One year after: Waking up to the slow thaw

ArtsWatch Weekly: A year into shutdown, signs of revival: Stimulus aid for the arts, museums reopening, a theater with an audience of 1 to 5

A YEAR AGO TODAY I PARKED MY CAR IN FRONT OF MY HOUSE, tossed the key in a drawer, and began to shelter in. Suddenly I was home (if not, thank goodness, home alone), away from the concerts, theater and dance performances, museum visits, coffee-shop conversations with artists and writers, and other rounds that had made up my peregrinations around Portland and the Pacific Northwest going back deep into the previous century. The day before, I’d been at the Portland Art Museum, walking with curator Dawson Carr through Volcano!, the big exhibition of artworks relating to the 1980 eruptions of Mount St. Helens. Scant days later, the museum shut down. As “ordinary” life began to crumble I was also putting the finishing touches on an essay about revivals of two retro plays I’d recently seen – Blood Brothers at Triangle Productions and The Odd Couple at Lakewood Theatre. That piece never went beyond my computer files: Both shows were quickly canceled as Covid-19 restrictions hit Oregon, and the nation, and the world, full force. 

The world had tipped upside down, and the arts & cultural world, which in the intervening twelve months has been devastated economically by shutdowns, tipped with it. Now, after more than half a million deaths in the United States (including more than 2,300 in Oregon) and more than 2.6 million globally, the world is cautiously trying to tip itself back up again. It has a long way to go. Many millions of people in the U.S., and billions globally, are awaiting inoculation, and a new wave of infections is only a few indiscretions, mask-burnings, or rogue viral variants away. But vaccines are being manufactured much more quickly and on a much bigger scale, and delivery systems are improving. Cautious hope, perhaps crossed with reckless impatience, is beginning to rise.                     

Unknown Russian artist, Icon of the Mother of God of the Sign (Platytera) with beaded riza, c. 1800–1850, tempera on wood panel and glass beads, 9” x 8”; Collection of Maryhill Museum of Art; among the featured works as the museum reopens March 15.

HOW HOPEFUL (OR RESTLESS) IS THE CULTURE BECOMING? Arts groups are making plans to open their doors and let audiences in. Everything’s contingent on continuing improvement in public health. A fresh setback could call off all bets and leave the arts world back in virtual land. But the Oregon Symphony has announced its 125th season, which if all goes well will begin in October with live performances in an acoustically enhanced Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, under the baton of a new music director, David Danzmayr. The Portland Art Museum, shut down in mid-Volcano! a year ago, is planning a two-phase reopening soon – a limited opening in many of the galleries on April 10, followed by a full-scale opening on May 5, the same day a big new exhibition on the photographer Ansel Adams is set to debut.

And for the Maryhill Museum of Art, the future is almost now: It reopens, with restrictions, next Monday, March 15. The museum – a favorite day-trip jaunt for a lot of Portlanders, a little more than a hundred miles east of town overlooking the Columbia Gorge from the Washington side of the river – is ordinarily open from mid-March through mid-November (the winter months aren’t conducive to traveling). Last year it managed to be open for part of September, October, and the first half of November. Known, among other things, for its Rodin sculptures, its historical Indigenous art, its nearby replica of Stonehenge, and its quirkily compelling collection of chess sets from around the world, it’s reopening largely with holdover special exhibits from last year: “They were just too wonderful not to carry into 2021 when so few people got to see them in 2020,” Executive Director Colleen Schafroth said via email. Among them are an intriguing-looking collection of Romanian folk clothing, a show of Orthodox icons from the permanent collection, and an exhibition of art by women in celebration of the centennial of the passage of the 19th Amendment, establishing women’s right to vote.


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STIMULATING NEWS. But, back to that punishing economic body-slam that’s flattened the nation’s arts and cultural life since shutdowns started a year ago: Help seems on the way. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan for Covid economic relief passed the Senate on Saturday and the House on Wednesday, and President Biden signed it into law on Thursday. The massive bill includes several items that will directly or indirectly aid the nation’s arts & cultural workers and organizations. Included in the package, as broken down by the Arts Action Fund of the national advocacy group Americans for the Arts:

  • An additional $1.25 billion for the Shuttered Venues Operators Grant program, which will help ease the enormous financial hit that theaters, concert halls, and other cultural spaces have taken.
  • $135 million each for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
  • $175 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
  • $200 million for the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services.
  • Allocations of $1.25 billion each for after-school programs and summer enrichment programs could include money for arts & cultural projects.
  • Grants directly to state and local governments totaling $350 billion to assist small businessesnonprofit groups, and industries such as tourism could aid arts groups.
  • Individual stimulus checks and extended unemployment payments will help the many artists and cultural workers who’ve lost work, and therefore income, in the past year.

