. Representative Louise Slaughter (NY-28th District), who is one of the most passionate champions of the arts in Congress. We first went to the National Museum of Play at The Strong. We were hosted there by Laura Sadowski who showed us around what is really an amazing museum. It’s both collections-based and interactive, both a history museum and a children’s museum, and it’s just one of the neater museums that I have seen. You see the kids engaging with the museum and learning a lot as they are doing it. In Rochester we also went on to the George Eastman House, where we were hosted by museum director Tony Bannon. We saw a lot of historic pictures and the cameras that had taken them. There was a great famous Marilyn Monroe picture and that famous picture of Iwo Jima. And we got a glimpse into the Eastman House work in film restoration and photograph restoration, which they are known for internationally. We were shown one of the very first films done by Frank Baum with Wizard of Oz characters. And that was neat to see. That was about 1910, I believe. And we saw one of the first talkies. You really have a great record there of the incipient film industry, and that was neat to see. The Eastman House itself is beautiful, they have wonderful gardens. It’s a very serene and yet intellectually vibrant place.

We then drove to Buffalo where we visited first the Shea’s Performing Arts Center hosted by its director, Tony Conte. And that, of course, is near and dear to my heart. Whenever I see a gorgeous, renovated theater---and this is one of the most beautiful ones I have seen so far, anywhere in the country---it’s incredible. The theater’s on Main Street, which is now blocked off to traffic, and there are some other theaters across the street, so it really is a theater district and an arts district. They’ve done amazing renovation work with Shea’s, and it’s become a very, very successful Broadway roadhouse. It’s huge---3,000 seats---but they pack that theater wall-to-wall for one-week Broadway runs. They’ve been very successful, and it’s neat to see Shea’s spearheading the renewal of downtown Buffalo.

Then we went on to what was one of the real high points--- Kleinhans Music Hall. This was built by the Saarinen father and son team (Eliel and Eero). I don’t know too many father and son architects who had this kind of impact, but this is one of the buildings that they did together. Kleinhans is, I would say, hands down the most beautiful concert hall I have seen so far in two years at the NEA. It’s very Saarinen: it has the most beautiful wood, and just the shape of it, the very welcoming and inviting shape of the house, it’s a very seductive, wonderful place to watch a concert. We were hosted by Cindy Abbott-Letro, who is the board chair of the Buffalo Philharmonic. Ted Lownie, who is a local architect who has been a big part of a lot of the important architectural renovations and work in Buffalo, acted as our tour guide. To be hosted by an architect with that kind of passion and that kind of commitment, the whole thing came alive for me because of him. Ted is an iconic figure in Buffalo, and he was great at being able to explain the ethos of the structure. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful building designed inside and out by the Saarinens.

Speaking of beautiful designs, Louise and I then went on to the Martin House, which is one of the great Frank Lloyd Wright structures in the country. It was done at the height of his career and is an incredible complex. The Martin House is in the middle of a major renovation for that. We were hosted by Mary Roberts, who is the director there, Bob Kresse, who is the chairman of the restoration group, and Bob Gioia (no relation to the former NEA Chair), who is the past president of the group. To see this kind of passion and commitment from people in Buffalo toward Frank Lloyd Wright and one of his really iconic structures was really wonderful. I think this is going to be a major cultural draw in Buffalo. It already is, actually, but I think when it is finished, it is going to be absolutely amazing. And I’m looking forward to going back there when that work is done.

Next it was on to Chautauqua and the Chautauqua Institution thanks to Peter and Barbara Georgescu, who are very involved with Chautauqua. I was hosted by Chautauqua Institution President Tom Becker, who has done a tremendous job of preserving Chautauqua’s tradition but also bringing it into contemporary reality. It really is a kind of arts colony, an arts mecca. They have the Chautauqua Theater, a wonderful adventuresome theater where they just finished a bold production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters. There’s also a dance company, an opera company, rehearsal sheds. There’s lots of music there. It’s a place where artists can really flourish in a protected environment, and one of the things I have been talking about in my speeches really from day one is the need to have protected arts environments that are shielded from the  marketplace and the box office. Chautauqua is really a place where artists can work with other artists. They can be exposed to artists in other fields, and work together in a protected environment that is safe, where they can take chances, where they are allowed to fail, and it is just a wonderful, almost utopian kind of place.

I gave the Daily Address, which is given at, I think, 10:45 every morning. I’ve never spoken in front of 5,000 people before, and that was intimidating, but I had a great time doing it. The audience was very warm, very responsive, had some great questions. I really enjoyed the talk I gave. I think the part of the job I’ll miss most, whenever I leave, is the forum that I have, the bully pulpit, and being able to engage in that national conversation. In my talk, I spoke about the importance of failure, and taking risks, and being allowed to fail, and trying again. And Chautauqua is the perfect environment for that speech, because it’s a protected environment where artists are encouraged to take risks, to fail, and try again until they succeed or until they get what they are looking for. I think everyone should go to Chautauqua and see how that place works, it’s an idyllic setting, but intellectually engaged and vibrant, and a wonderful place to be.

I should add that I started off my New York visit at the Ford Foundation’s conference on “The Just City.” I wasn’t one of the speakers or panelists, but I was there for the whole day. This is part of Ford’s ongoing 75th Anniversary Celebration, which is a celebration not to pat themselves on the back, but to engage the best minds and practitioners in the fields they are interested in. And the conversation around The Just City was just what it says, about the most enlightened kind of urban development. HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan was one of the guests, and it was great to reconnect with him there. The event was a whole day of day of discussions and presentations by speakers who really are committed to a new way of looking at cities. The whole emphasis was on the urban environments. Most of the world’s population---the overwhelming majority of the world’s population---is living in cities and increasingly so. So what they call “metro areas” are increasingly the focus of their attention, and it was great to hear the people who know most about it speak. I learned more in that day than I have in a long time.

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