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On Our Minds: Holiday Edition 2018

Season’s greetings from all of us at WolfBrown! Once again, we asked the WolfBrown team to reflect on a particularly memorable cultural experience from the last year to share with our readers. From experiencing the arts as a parent, to exhibits that spark reflection on the role of artists in society, you’ll find just a few of the experiences that stood out in this holiday issue.  

Happy holidays, and best wishes for a wonderful 2019!


John Carnwath

The World of Charles and Ray Eames

In this particular phase of life-as the father of a five-year-old and a two-year-old-I rarely experience art as a personal one-on-one encounter. Instead, I usually have a double or even triple consciousness: I’m experiencing the work through the eyes of my children, I’m experiencing it as a parent (that is, with an eye towards what’s good for my children), and I’m engaging with it myself. One exhibit that managed to simultaneously satisfy all three of those perspectives is the special exhibition on the designers Charles and Ray Eames at the Oakland Museum of California. In part, this is due to the nature of the Eames’s work, which capitalizes on our natural curiosity and playfulness, and often invites us to view familiar things in a new light. The exhibit includes interactive “games” (kaleidoscopes; stackable, patterned playing cards; spinning tops that are big enough to sit in), which are not merely kid-friendly, extraneous add-ons. The “games” are part of the Eames’s body of work, and also open a window into their creative process. More than providing a means of distracting the children, while parents catch a few fleeting glimpses of the exhibit, watching my boys’ playful exploration added to my experience of the Eames’s design work.  In terms of family-friendly arts experiences, this was a win-win-win in my book.

Jane Culbert

Sharing a New Song

Sharing a New Song in concert with Imilongi KaNtu Choral Society and Boston City Singers

I have the good fortune to sing with a chorus called Sharing A New Song, whose mission is to build bridges across our common human heritage, transcending barriers, and making cross cultural connections through our love of choral singing. The mission came to life as we recently hosted an amazing chorus from Soweto, South Africa, the Imilongi KaNtu Choral Society. We shared the stage with Imilongi and the Boston City Singers, a talented group of high school singers. What made this event so very, very special, in this time of rancor and unfriendly political discourse, was the crowded diversity of the stage and the feeling of unity when we all sang together. And the (sold out) audience responded enthusiastically! My husband and I were lucky enough to host two of the men for several days. As we got to know each other, we talked about music (of course), families, cultural difference, the weather, squirrels (they loved them!), and of course politics and history. Oupa and Thami have sung with the choir since it started in 1988 before the end of Apartheid.  They have sung for Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. And they sat at our kitchen table eating scrambled eggs, laughing at the squirrels, and, of course, singing songs. It was an amazing time and certainly one of the cultural highlights of the year for me. The power of music to open hearts and minds is astounding.


Dr. Thomas Wolf

The Great Farinelli(s)

How should directors of stage productions go about casting for individuals who need to excel in more than one performance skill? In Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” for example, the tenor is supposed to be able to play a flute. Most of the time, he pantomimes while the orchestra flutist plays from the pit or off stage. To me, it is an entirely unsatisfactory solution.

Recently I saw a production of Farinelli and the King, a magnificent play about King Philip V of Spain who suffers from mental troubles. His wife Isabella wonders whether the famous castrato Farinelli’s inspiring and soothing singing might help her husband. The King and singer are introduced and the ensuing play is a mix of dialogue and beautiful singing. The role of Farinelli obviously requires an extraordinary singer. But it also requires a great actor. And both aspects are demanding. How does one address this challenge without making artistic compromises?

When I first learned the answer, I was disappointed.  How could it work to use two people?  Then I saw the play and was blown away.  During the many musical sections, two people are on stage at the same time.  Dressed identically and looking alike with mannerisms that parallel one another, this seemingly odd solution works brilliantly.  No compromises! Two absolutely compelling performances that magically meld into one.


Alan Brown

Opera MODO

One of the joys of relocating to Detroit just over a year ago has been re-discovering the area’s cultural gems – the tall trees in the ecosystem – and also discovering the new and unexpected flora and fauna. Opera MODO is a fantastic new company of young singers doing daring, small-scale work in unexpected places. The company’s inventive production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola was a highlight of 2018. Staged in a private home for an audience of about 100 people, the action (and the audience) moved from room to room with each act. An updated libretto made the age-old story fresh and relevant, and the young singers navigated the difficult score with agility. The experience underscored what I see in my research as a surge of public interest in immersive, installation art of all kinds – audiences dressing up in costume, playing out a fantasy, black box spaces and galleries converted into thematic, interactive environments, audiences traveling to out-of-the-way places to experience art in unusual settings – and relishing the disruption of conventional artist/audience interactions. Here’s to another year of exquisite disruption.


