Sunday, August 8, 2010
Arts space, the final frontier
Last week I surprised myself and wrote about "arts facilities."
Believe me, those two words make me shudder as much as they do you. They only come up in conversation accompanied by whining, complaining or a proposal that demands a great deal of money. Shaddup and sing, I want to say.
But as Home Depot understands better than most, humans are naturally restless about their spaces. They want to improve them and they are willing to expose themselves to great personal danger (nail guns! circular saws!) in their quest. Or they want an altogether new space -- the Great American Real Estate Bubble was filled to popping with this particular desire.
Theater companies and symphony orchestras and art galleries are no different. They are always looking for the perfect space, and "perfect," as we know, is always a moving target.
Portland theaters especially have been good at homesteading new spaces, even though one of the best productions I ever saw here was a "Buried Child" in the basement of a church. (The late Peter Fornara could be just about the scariest actor you can imagine.) The defunct Storefront Theatre inhabited three different space before it went belly-up in the poshest of them. Artists Rep used to be in the YWCA. Portland Center Stage left the best performing arts space in the city to a more theater-specific one in the Armory. So yes, churches, old office buildings, warehouses, meeting rooms, you name it. Eventually, just about everyone moves on or starts regular visits to Home Depot.
It's not just theater, though. Operas, symphonies, chamber groups, dance companies, museums and art galleries, art colleges, jazz bands and lecture series -- they've all moved or wanted to. Many want to move as I type these words.
I completely understand their restlessness. Space is critical for any arts group. Space determines everything from the economics of your show to the size of the ensemble to the comfort of the audience. Space bends a company or a museum to its dimensions. A company (of dancers, actors, musicians, etc.) becomes identified with its space. And at some point, those artists do not want to be confined by that particular identity. Then they change it or move on if they can.
The point of the little essay that attempted to apply a Christopher Alexander approach to the development of the city's arts spaces (see: I'm avoiding "arts facilities") wasn't to invent a mechanism to manage that development. Ideally, it's unmanageable! No, it was to change the balance.
Arts groups aren't the only ones who benefit from more and better arts space options. The public benefits, too, and should bear some of the cost, directly or indirectly. But we can also use those arts spaces to repair -- and even create out of nothing -- our neighborhood centers. In the process we can spread our cultural resources much more evenly through the city (and metro area) and provide a far larger menu of arts spaces to our artists. And I get excited when I think of the partnership possibilities -- with school and libraries and the parks department, specifically, but also with businesses that see the utility in arts spaces for them. So many of our outlying neighborhoods (Wilkes, Argay, Glenfair, Russell, just to pick the ones in Northeast Portland) need reconstitution as functioning "places," and public investment in the form of an arts center/gallery/performing space could be an important card to play.
What's beneath my consideration of arts spaces? Just this: The richer, denser and more available our local culture is, the more likely it is to respond to our particular needs. Our need for escape, our need for consolation, our need for celebration and society, for contemplation and expression, for discussion and even argument, our need to participate in deciding what we need. Alexander is all about participation and that's why I found "The Oregon Experiment" so congenial. A community that participates in the design of its spaces makes better decisions about them. And if its focus is on repair and improvement on a small and medium scale, rather than huge capital projects, participation is going to be broader and more far-reaching.
I'm not against building a large concert hall for the ballet and opera, especially if we can somehow salvage Keller Auditorium in the process. I would not be in favor of expending all of our public repair money for cultural spaces during the next 20 years in the process. If large private donors or corporate sponsors step up to this task, we should encourage them and figure out ways to help, for all kinds of good reasons.
I think there are potentially greater priorities, though -- on Southeast Foster Road, for example, where Linda Austin has developed a plan to expand the Performance Works Northwest space. Or Hollywood, where the Hollywood Theatre could use extensive remodeling. And these can be done more cheaply and more quickly, with greater positive effects on their neighborhoods, than big projects. I think we want to figure out ways to help them, too.
In any case, this is the sort of thing I think we want to talk about -- over time and fueled by necessity or a sudden inspiration. We are starting to develop pretty deep technologies and metaphysics around such ideas as "environment," "sustainability," "public process," and "urban design." I am adding "local culture" to the list and arguing that it has a direct important relationship to the others.