‘Stage & Studio’ comes to ArtsWatch 

Left: Wanda Walden, the talented costume designer, whose “Stage & Studio” conversation with Dmae Roberts debuts on ArtsWatch. Photo: Don Lewis. Right: PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s 2016 production of  Langston Hughes’s “Black Nativity,” with costumes by Walden. Photo courtesy PassinArt.


WANDA WALDEN ON STAGE & STUDIO. Good news: We’re truly pleased to welcome Dmae Roberts, the playwright, memoirist, performer, and Peabody Award-winning broadcast journalist, who’ll be bringing her terrific podcast “Stage & Studio” to ArtsWatch every other week. In 23 years of producing “Stage & Sound,” Roberts has recorded insightful conversations with more than a thousand of the theater and dance artists, musicians, writers, and other people who help define Oregon’s cultural life. More good news: Roberts’ first interview in partnership with ArtsWatch is with the superb costume designer Wanda Walden, whose work has distinguished stages from PassinArt to Portland Playhouse to Profile Theatre to Artists Rep and beyond. Listen in on the conversation!



If you destroy the real, is the copy the real real?

Still image from Nyan Cat,” GIF (2011). Sold in NFT (non-fungible token) form for $560,000

THE VALUE OF ART: CATS, CRYPTOART, AND MORONS. A group of investors just burned a Banksy screenprint in order to increase the value of the digital version of the same image. Why? And what does this mean for art? Jennifer Rabin’s smart and timely essay looks at what happens when the worlds of technocurrency, blockchain, and the recently invented digital embed called an NFT, or “non-fungible token,” collide with the world of financial art speculation. The theory behind burning the Banksy print – titled Morons – and others, such as Nyan Cat (above), is that, with the original destroyed, all of the value transfers to the virtual NFT version and the high roller who has it neatly tucked away. Rabin: “The only way to imbue the NFT with worth is to take it from something else, which is a lot like someone claiming they got taller because the person standing next to them fell down. In this case, the only way to create perceived value is to destroy real value. And by doing so, it creates a reality in which real value is immaterial. Think about that for a second.”



The art of learning: a school museum; art & tech

Portland Black Panthers Percy Hampton (L top) and Kent Ford (seated center) pose with the Afro Contemporary Art Class during their reenactment of the Black Panther Breakfast Program, part of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art, in February 2020.


OREGON IS REOPENING ITS PUBLIC SCHOOLS, a controversial decision that  has teachers, parents, politicians, administrators, and students themselves at odds with one another. Is it essential for students’ well-being? Or is it needlessly putting people in harm’s way and courting a fresh coronavirus outbreak? Whether or not the schools are physically open, learning is learning, and it’s happening in a lot of ways. In our continuing series “The Art of Learning,” ArtsWatch took a look this week at a couple of ways it’s being done:

  • KSMoCA ADAPTS TO THE PANDEMIC. Hannah Krafcik writes about the innovative Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA), a key aspect of learning at the Northeast Portland elementary school, and how it’s adapted to Covid times. “It’s not about what adults think or having some kind of prescribed product,” school Principal Jill Sage tells Krafcik. “It’s really about creating a space for kids to explore with some support, and tutelage, and just exposure, really, to different ideas.” 
     
  • SEEING THE SELF THROUGH THE GRAY RECTANGLE OF ZOOM. Lori Tobias talks with Noah Lambie, an art design and physics teacher at Taft High School in Lincoln City, about some of his “wild ideas” for keeping his students’ creative impulse flowing, even in a virtual world. Tobias quotes Lambie: “(B)y the end of this one, they were saying, ‘Whoa, those are rad.’ They were feeling good about this.” “This,” Tobias adds, is self-portraits “created from various materials, including concrete, foam, wood, and acrylic. The finished pieces, along with traditional art created by other Taft students, are the latest exhibit in the Lincoln City Cultural Center’s PJ Chessman Gallery.”



Imagine that: In a national crisis, artists put to work

Jacob Elshin (born St. Petersburg, Russia, 1892; died Seattle, 1976), “Miners at Work,” (1937-38, oil on canvas, 5 by 12 feet), collection of the City of Renton, Washington, courtesy of U.S. Postal Service. ©2019 USPS. Photo courtesy: Hallie Ford Museum of Art. “It gives some sense of how this dangerous and grueling work was done in the 1930s (shoveling coal into a mule-drawn cart with no safety equipment in sight),” David Bates writes, “but it is also romanticized.

