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An Interregnum for the Arts
Are "First Friday" crowds there to see the art or each other?
Credit:  Michael McClure

The novelist John Dos Passos once complained of New Year’s celebrations, “Why won’t they let a year die without bringing in a new one on the instant; can’t they use birth control on time? I want an interregnum. The stupid years patter on with unrelenting feet, never stopping—rising to little monotonous peaks in our imaginations at festivals like New Year’s and Easter and Christmas—but, goodness, why need they do it?”

Unlike other activities that run cyclically (dining out, say, or shopping or after too many dinners, out come the diet books), the arts are year-round. Creativity does not take a holiday. Yet, as the byproduct of all that inspiration and composition comes to a head with movie nominations, best-of lists and announcements of inductions into this or that arts academy, it makes sense to reflect on the arts in this tiny interregnum.

New Year’s resolutions for both the artist and the audience seem in order, perhaps now more than ever.

Each day heralds a new technological advance—right now, the seismic vibrations over Apple’s rumored “tablet” are as intense as any approaching earthquake—even if the result is not intended as a cure for cancer, but rather as a spur to eat up more of our free time.

Each day, like the last, more films, more books, more music and art appear, threatening to collide like speeding cars merging onto a Los Angeles freeway. When there is so little in the rest of the country (jobs, homes, optimism), how come there is so much art? If the artist has any responsibility, it is to make work that is worthwhile.

In Kansas City, the Charlotte Street Foundation Awards have, since 1997, been watchmen for talent that may be widely recognized (Lester Goldman and Ken Ferguson) or under-recognized (Jennifer Field) but ready to be exposed to a wider audience.

The Kansas City Filmmakers Jubilee, which Fred Andews organized in 1996 and has overseen as it expanded into an annual (and national) festival. It continues to prove that ready-and-willing filmmakers will take a layover in the Midwest between flights from the Palm Springs’ festival to Tribeca’s in New York.

Yet it is all-too-easy to continue the same path year after year. One can applaud choices while wishing for even further-out, obscure and eclectic choices; the audience does not always have to be satisfied like consumers in a Chrysler car lot.

With so much coming in, it is important to get out of the house: creative artists, much as theatre directors (the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Artistic Director Eric Rosen) and theatre owners (say, the Tivoli Cinemas’ Jerry Harrington) need to produce works which can be set apart.

Rosen’s selections for the Rep over the past two years have been big, lavish, sometimes outsize productions (such as Mary Zimmerman’s “The Arabian Nights” and “Into the Woods”)—not the usual fare, or work easily encapsulated in a “YouTube” video or viewed on an iPhone. Sometimes, with art, one just has to be there.

So if Jerry Harrington is willing to bring classic movies like “Casablanca”, “Duck Soup” and “Some Like It Hot” back to the big screen in the Tivoli’s “Movie and a Meal Weekend Matinee” series, it is the audience’s responsibility to take note. Our society is movie-centric: even when most of the usual stuff is unwatchable, much less memorable.

The Tivoli’s mission, like the Film Forum’s in New York, is to bring a little film history into the conversation. There are so many mainstream theatres pattering on with unrelenting feet—all showing the same three or four movies—that one hopes there is still interest and curiosity about movies when they mattered. Arts organizations, like creative working individuals, are only as good as their best days.

Here’s hoping artists who have been unduly neglected will get a second chance, and curators and gallery owners will lead rather than follow. It is a tough time, a terrible time, for something as essential yet as frivolous as art. But it is always a tough time when one is an artist.

The Fifties soured hundreds of men and women on tradition; out of their distaste for the same, Jack Kerouac broke through writing his novel “On the Road,” while the Alabama disc jockey Sam Phillips started his Memphis Recording Service, which included his own Sun Record label and such performers as Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. The past decade has basked in the arts in an efflorescence not seen since the Sixties, though more recently it was about money more than the work. Here’s hoping artists will work first and ask (money) questions later.

At the same time, the audiences for the arts in Kansas City must lead in their own ways, rather than be content to follow. Too many of the “First Friday” crowds have become the aesthetic equivalent of Chiefs’ fans tailgating before a game. The mingling is great; the art, though, has been lost in the crowd.

One Crossroads District gallery person said they would like to close on First Fridays given the mess and the Times-Square-like foot traffic to nowhere, but it would give out the wrong message. It is the same as talking during a movie or texting during a meal; the audience has become the art.

A New Year always looks good: one can anticipate exhibitions at the Nelson-Atkins, for example, particularly its reworked Egyptian Art Wing; expect surprises from the Harriman-Jewell musical series; and Robert Stewart’s effort in undertaking the continuing Midwest Poets Series at Rockhurst University; and good works provided by The Writers Place.

Art in Kansas City is never snowed under. It only takes effort to find what one is looking for—or isn’t.

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