Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Groud Zero gets its Groove On

Well, they’ve decided on the cultural organizations that will fill the new space at Ground Zero. The winners are:
Dance: the Joyce Theater
Theater: The Signature Theater Company
Art: The Drawing Center
Misc: The “Museum of Freedom”

The response from our tastemakers has been just short of a Bronx Cheer. In the New York Times yesterday, John Rockwell wrote “the winners were picked not because anyone gave first thought to their worthiness as art, but because they represented a canny mix of institutions likely to make downtown a better place to live and do business.” While Terry Teachout (in an article entitled “Culture By Committee”) gets in a tizzy about the selected arts organizations. Teachout is bemoaning two things at once: he faults the choices for being “modest and safe--the inverse of the magnificent cultural opportunity afforded by the coming reconstruction of Ground Zero,” while also decrying the lack of Greatness amongst the (admittedly “worthy”) institutions.

I would love to offer up a contrary viewpoints (as you can read here, Teachout and I don’t see eye to eye on a few things), but I agree that there are multiple problems with the choices. First, as Teachout points out, the Museum of Freedom just sounds plain old silly. The proof will be in the proverbial pudding of course, but Museums often house the dead as a way of keeping them alive (like old paintings or the Native American culture we went out of our way to destroy) and last time I checked, Freedom is still alive, if on life support in our current epoch. Also, what are we to put in there? Art? Cultural documents? Propaganda? I anticipate a whole lot of problems when people start arguing about what “freedom” means and pointing to America’s illustrious history of crushing freedom while fighting for it simultaneously, usually dependant on the skin color, political affiliations or economic usefulness of the people involved.

As to the other three, their worthiness aside, would we really be happy with the choice of any currently existing arts organization? Many people point to City Opera, but I doubt City Opera would draw new audiences if it moved downtown. Just think about it for a second. Name one arts organization you would want housed in a new arts complex in downtown New York. I can’t think of any (although the Joyce certainly comes the closest). I really don’t mean this as an insult against the existing companies, it’s just that nothing currently around strikes me as bold or symbolic enough.

The opportunity missed was for a brand new endeavor that would charter new territory in arts presentation. What we needed for lower Manhattan was the new Harvey Lichtenstein, a man possessed of a vision for what kind of art is missing from the New York scene. What we needed, in other words, was a new BAM, not something exactly like BAM, but rather something with comparable scene-changing long term vision.

My idea: a space dedicated to cultural communication from all over the globe. (don’t laugh, read me out, here) The new space would import acts from all over the world (including the world within the United States but outside of New York City). BAM, the Kitchen and PS 122 have pioneered new frontiers in the arts, but having a well-funded network of various-sized spaces that could bring us lower profile, smaller budget work we would never see on these three stages would do an immense service to the New York arts community. Also, they could keep their ticket prices in the range of affordability, something that BAM (bless their hearts) are really unable to do at this point.

The space would also be founded with a second mandate of exporting American Culture oversees. Many truly excellent theater, dance and music companies simply don’t (and may never) have the budget to export their work. Trisha Brown and Richard Foreman tour their work around the globe all the time. Why not export Elevator Repair Service or Tiffany Mills while we’re at it?

One of the great breakdowns that 9/11 exposed was the breakdown in communication. We scream at each other all the time instead of talking with. We try to dominate instead of trying to understand. We look away from what is possible and instead work towards what is immediately gratifying. A new cultural center could work very actively against this, bringing smaller work from all over the globe here to New York, and exporting our wonderful shows overseas.

Of course, that would be a much bigger risk and probably cost a lot more money. Clearly, both of these things would have caused it to be DOA on the committee’s desk.

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