Joe Kluger

The Power of Art

I was inspired by a wide range of arts events this past year, including Sarah Rothenberg’s multi-faceted A Proust Sonata at the Alliance Francaise in New York, a triple-bill by contemporary ballet company BalletX, and a “not-your-typical-high-school-production” revival of Oklahama! at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The opening of Leonard Bernstein: The Power of Music, a centennial birthday exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History about this iconic musician’s commitments to his faith and social activism, prompted me to ponder, however, what role artists should play in these unusually turbulent times.

Whether conducting for Israeli troops in the desert in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, supporting the due process rights of the Black Panthers or celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall, using the power of the bully podium to wave his baton at injustice was a leitmotif throughout Bernstein’s life. While there are examples of arts groups today, such as West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Intercultural Journeys, and ARTolernace, whose missions are to use art as a catalyst for bridging cultures to find common ground, my perception is that most of the “arts industrial complex” is devoted to activities on a spectrum that ranges from art that challenges us to think differently about the world we live in to entertainment that provides an escape from that reality.

In the face of increasing political divisiveness and widening income inequality that I believe is a threat to global stability, is it enough just to create thought-provoking art that stimulates discussion or to speak out personally to encourage others to act?  Or, do all of us in the arts have a responsibility to take more assertive action on and off stage to effect more directly the societal changes we seek and Make Our Garden Grow?


Victoria Plettner Saunders

Once in the Theatre

My husband and I spent a week in New York City in September. It is actually not the best time to be there as it is right in between seasons. So, I asked a theatre colleague what she would recommend we see and she said that if we saw one thing it should be “Once on This Island”.

We bought our tickets at the TKTS booth where the attendant at the window said the theatre only gave TKTS tickets for the first three rows. UGH. I thought. I hate front row seats. How quickly displeasure can turn to gratitude.

Broadway’s Circle in the Square is a theatre in the round. As we found our seats, I was amused to see live chickens on the set which looked like a marketplace on a Haitian island after a hurricane. Those “odious” front row seats had our feet literally in the sand. And those chickens were three feet in front of us. The actors milled around, loudly engaging with each other and with the audience as it was slowly filling in. Someone brought in a goat. The set and the audience were fully integrated – down to the telephone pole that looked as though it had blown over in the hurricane and now broke the fourth wall – lying over a section of the seats. There was a large body of water at one end of the oblong stage through which various actors entered and exited. No one worried that the sand was getting wet. Somehow it miraculously dried in time for the beach to turn into a dance floor later in the musical. As I sat there waiting for the rest of the performance to start I texted my colleague saying “I haven’t heard a line yet and already I love it.”

This performance will stay with me forever for many reasons. First, the extremely close proximity of the audience to the stage meant that we felt every vibration of their powerful voices and unbridled dance moves. We were fully immersed – taste was the only sense untouched. Everyone in the house shared the closeness because of the peripheral seating – a proscenium stage could never provide the same experience. Which leads me to the second thought – the arts consultant in me couldn’t help but note that this production did so many things right to give the audience something different – something almost tangible to experience. We often talk about how to engage new audiences. How to bring theatre alive for a younger generation. This was one of the best examples I’ve seen yet of using every opportunity to truly connect with the viewer to create a memorable experience.


Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf

The Architecture of Public Value

It’s gray and raining in Lower Manhattan. I am stalking a place to work that isn’t playing

NYPL Jefferson Market Credit: Jefferson Market Library Archives

holiday music two months in advance of anybody’s festival of light. After entering and leaving three different overcrowded coffee bars, I have an old school insight: Yes! Yes! The public library – an institution founded and designed to make sustained reading, writing, and thinking possible – for anyone.

Only blocks away is the Jefferson Market branch of the NYPL, a red and garnet brick, turreted edifice with quite the credentials. It was originally a courthouse, then a site for trying, sentencing and incarcerating women. (In 1927 Mae West was fined and held for her role in the Broadway production of “Sex”.) Once redistricting closed the courthouse, the building was a police academy, then a vacant and increasingly problematic eyesore. In 1959, the city decided to knock it down in favor of building a block of apartments. But the surrounding Greenwich Village community rose up (including neighboring poet, E.E. Cummings, and many other artists, actors and activists). Saved from the wrecking ball, the renovated building opened for business in 1967, its soaring former courtroom becoming a remarkable public space for joining a community of idea and invention. When the library re-opened, the architecture critic for the New York Times wrote:

The atmosphere in which literature and knowledge are dispensed is part of a cultural package. Today it is the fashion to offer a kind of statistical book-counting culture in visually illiterate surroundings. At Old Jeff there is also the literature of architecture; cut stone faces and flowers, spiral stairs, soaring stained glass windows, the feeling, form, and sensibility of another age. This too is the record of civilization.

