Monticello Road is a community arts project in Charlottesville, Virginia. Through photography and a series of public events and conversations, we explore how an art can be an essential, integral and everyday part of a healthy community.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Everything is all saturated

With the clock ticking I have a "bucket" of things to do and see before leaving.
On this day, it was Leandro Erlich's cool Swimming Pool at PS1, followed by a Solstice Celebration at Socrates.
Bucket metaphor courtesy of J-Dalt.

These last days before setting sail feel super-saturated. Each experience—a ride over the Williamsburg Bridge, a swim in the Met Pool, a drink with a friend, a trip to the health food store—feels like it could be the last of its kind. In some cases, it’s the literal truth. It is a blessing because it forces me to really pay attention, to take every interaction seriously. There’s no time for messing around.

The impending move is like a Sword of Damocles and it’s quite good really, forcing me to do—and say—the things I should have a long time ago. I too often chose to bide my time, luxuriating in the knowledge that whatever it was could always wait. Perhaps a riper moment would come along later. While each thing has its season, that can be a dangerous posture, an excuse that can be extended over and over until offerings are taken off the table, or we’re no longer in a position to accept them.

So it’s better to do things right away and not wait unless there is a very good reason.

Besides, an urgent life is richer, as I am now seeing so clearly. Small things take on a special value—an importance that is always there but too easily overlooked or taken for granted. Even my dreams have been really beautiful, rich and memorable. They make sleep an even greater pleasure than normal. Yet, when morning comes, I don’t want to miss a thing so I wake up super-alert and ready for another day and the sword that much closer. That’s how I live all the time, but the sword certainly clarifies things.

Maybe it’s not for everyone and I couldn’t always live like this but for now I like it. I am very excited about where I am going, but it also makes me happy that the place I am in makes me want to stay for one last song, one last dance, one last sunset…

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A Nation of Artists?

A recent story on NPR about a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts really grabbed my attention. Basically it said that attendance (and box office) at cultural events from museum galas to craft fairs is down across the board but participation in the arts (the act of making art) is steady or even up in the United States.

The reasons for this go deeper than the current economic troubles. It looks to be more generational in scope as the audience figures are also skewing steadily older. I hope this is part of a macro-trend away from being a nation of consumers to a nation of makers/builders. That orientation between making and consuming is a pendulum that has swung back and forth throughout history and we’ve recently seen it go so far to the right it’s nearly brought the whole machine down.

I applaud the growing desire to create home-spun, living, neighborhood-based culture just as I do the explosive flowering (pun intended) of the home gardening movement. I am convinced that as Americans take more ownership of their own cultural experience, the more we will also appreciate the excellent work of art professionals.

That takes me back to the NEA study. If younger Americans appreciate art so much, (and what better way to show appreciation than by making a go at it oneself?) why are we not choosing to fund the arts by spinning the turnstiles at mainline cultural institutions?

Americans are not like Europeans: we do not particularly trust elite institutions with the decision-making or with the guardianship of our culture. We feel (rightly or wrongly) that we know our own needs better. We have a bias for mom’s oatmeal cookies over the critically-acclaimed fare at the bakery in town. It’s not a specifically about quality though: it’s about what feels right, what feels like home, what feels fresh.

A really dynamic culture needs both oatmeal cookies and delicate souffl├ęs and while I applaud this sudden desire seize ownership of one’s own cultural landscape, the dedicated arts professionals contribute in important ways. Foremost, they (we) set a standard of excellence that no weekend painter can match owing to significant investments in education, awareness of best practices, professional-grade materials, and—most significantly—full-time attention and effort.

I envision a culture where everyone participates. Everyone sees themselves as culturally empowered, creative souls working to make all of our worlds more beautiful. At the forefront of this endeavor, professional artists light the way, inspiring the rest. That’s what a vanguard does right? But a vanguard only makes sense with an army behind it.

There’s been a lot of gloom of late about the decline in arts funding at the macro level, deflation of the Artworld bubble and justifiable questions about how that vanguard will pay its bills. The NEA study shows that from an institutional standpoint, those concerns are well justified.

But let’s don’t get too stuck on the institutions. They come and go like the tide. The real surprise of the story—the man-bites-dog part, if you will—is the real evidence that the roots are very much alive. The task before us then is to find the types of institutions and funding models that make sense in the moment we’re in to bring fruit from that healthy soil.

I have many thoughts on the subject, enough to merit a whole new thread on this blog. One idea that hit me right away was this:

I am fortunate to work with professional runners for my day job. That’s right: there are people who get paid to run. Everywhere you go, you see hobbyists running for a thousand reasons. Current science indicates that it’s a fundamental part of human biology. Kind of like art. At the front of this teeming host of runners, there is a pack of frontrunners who have dedicated their lives to what for many is a very admirable hobby, and they are making it work. There is a professional infrastructure facilitating them and the result is an inspired, healthy population chasing after them—and funding them.

Professional athletics is participant-funded, which sets it apart from other spectator-driven leagues. Sounds like there are some parallels to the cultural landscape I just described. The economics under girding professional running—race fees, subscriptions, shoe and apparel sales, corporate sponsorship, charitable foundations and development—may not be directly applicable to the arts and the model is not a perfect one but it might provide some ideas. In a future posting, I shall endeavor to investigate some parallels and glean some lessons.

