Renée Fleming walks on stage and shares confidentially that when she isn’t jetting to the glamorous capitals of the opera world or singing the great soprano roles on stage, she is making tracks to attend a show or concert then adds, “ Because it’s what I do. There is no real separation between the work that I do and me [the person who supports and connects to the arts community] because it is what feeds me. I love the arts!” And then she flashed that radiant smile. “Don’t you?” And I think I wasn’t alone wanting to jump to my feet and cry, “Yes!” and “Brava!” And, well, that’s the kind of day it was.
Monday, April 25th, represented the third annual Arts Summit hosted by the Kennedy Center and co-hosted this year by Renée Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma. In its first year, the Summit gathered a lot of heavy hitters from some of the biggest presenting institutions in the country and Europe. The thrust of that gathering was to talk about the new economics of arts presenting and how to meet the challenge of sustainability.
Tuesday was altogether a different kind of event. Firstly, young artists and students were well represented. I spoke with local high school students from Duke Ellington, performance and arts management majors from Shenandoah, and university faculty from across the country and as well as Canada.
The Arts Summit also focused on understanding and activating “Citizenship Artists.” The day was also spent reflecting on the ideals of President John F. Kennedy, to whom the Kennedy Center (KC) was built as a fitting tribute. As Chairman of KC Board, David M. Rubenstein shared his own personal, witty yet emotional tribute – surely, he said, Kennedy’s greatest legacy was how he inspired people. Kennedy’s ideals – innovation, creativity, exploration, freedom, courage, justice, service, and gratitude – might help us all define useful qualities for the kind of leadership we need or want to be as “Citizenship Artists.”
A surprise for me was that Trump (and the political, social, moral, and economic ramifications for the arts of his bid for President) was hardly mentioned. This was ultimately refreshing in this season of blow-by-blow political body counts and hysterical responses to the “low bar” we have reached in political debate. But at first I wondered if this wasn’t a little “cumbaya” naïve and disingenuous. Everyone gathered was a person who already believed arts and community-work should be indissoluble. Was this event going to be aimed at preaching to the choir?
I wondered also if well, frankly, already under-paid artists weren’t being asked again to step up and shoulder even more volunteerism. (There is so much going on, including cut-rate ticket pricing, that has the unfortunate consequence of devaluing the arts and artists by “training” people to get arts free.) The truth is, it takes both artists supporting community with their efforts and community supporting artists to “make the duck quack.”
The tone throughout this forum was clearly aimed at uplifting through inspiration. The focus remained on how to establish a grass roots movement of artistic collaboration and collaboration between the Humanities and Science/Medicine that was in service to the larger community. The challenge was signaled for artists and others to step up and build both capacity and leadership for change from the bottom up. This was all about how many together can transform how the arts are viewed and integrated into the very fabric of our thinking and living in community. By the end of the day there was going to be a very purposeful call to action, and some steps for accountability were already being laid.
Yo-Yo Ma set the stage wanting us to frame the conversation by coming to the intersection of arts and sciences. He identified for us what he deems is our greatest need: to nurture in ourselves but also in our community both empathetic and critical thinking.
With this in mind, the speakers throughout the day were not your usual suspects for an arts talk. Nonetheless, it was an inspired list of guests who served on panels and shared how each in their own way were both talking the talk and walking the walk.
Alice Waters, famous chef, restaurateur, and author of cookbooks that revolutionized the way our nation might talk and think about food, has now taken her ideas into the classroom, from her work with the Edible Schoolyard Project to building curriculum around food as a means to greater social justice. “The destiny of nations depends on how we nourish ourselves.” And of course this was a clarion call not only about eschewing the values of fast food but also about how and what in the arts we feed ourselves and our children.
Vice Admiral Vivek H. Murphy is the current US Surgeon General. His work goes well beyond “allowing in” alternative therapies in the healing of patients to transforming the whole dualistic teaching between science and humanities. He sees the work is to break down the walls between the arts and the conservative, conformist disciplines of medicine and science. He sees not only the value of arts as a modality of healing but that teaching the arts help make better doctors and a healthcare industry, and thus a healthier community.
Dr. Brian Greene, an award winning string theorist physicist, continues to do ground breaking work in presenting complex theories through the power of stories. He has applied his ideas by teaching science through performance, such as the ones he has done with composer Phillip Glass. “Art,” he said, “has the ability of being able to bring people along to a place where they don’t normally inhabit.”
Dr. Francis S Collins, Director of NIH, and Iva Fattorini, Chair of the Cleveland Arts and Medicine Institute work inside these esteemed medical institutions to transform space and the patients’ experience. The idea that Dr. Collins takes time out of his schedule a few times a week for his turn to play the piano for the patients tickled me, and clearly it serves both him and the seriously ill patients at NIH, who are there because the medical known “cures” and protocols have thus far been unable to provide them with good outcomes.
There were many others who spoke, including mentor artist citizens such as Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Carrie Mae Weems, Sonia Manzano, David Eggers, and Damian Woetzel.
It was significant that the central event of the day was the announcement of the Citizen Artists Fellows. Deborah Rutter, President of the Kennedy Center, has launched this program, bringing nine young artists of exceptional vision and talent who are specifically utilizing their art forms to make some positive impact in their communities. Aquil Charlton, Camille Zamora, Monica Yunus, CJay Philip, Davida Ingram, Gina Reichert, Gregg Mozgala, Paige Hernandez, and Yoko K. Sen, all awardees of this honor, led small focus groups in the afternoon, which was just the first way their works would be showcased in the coming year through this program.
After lunch I attended a panel led by Yoko K. Sen. This softspoken local DC composer and electronic music collaborator, originally came from Japan, is certainly stirring things up in our community as she did this afternoon. She got the participants engaged immediately not only in making music together – collaborating – but in creating thoughtful inner conversations. She asks us, “What are the last sounds we want to hear? How do we communicate, and isn’t this at least as important as what we communicate?” Working with such organizations as John Hopkins at Sibley Hospital, she is currently investigating and transforming the scary and assaulting sounds frequently associated with hospital rooms by creating patient choice in modulating these sounds into pleasing ”soundscapes” through a special program that will be available in patients’ rooms. She asks us to imagine and work towards a world where in one hundred years “everything works out, what would it look like and sound like?”
It was a heady day of thought provoking discussions. But as if proof of the day’s “pudding,” what grabbed our hearts the most was when the artists took to the stage and performed. Charles “Lil Buck” Riley jammed with a couple of musicians from the Silk Road Ensemble and gave us some exquisite dance moves from his wildly popular “jookin” style. Yo-Yo Ma brought the whole Silk Road Ensemble on stage, and they performed together, proving a more peaceable world community could be forged by sharing music. Finally, to cap this fullest of days, at the reception following the days’ events, by this time it felt like “Yo-Yo and Renée” stepped up and treated us to a little intimate rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Happy Bluebirds flew out of the Kennedy Center that evening.
But we went away having had out pictures snapped, each holding our own written commitment to living our lives as Citizen Artists from this day forward. I’d like to engage you on your thoughts about this and how your life “serves.”