– Ada Louise Huxtable, architecture critic, The New York Times, November 28, 1967

Huxtable was only partially right – The sensibility for public spaces didn’t die. The head

Reading Room, Mark John Smith Credit: Jefferson Market Library Archives

librarian, Frank Collieries, realized that part of the library’s history was disappearing as handwritten and printed applications, letters, and check-out records all turned digital. He turned to Brooklyn-based artist Mark John Smith and together they sifting through box after box of documents to create a vast mural for the reading room walls. Huge vertical stripes of printing and cursive and typewriter fonts record patrons’ relationship to their library:

I was inspired by the discussions.

I am out of work and cannot afford to buy the authors I love to read, but the library…

I promise not to lose another book.

I am an avid library customer.

I have sent seven letters to politicians asking them to…(make all buildings this beautiful, responsive, and tranquil)

The signatures on those documents are a roll call of who came to the city and its public opportunities: Lianna, Raffi, Theresa.  The handwriting documents the life-long desire to be able to find out – from shakey first-grade printing to the embroidery-like cursive of seniors who grew up when handwriting was a school subject. The room and its murals are a stunning record of how a city, its corps of civic workers, and its artists are the ears and eyes that see, hear, and answer those hopes.


Alan Kline

Knight Rise, James Turrell

My colleague, Megan Friel, piqued my interest in James Turrell’s exploration of isolation as a means to reframe how we see the world. So, passing through Arizona in January, I stopped at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art to see one of his skyspaces. Knight Rise is an outdoor room with benches and an oculus in the ceiling through which to view the colors and changes of the sky in a new light.

Unfortunately, I entered after dark. As I sat in the dimly lit room disappointed at having mitigated a potentially profound artistic experience, a feather, no larger than an inch, appeared in the opening. Slowly and irresolutely, the feather fell and my mind was entranced by the small spectacle I never would have otherwise noticed. I realized I had seen the world anew after all. It served as a powerful reminder that art is only shaped by the artist and the actual experience is unique for each attendee. I have since seen two more of Turrell’s skyspaces during the day, but this affirmation of the personalization of the artistic experience resonated and gave perspective on many of my experiences since.


Dr. Steven Holochwost

Summer Arts & Learning Academy

My most memorable arts experience of the past year is not of a concert hall or museum, but rather of a public school in Baltimore. It is a school that anyone who attended public school would recognize: well-kept, but institutional, cinder blocks and fluorescent lighting. And yet, in the space of a few short weeks the school had been transformed into a gallery for the artwork of young students, which now festooned the walls and hung from the ceiling panels.

This school was one of the sites for the Summer Arts & Learning Academy (SALA), a program run by Young Audiences / Arts for Learning of Maryland in partnership with the Baltimore City Public Schools. Students in SALA spend five weeks in an all-day program in which they receive arts-integrated academic instruction and participate in arts- and STEM-oriented electives. It is a program that fulfills the vision, now forty years old, of what schools of the 21st century should look like: schools that educate and enrich students beyond the confines of a school year designed to accommodate an agrarian age that is long past. As I observed the program, I often found myself thinking as a parent rather than as an evaluator, and my thought was “I wish my kids could come here.”


Megan Friel

Andy Warhol-From A To B and Back Again

On a recent trip to New York, I went to the Whitney Museum of American Art’s expertly curated Andy Warhol retrospective. The retrospective took a comprehensive view of Warhol’s work, allowing visitors to see him intimately, and perhaps, to see themselves in his timeless capture of America. While the opportunity to view his evolution and creative development was memorable enough, what made the exhibit stand out for me, was the way that it transported me back to a much earlier museum experience. I was drawn back to a Warhol retrospective I had attended 15 years ago with my father at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. Early in my arts education, I remember being fascinated by the work and so excited by the scale of the retrospective. I can recall returning home from the exhibit and checking out books on Pop Art from the library for a school paper inspired by the experience.

As I walked through the exhibit, memories continued to surface. I noticed the rolls of colorful Mylar stacked and suspended in plexi-glass and I thought of Warhol’s production process and use of silkscreen. I recalled the way my aunt, a printer at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, supported my interests in Pop Art, teaching me the silkscreen process on a trip to visit her. I remembered being in her studio, the smell of the paint, the heat of summer, and the buzz of a workshop of busy artists. In this exhibit, I ultimately found a Warhol retrospective and the opportunity to reflect on my own initiation into the arts.


These were just some of the many artistic highlights of the year for us. We look forward to creating many more memories with you in 2019!

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One Response to On Our Minds: Holiday Edition 2018

  1. Shelly Dorfman says:

    I look forward every month to reading On Our Minds. I especially enjoyed and was stimulated by reading Joe Kluger’s work (He’s a dear friend and he spoke of Philadelphia’s art scene so lovingly, Dennie Palmer Wolf’s article on the public library (I work with arts literacy and work with the libraries, which are unsung heroes and Dr. Steven Holochwost’s article on a Summer Arts and Learning Academy (which I do everyday with children from PreK to 3rd grade and their families. Keep up the great work and thanks so much for sharing. Wishing you all a Happy New Year

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