For now, know this: the more people out there making art, the more excellent art we will have as a result. And the evidence looks good.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


When the sun's out, the City's grit can be beautiful. Other times it's plain ugly.

Leaving New York is going to be extremely bitter-sweet. I have no doubt that the decision was correct and I’m very excited about my new horizons (for example: being able to actually SEE the horizon!) and I know the next chapter will be great. I have been blessed with many notes from friends supporting me through the curiously difficult process of stepping away. I am very grateful.

Still, I cannot help but be wistful about the chapter that is now closing. The life we have here is simply wonderful, as if we have been somehow favored by angels or some divine force. It is somewhat counterintuitive to contemplate changing something that is working so well. We have many wonderful memories and the exact moment we’re in right now is very beautiful as well. But I know that the future-present will be very cool as well, if perhaps different.

This is not the first time we have pulled up stakes or thrown the cards in the air and they have always landed well and I’m sure they will this time too. There is something extra about leaving New York however. New York is all about potential and promise and it is easy to think that by leaving, we are throwing away some irreplaceable opportunities.

Yet that is precisely one of the things that bothers me most about New York. There is this collective mentality about this being the place to be and the idea that anyplace else is by default inferior and that the bold and ambitious can only get what they need here. The idea of Opportunity (as opposed to actual opportunities) is dangled in front of dreamers, idealists, and those who want to better their conditions like carrots before rabbits on treadmills.

I have been fortunate (and this time the angels have human faces) to have been engaged in some very meaningful pursuits and I have so far avoided going completely nuts with frustration. I got a lot more done and had more success before I came here and always I always profit enormously when I step away. I’ve never met so many unhappy people as I see when I look around the neighborhood streets and one ultimately has to ask, “Why slide backward and rarely get in the studio?”

I obviously cannot guarantee that I will be happier elsewhere but I am looking forward to not having the City at the table with me at all times, demanding constant attention and with an unquenchable voracity.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the City and I could write more than a thousand pages about its wonders and the amazing people that make it so special. I probably will do exactly that. What is more, I am not completely stepping away. In fact I will be in New York about the same amount of time in the as I will in Virginia during this next cycle. That says volumes about how much I love the place.

I foresaw this stepping-away quite some time ago and this split has always been there, which is why I started this blog. I now imagine many long bus rides where I will be blogging about how much I love the City versus how happy I am when I am away from it. It’s completely ambiguous and there will never be an answer. In absence of definitive clarity, I shall endeavor to sketch out what is in my heart from moment to moment and always keep searching.

That is what artists do.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Cast away your Earthly burdens

Sebastian has his wings unclipped and is flying high!

Finally Sebastian has his casts off. Whew…what a relief.

Between that, getting ready for a move, Meredith’s book tour, and a very sick cat that wouldn’t let us sleep at night, plus a job and an art career that don’t go on vacation, I must say that I had about all I could handle.

When life hands us a crisis, we just deal with each thing one at a time in the best we all can. That’s what I did and at the time although it was often annoying or tedious, it was always obvious that there were many out there with much more on their plate. For example, one reader wrote me a nice email of sympathy and she really knew what she was talking about: her child became paralyzed in a very similar mishap. So yeah: we’re pretty lucky.

It’s very good to be reminded of that in a way that is not permanent. After all—all the things that bothered me will soon pass or will do so very soon. Many people stepped forward and helped us out or simply offered emotional comfort and I’m hugely grateful for that as well.

I was gifted with a new understanding of what an impressive human being Sebastian is. He handled his predicament with astonish grace. I must say that before becoming a parent, I had no idea that my child could be a sort of role model is many ways. Parenthood is a two-way street in almost every way.

So you might say that Life’s dilemmas are gifts in many ways but I must say that they can also be quite exhausting. I’m quite relieved to have Sebastian back fully restored to health. Grateful for the lessons and looking forward to moving forward. Hopefully along a slightly easier path.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Atypical day of tourism

I had a cool day at work today: touring the marathon course on a bike. It didn't start so well though: only decaf in the house. Yikes!

Once I rectified the caffeine problem and waited for the rush hour blitz to relent, I took my bike to the L train, swiped my card and turned to the toll booth to ask the attendant to open the service gate.

Nobody home!

I was in a high-strung state of crankiness and all ready to start cursing the MTA, Bedford Avenue, and NYC in general when a woman on the other side of the gate opened it for me with an encouraging smile.

"Fellow biker," she said. She was holding a bike seat in her other hand.

I walked to the very end of the platform so as to minimize my impact on the fellow passengers but when the train arrived, all cars were pretty crowded. Now I felt a little ashamed because although I did far more than I'm required by riding off-peak and in the last car, I knew my bike would still annoy. When the door opened, there was plenty of room. And a lady with a loose dog. Not only was I well on the right side of right, but here was moral cover in the form of a passenger sure to be more annoying than me!

Actually, nobody was annoyed. We all got along and got on with our days.

I spent the day walking/biking six miles of the marathon course through Bay Ridge, Sunset Park and Park Slope. I talked to City officials, coffee shop customers, arts organizations, merchants, old ladies on the street, and moms on the playground. I really got a feel for the Fourth Avenue portion of the marathon and some interesting neighborhoods. It was a really fun day.

Except that I lost my camera along the way. Dang!