Art-To-Art Talk

What people talk about when they talk about art

KMOX's Nan Wyatt serves as moderator. Wyatt is all sharp edges. Her arms slash through the air; her hands are like martial-arts weapons framing pointed, stiff gestures. Her voice gives all the comfort of knives driven into the ears. She's in radio? She attempts to make a comparison between herself and those on the panel, remarking on how artists are involved with "beauty and loveliness," whereas she mostly deals with corporate American -- not realizing that everyone on that stage (being in "the arts") works overtime with corporate America.

Wyatt asks the panelists to address what each considers to be a "challenge" (the current positive-affirmation buzzword to use in place of "problem") for the arts in St. Louis. The Rep's Woolf begins with the question of value. If, as Woolf poses the artistic situation in St. Louis, "quality is assured" -- assuming there is lots of good work being done by good artists, and there is -- then "how does this have value?" Or, as he makes his point more explicit, how can the metro area be made to realize that there is value in a diversity of work being done and in supporting it?

Bliss, of Dance St. Louis, proposes marketing as the key to communicating value. She calls for a "full-fledged marketing blitz" that the arts institutions themselves would fund, skimming a dollar off the price of each ticket sold in the performing arts "to make people aware of the cultural richness of St. Louis." She calls for "each organization working together as a unit" and for further involvement in the K-12 education system by parents and teachers, universities and colleges, small and medium-size businesses, corporations and city and state government. "We don't need an arts czar," she says, refuting the position of the St. Louis 2004 leadership initiative for the arts.

Nan Wyatt is all sharp edges. Her arms slash through the air; her hands are like martial-arts weapons framing pointed, stiff gestures.
Jennifer Silverberg
Nan Wyatt is all sharp edges. Her arms slash through the air; her hands are like martial-arts weapons framing pointed, stiff gestures.

Lipkin, who introduces herself as "currently homeless" since the loss of the St. Marcus Theatre, is more concerned about who's the target of that marketing blitz. "We don't think beyond our own audience," she suggests and talks about the need for making first-time audiences -- or those audiences who have been neglected for reasons of ethnicity, economics or disabilities -- welcome.

This strikes a chord with several of the panelists. SLAM's Benjamin talks about the "over-the-threshold experience" that needs to be overcome, and RAC's McGuire refers to a need for arts institutions to cultivate a "hospitality mentality."

Finally, the questions the audience wants answered, written on postcard-size green cards, reach Wyatt. The first topic of discussion is the role of the media. As those in attendance from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Riverfront Times prepare for the expected public flailing, Lipkin lets them off the hook. She praises the "sophisticated print media" but says "the problem is the electronic media": If it ain't on TV, as the saying goes, it doesn't exist, and in St. Louis, cultural institutions ain't on TV.

Wyatt, one of the only members of the electronic media in attendance, is exasperated. With all the calls and press releases and faxes she receives -- boo-hoo-hoo -- how do they decide? They can't cover everything!

More than a few people squirm in their seats, biting their lips instead of blurting, "You do like you do with everything else. You make choices." But, fortunately, Woolf makes the point for everyone: "No one's asking you to cover everyone" -- he meets Wyatt's exasperation with his own -- "but cover something, because we are all here. And we're something that exists."

At times like this, a rousing chorus of "I'm Still Here" is welcome, but instead, up rises Ed Golterman, making yet another quixotic stand for the Kiel Opera House. Six performing-arts theaters in Kiel, he announces, "all in one place -- that's diversity." Another Kiel proponent rises and beats the drum, even after Bliss makes a few sobering remarks about the feasibility of the project in terms of money and political will. "I don't know how we can get it done," she reasonably intones.

But as the Kiel crusaders are about to urge the crowd to head downtown and start the renovation with their bare hands, Joan Brichetti of Metro Theater Company has had enough. Some people are attempting to take control of the agenda for themselves, she says bravely from the peanut gallery; let's move on.

In all this talk about space, the absence of any member of Grand Center Inc. -- the Midtown organization with lots of space and no inclination to do anything with it -- is recognized by Lipkin. None of St. Louis' political leaders is to be seen, either, which punctuates Woolf's observation that words such as "theater, painting or art" don't seem to be part of Clarence Harmon's or Buzz Westfall's vocabulary.

The discussion draws to a close. Afterward, folks look cheery and enthused -- "a good first step" is the general consensus, in this town of good first steps.

Bert Coleman, who's produced, directed and performed in a few shows over the years, offers some spontaneous criticism. There's a need to get people such as Harmon and Westfall and aldermen on the next panel, he says, so the challenges for "the arts" aren't discussed within the choir.

And although McGuire, graciously, asks Wyatt to come back again, how about Joneal Joplin? He's very good onstage.

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