Art-To-Art Talk

What people talk about when they talk about art

Talking about art is one of the most pleasurable conversations -- better than talking about sex, really, because talking about art is more intimate. Talking about art -- especially with artists -- is revealing in ways that talking about sex rarely is. For example, in preparing to play Willy Loman at the Rep a year or so ago, Joneal Joplin spent months before rehearsals studying the script, seeking footholds onto a character that towers as the American Lear. Yet with all that groundwork beneath him, Joplin remarked, he'd fully begun to realize Willy after he'd worked with the costumer and found the right pair of shoes.

Death of a Salesman is read in high schools and colleges around the world, but it's doubtful that among those thousands of discussion groups any thought is given to Willy Loman's shoes.

Joplin, who has a storehouse of life-in-the-theater anecdotes to tell, also related, during those early rehearsal days before Salesman took the boards, a dream he had about meeting Brian Dennehy (who was playing Willy in Chicago at the time) in a bar. The physically imposing character actor was in a psychotic rage, cursing the play, cursing the lead role, cursing Arthur Miller for writing the damn thing.

Joplin also talked about his childhood, of summers spent helping out on neighbor's ranches around his native Ponca City, Okla., and how calling across the fields and over the tractor's roar he developed his rich baritone -- the only vocal training he ever needed.

Talking about art elicits infinite themes and personality quirks, be it Susan Gash arcing her arms and neck and torso to express a gesture she's working on in a new piece of choreography or the way Michael Byron drops in the word "posits" when he talks about his paintings. Talking about art is inevitably sexier than talking about sex. Sex basically comes down to a matter of lighting (to paraphrase Noel Coward), anyway.

But when people talk about "the arts," the dialogue is as inevitable as the morning after a night of Noel Coward-octane martinis. People talk about "the arts" the same way Democrats used to talk about social-welfare programs: They are good for all; they will make everything better; they will solve any crisis; they need more funding. Many people who begin on the path toward becoming artists end up working for "the arts," which is sensible because "the arts" usually provide a more stable means of employment. (This column tends to list toward "the arts" as well -- "the arts" being newsworthy, meaning "of the moment" -- rather than art, which is trivial, meaning "eternal.")

This is not to disparage the valuable work that arts administrators do. They make a lot of work happen that probably wouldn't happen if it wasn't for them cajoling some political clod whose appreciation of the arts is about as profound as running a Shania Twain video in slow motion. It is not easy to pitch the idea that having dancers and painters and actors and musicians and writers making their art in St. Louis actually raises the town's appeal. Attracting the kind of people who appreciate art to live and work and pay taxes and generate greater civic well-being in St. Louis isn't so attractive to a political clod anyway, because those are the sorts of people who will probably vote the clod out of office, which explains why people like Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft are no friends to "the arts" -- or to art, for that matter.

Arts administrators are the lesser angels, better at reciting Deuteronomy than singing the Song of Solomon. So Don Roth, executive director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra -- who, with SLSO PR diva Susan Sherman, organized the first St. Louis "Arts Forecast 2000" panel discussion at Powell Hall on Feb. 24 -- doesn't need to be chastised for largely leaving artists (those people who make art rather than "the arts") off the panel (with the notable exceptions of Gail Cassilly, Joan Lipkin and Steve Woolf -- and Sally Bliss, who was one hell of a dancer in her day). This first-time experiment was a night for "the arts," which is the field where the 13-member panel toils. "Where's the individual artists rather than the institutions?" Roth says on the day before the event. "It's a good question. It's a good one to look at for the next time and make sure there is a balance in that way. That sounds like a good criticism."

The ensemble that does take part attracts quite a crowd. Close to 200 either sit or stand around the Powell stage, admiring the musician's-eye-view of the hall, with the panel seated at a long table, their backs to the auditorium. For a first-time event, Roth and Sherman have done well in landing the big fish, including Brent Benjamin from the St. Louis Art Museum, Charles MacKay from Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Jill McGuire from the Regional Arts Commission, Betsy Millard from the Forum for Contemporary Art, Stephanie Riven from Center of Contemporary Arts and Beej Nierengarten-Smith from Laumeier Sculpture Park. Some in the audience are making odds as to whether Nierengarten-Smith will show up, given some unfavorable publicity in the press recently, but there she is as the panel takes to their seats as in a church processional.

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.

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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