insights bar

Behind, Under, and Around the Scenes

There was a sudden crash in the middle of a house concert by the Sixth Floor Trio as the pedals on the grand piano hit the ground. Gasps, silence, and then an audience member, a blacksmith by trade, dived under, and thrust his hand up into the piano’s workings. As one, the audience leaned in watching him figure out the mechanics — almost as if listening to a famous cadence. When the pianist returned and tried the keyboard, there was a burst of applause — just as for any other great performance. The accident cracked open the usually tight and polished surface of the music, showing us the inner workings.

In the Art Institute of Chicago, crowds in front of Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte walk up and then back from the canvas, squinting their eyes to see how the thousands of tiny dots merge into figures and then dissolve into daubs close up. They approach and back off: turning figures to dots, dots to figures — the work of painting suddenly visible.

At the Natural History Museum at the University of Washington, the staff is packing up the collections to move to a new building. Instead of hiding the chaos of bubble wrap and straw, the staff have installed windows, creating an exhibit that reveals what it takes to pack a Mayan basket or a giant quartz crystal. The day I was there, visitors from five to eighty pressed up against the glass watching a huge stone sculpture wrapped, cradled, and lifted — perhaps experiencing the museum as theater for a first time ever.

There is a reason we speak of “works of art.” And it is not simply because of the hours practicing or the layering of paint. Behind performances or objects lie mechanisms, labor, invention, and risk — a very human wager about what will work. How different would concerts, exhibitions, libraries, and botanic gardens be — if, alongside of moments of perfection, they shared stories of working?

  • Intermission footage of a quartet arguing their way to an interpretation
  • The many steps and failures to save a rare plant
  • The investigation into whether an Old Master drawing is a forgery
Top Image: Study for “La Grande Jatte,” Bottom Image: Close up of Study for “La Grande Jatte,” Georges Seurat (Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington)


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