REMEMBERING ‘FORGOTTEN STORIES’ OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION. With governmental money for the arts going mostly to organizations during the Covid-19 crisis (see those American Rescue Plan allocations above), individual artists have often been left out in the cold. Things were different during the Depression years, David Bates writes in his review of the exhibit Forgotten Stories: Northwest Public Art in the 1930s, at Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art: “President Roosevelt’s New Deal ignited a massive program of federal arts patronage amounting to more than $515 million in today’s dollars that was paid directly to artists.” The exhibit, which draws together about seventy works from public murals to prints and ceramics, reflects a sometimes hidden American heritage: “Thousands of artists immediately went to work producing paintings and sculptures for schools and universities, hospitals, post offices, and other public buildings.” Bates’s nuanced essay  talks about the accomplishments, blind spots, and cultural values and assumptions of a great national artistic undertaking.



ArtsWatch covers the waterfront (and other metaphors)

Hands on: Jade Mara Novarino and Alix Jo Ryan’s installation “Winnowing.” Image courtesy Well Well Projects / Mario Gallucci

OUR WRITERS HAVE BEEN OUT AND ABOUT in the past week, virtually and sometimes physically, scouring the cultural waterfront for interesting stories to bring home, polish up, and retell. It’s been a good haul:

HOLDING ON TO THE DEAR: JADE MARA NOVARINO AND ALIX JO RYAN. Lindsay Costello reviews the two artists’ show Winnowing at Well Well Projects, based on the ancient act of separating grain from chaff: “In essence, winnowing for Novarino and Ryan is to get at the heart of the thing, to uncover its usefulness. … Their exhibition casts a subtle, much-needed glow on the simple power of friendship, letters, natural environments, and home.” 

AND THE WINNER IS … THE McMINNVILLE SHORT FILM FESTIVAL. David Bates looks at the high points of the virtual festival, which showcased 127 films from Oregon and around the world in its ten-day run last month, and names the prize winners in a dozen categories.

A scene from Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene’s classic 1968 movie “Mandabi,” available on disc from the Criterion Collection.

STREAMERS: PIFF CONTINUED, PLUS NEW DISCOVERIES ON DISC. Home viewing: Marc Mohan checks out Portland filmmaker Alicia J. Rose’s A Kaddish for Bernie Madoff and more picks from the virtual Portland International Film Festival, and points the way to some rediscoveries worth seeking out on disc, including the Senegalese classic Mandabi.

BLACK MUSIC MATTERS, PART TWO: MULTIPLES. “I wish every composer I know would take notes from local maestro Machado Mijiga,” Matthew Neil Andews writes in Take Two of his series on the pleasures and essential cultural impact of Black music in America. “The composer-drummer-saxophonist has been cranking out music for damn near a decade, and the beautiful thing about Mijiga’s Bandcamp page is how it archives this varied musical history, from his earliest student work up to the most recent EPs. And, lucky us, we can trace that history with two of Mijiga’s original compositions: Heimdall’s Creek and Diffused Solstices.” Plus: Joe Henderson, Bobby McFerrin, Freddie Hubbard and more.

SEEKING REFUGE: ENJOY A LIVE PERFORMANCE AGAIN. You enter the space, and the theater’s all yours for your pod of up to five people. There’s a crew member, safely tucked away somewhere, running the show. There are voices, and sometimes videos, and brightly painted panels of goddesses: This is the revival of  theater in 2021. “This idea of resurrection felt particularly relevant as I sat in a theater and watched a live production for the first time in over a year,” Valarie Smith writes about experiencing Shaking the Tree’s Refuge in real time and space. “After so much Netflix, which gives us complete control over what we watch and how we watch it, it felt gratifying to surrender to the goddesses of Refuge, to hear their challenges and warnings and to be an active participant in, and a witness to, their stories. … Go, and enjoy a live experience once again.”

Communing in a theater with the goddesses at Shaking the Tree’s “Refuge.” Photo: Brian Libby


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Bob Hicks is a Senior Editor and writer at Oregon ArtsWatch. He's been writing about arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, first as arts editor and movie critic at the Oregon Journal, then for 25 years at The Oregonian as a writer and editor covering the performing, visual, and literary arts. His most recent art books include "Kazuyuki Ohtsu" (Pomegranate), "James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time" (Hallie Ford Museum of Art), and "Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora" (Pomegranate). His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Prologue, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series “Today I Am.”

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