The Nutcracker For Chicago

I just saw this article on NextCity about the Joffrey Ballet’s effort to “make a new American Nutcracker” by setting the story in Chicago during the 1893 Colombian Exposition/World’s Fair. (The Joffrey has long had a version of Nutcracker that was set in America in case you were wondering if there was an “old” American Nutcracker.)

The article asks, “Is This the Most Graceful Urban Planning History Lesson Ever?” which is an entertaining concept in itself. But the Joffrey company tries to put an authentic American flavor to the story in this most recent version choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon,

The show then depicts immigrant construction workers at a modest Christmas party — a far cry from the traditional setting of an opulent upper-class home. It revises protagonist Marie (sometimes called Clara) from a rich girl dreaming of exotic sweets to the child of an impoverished single mother, dreaming of a visit to the multicultural exhibits at the upcoming exposition.

Part of the idea is to capture the childlike wonder that the real exposition evoked. “The World’s Fair was a truly magical turning point for this city,” Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Ashley Wheater explained

PBS created a documentary explaining the concept and process behind creating the Joffrey version last year. They do some amazing things with their re-imagination of the story, including puppets by Basil Twist. Not to mention dancing walnuts–because you know, how can you have a nutcracker and no nuts?  Nearly every production of Nutcracker has been violating the rule of Chekov’s gun.

As The Toilet Flushes

Having been part of two theater renovations which had enlarging restrooms as a major focus of construction I read CityLab’s article on the history of women’s restroom lounges with some interest.

It may not seem like an engaging subject, but since expectations about amenities like restrooms have a significant influence in whether people enjoy their experience, it is something to which it is worth paying attention.

Theaters were among the first buildings to include lounges as you might imagine, but I was surprised to learn that the lounges pre-dated indoor plumbing.  There was a sense that the genders should have places to retire to separately even before other physical necessities were addressed.

“Interestingly, ornate lounges for women preceded public restrooms by several decades,” Kogan explained, noting that there were parlors for women in public buildings many years prior to when most of America had indoor plumbing. In other words, gender separation and protecting women’s virtue was initially the justification for these spaces, and the toilet came later.

When public restrooms were first introduced, they weren’t segregated by gender because they were all single use rooms. It wasn’t until construction techniques enabled greater amount of indoor plumbing that these single use rooms were attached to gender segregated lounges. Of course as technology allowed for communal restrooms, those became even more firmly associated with separate lounges.

Over time, the lounges began to be omitted from new construction, and with few exceptions, those building with lounges saw the spaces repurposed for other uses.

The thing I am curious about is how restroom sizes shrunk to the point where we are now expanding them to accommodate need. Was there a time when architects decided people didn’t need as much restroom space as they do?

Alternatively, have people become more comfortable using public restroom spaces placing more demand than was the norm when the spaces were originally constructed?

Another explanation, at least for performing arts spaces, might be that the expectation that you be back in your seat promptly at the end of intermission has directed more people to restrooms in a shorter period of time than when the building was first constructed.

I would be interested to hear what theories people have.

Is Art Dishwasher Safe?

After long correspondence (both in years and text length), I finally had an opportunity to meet with Carter Gillies over Thanksgiving weekend.  On at least one occasion I dubbed Carter “potter-philosopher,” because he has studied and practiced both disciplines.

Carter has been a big proponent of measuring the value of the arts on their own terms rather than their instrumental value to stimulate economies, raise test scores, cure cancer and bring world peace.

We spoke and debated for many hours on these ideas. However, the really challenging conversation was the one I had with myself days later. It is a conversation that millions have had and never concluded satisfactorily.

Before I left Carter’s house, he took me back to his studio and told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I grabbed a bowl that caught my eye and Carter discussed why he liked the glaze he applied to it, pointing out the subtle golden flecks that dotted different places.

A few days later he wrote me thanking me for visiting and hoping I enjoyed eating out of the bowl.

I was mortified. How could I eat out of that bowl? It was a piece of art that represented the culmination of our relationship to this point. I had it prominently displayed on a table in front of my sofa.

But then when I thought about it, I have two mugs given to me by one of the directors of the art museum back where I previously lived in Ohio. I drink out of those all the time. In fact, I am drinking out of one of them right now, totally unplanned. To leave them in the cupboard and not use them would be a small betrayal of my relationship with her, implying they were not good enough to eat out of.

I have endowed both the bowl and mugs with value derived from my relationship with the makers. My conclusions about what the appropriate treatment of each are completely opposite and pretty illogical.

I am not even sure the question here is “what is art?”

Does mundane and common use diminish an object’s identity as art while preserving it in an untouched and stationary state except to dust it impart greater identity as an object d’art?

The makers are both in my mind and heart when I see and use these objects which is part of the value for me. Does sentimentality contribute or detract to the objective value of these items?

These are questions that can be addressed forever. But this also illustrates why it is so much easier to talk about the value of art in terms of instrumentality. Instrumental measures are things people can grasp on to much easier.

The big problem, however, as Carter points out is that we never really try to introduce the conversation with policy makers about why we value the arts.  It can be really easy to talk in a passionate way about why you value the bowl on your coffee table and the mugs in your cupboard as well as the stuff hanging on your walls.

Yes, there is no facile way to empirically say the bowl is more valuable than the mug. There is a whole lot of complicated factors that contribute to record breaking auctions at Sotheby’s .

People value art and creativity in their lives for reasons that have nothing to do with what they can sell it for or enhancing their test scores.

The first step is opening your mouth to mention that the true value of a creative expression is divorced of these measures and potentially even divorced from another person’s perception of that creative expression.

Philadelphia Museums Seem To Be Gathering A Trove Of Interesting Voices

There seems to be a trend among museums in the Philadelphia area which sees value in the perspectives of non-traditional guides and voices. I have written about the Jawnty tours provided at the Barnes Foundation and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology using Iraqi and Syrian refugees as guides to the Middle East galleries.

Today on Hyperallergic there was a story about how people have been looking to a security guard at University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art for her perspective.

The guard, Linda Harris, has been working at the museum since 2002. When she first started working there, she was apprehensive about whether she belonged there. Now she serves as a friendly face that facilitates discussions about a style of art some people can have difficulty relating to.

[Artist Alex Da Corte,] … notes that Harris’s dual roles, as an authority figure and as a non-traditional educator, allow her to help the museum stay true to its “Free for All” mission statement. Beyond free admission, the museum seeks to be a space where anyone from any community can come and have an experience with contemporary art. Harris represents the position that you don’t need to know everything about a work of art to comment on what it’s doing or how it makes you feel.

The article says Harris also embodies the role of educator and authority figure by providing permission and encouragement to visitors who encounter the interactive exhibitions. This has been especially valuable in cases where the permission to touch wasn’t explicit and required active encouragement.

However, people haven’t always welcomed the insights of a security guard. Over the years, it appears there may have been a shift in visitor expectations about the experience as well as Harris’ ability to discuss works with them.

Robert Chaney…remembers early visitors complaining: “We wanted it to be a quiet visit and a security officer kept talking to us.” Now, he says, people come in specifically “to talk to Linda, and to see what she has to say within the context of an exhibition.”

Chaney recognizes the value of Harris’s presence: “A contemporary art space can be intimidating for people. It’s often not work that’s easily defined or easily understood. […] And so Harris attends our training sessions for docents. And she talks to the artists often. I think she’s able to be, if not an authority, a welcome, informed voice for people coming in.”

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