American Sabbatical 008: 9/5/96


Our target was Cleveland, where I had an appointment with a gallery owner, so we struck out for the big lakeshore again. We dodged on and off the highroads to make time, and ease the jangle, by turns. Urban life is about specialized haste, and we had our first deadline to chase, but hiways give you tunnel-vision and we are out to see America, so we zigged and zagged. Perhaps it was emblematic that we encountered a flock of wild turkeys crossing the old lake road somewhere in Western Pennsylvania. We’ve passed from red-tailed hawks in the high country to turkeys. Is that the American story?

Cleveland was a surprise. Expecting a centralized metropolis thundering with industry at a place where Allegheny coal and Mesabi iron met, we discovered instead a sprawling burb with an easy manner and a walking gait. It looks as if urban renewal took out every other house, or there was a close encounter with a meteor shower in Cuyahoga country. We ended up in the heart of downtown waiting at lingering lights, amazed at the sparse traffic on foot or on wheels.. a more bucolic pace than Burlington, Vt. Maybe we missed the big Cleve.

The Owl
The gallery, it turned out, was in the arts/college district on Murray Hill. Another esthetic enclave, but much more gritty real than Chautauqua, a Greenwich Village kind of place. The Gallery proved full of wonderful stuff, but it made me confront the issue of presentation once again. The one sour note in the recent review of my “Procession...” show was the reviewer’s shot at the gallery’s dense displays. He thinks that an artist’s work should be shown in isolation so we can sink down into the ouvre. Lots of white space to enshrine the ART. Peggy says that salon-style presentation is much more democratic and less off-putting. There can be something for everyone, in a variety of price ranges, and the potential patron-on-the-street is more likely to wander into a shop environ than an exhibition one. It’s a tough call. My ego wants exclusive presentation so the work can have its full impact, while my political sensibility cheers for democracy. And isn’t that the rub of American individualism? Hooray for ME, and Hurrah for US. This gallery is eminently democratic, and the owner is obviously a shrewd and successful businessman So, do I want to be sold, or understood ? Fortunately I don’t have to decide until I get back in the shop and have something to show (or sell).

The Cleveland Art Museum is also gratifyingly democratic. There’s NO ADMISSION FEE. And it’s a magnificent collection and setting. Three cheers for art in Cleveland. Even the contemporary exhibition was totally accessible, without condescending airs, just like a mid-western burgher. I can see how folks could like this MiddleAmerican life.

The Pussycat

(Memo #8)

Owl's back

Topics: museums, the price of culture.

Questions: What makes a good art museum? How to do an art museum?

We left Chautauqua at the break of day and headed by highway to Cleveland. We drove around downtown and then headed out for the university-museum-hospital area. First impressions - multi-ethnic city with a lot of modern skyscrapers downtown. As you head out, however, you hit blasted areas, whole stretches of nothing. Then a few low buildings, then more wasteland. Where are the people? Where are the residential areas? Was this the 1960’s urban redevelopment? Interestingly, in some cleared places new ritzy houses are being constructed. The look of an affluent suburb, not inner city at all.

So off to the art museum. They have some neat small assistances for travelers - first you pay for parking as you enter the garage, a flat $3.50, no fishing for coins at the end of a day. We drove in and noticed a guard patrolling, which made us feel better about leaving our packed buggy. Then we went to the front entrance and ...NO ENTRANCE FEE. I realize how much this means to me. When I was a kid, the Met was free and I’d walk over and just saunter through, or visit a favorite exhibit. It’s now $4.50 to get into the Met. Oh, sure, they have one free evening a week and always say “suggested admissions”. But, when I actually tried to pay a reduced admission, I got treated like a criminal. The worst was the Shelburne Museum, Vermont ($15 entry), which they rationalize as providing entrance to tens of sites, true but.....

Art will be elitist unless admission prices are kept down. How on earth can a bluecollar worker take four kids to the museum? Of course, museums have huge costs, but...... Are they all necessary? Nice labels can be made by computers. How nice not to pay.

I could get into the whole government assistance for the arts and the hatchet job being done on the MEA - maybe we want another form of funding, but we need to support artists and are really stingy when compared to many countries. How do we make art accessible to the masses?????

and the cat's

How to do an art museum? You need days, weeks, years. We only had hours. Also you just get saturated, there is only so much you can take in. I figure I’m good for maybe two hours max. We know we can’t do it all, so we look at the map and choose. We decided (naturally) on American art and impressionism. Up to level 3 and immediately into contemporary art. Great. The museum somehow is a warm and friendly institution. I thought the galleries seemed small and intimate, but really they are thirty to forty feet wide. Are the ceilings lower? Is it the lighting? Whatever. A very nice museum with a good example by every major painter or so it seemed. As always, I was stunned by the American federal portraitists, great Stuarts and Copleys and Wests. A fabulous Church and a Cole and others of the Hudson River School. The Church had a sunset with a band of vivid green on the horizon (exactly, I thought, what we had seen in the Adirondacks). Wonderful impressionist works - Monet and Renoir and Degas and Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh and Gauguin and Cezanne. Also a find for me was a Dutch impressionist named Breitman who had a marvelous streetscene of men tearing down an Amsterdam site.

We spent a bit of time in the Roman room, realized we’d want to return. Nice.

9/5 (continued).. Ann Arbor.

Then we got back into the traffic and remembered why cities are unlivable. It was leg-it or lose it .. our mental balance, that is. We had intended to stroll around Ohio. I had a long list of historic sites and places I wanted to see, and we had a kind invite from friends in Columbus to use them as a base, but we had conflicting desires. We hadn’t seen our nephew Josh since his wedding (he and Laura are in Chicago), and when we called ahead we discovered that he was taking off for Calgary on Monday. That, coupled with our ambition to get into the Rockies before the snow gets too deep, sent us out onto the interstate, spinning wheels west. It’s funny how a journey like this goes by fits and starts. Lollygagging along an historic pathway one day, and sprinting to some urban deadline the next.

You lose sense of the landscape at 70 mph, and your fellow travelers are more isolated and aggressive. The sideroads of America are more courteous and humane. Out on I-90 its all barreling juggernauts and bared incisors. We growled around Toledo in the humid 90’s, and pointed her north for Ann Arbor and Tom and Linda’s refuge.

Willy, our navy buddy, introduced us to Tom, the squeeze-box man, sometime in our post-naval life, and we’ve made noise together on ritual occasions ever since. The last time we saw Linda, however, she was a super-chic fashion fabric hustler in Manhattan, and they lived in the world’s smallest apartment. Now they live down the end of a dirt road, off a dirt road, behind a corn field, in rural Michigan. And they are a threesome. Chelsea, now nine, is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. She is a comic storyteller who thinks the heights of Western culture are Dilbert and Garrison Keillor. The world is just more silly and wonderful when she’s around. Yea Chelsea! Tom is a software salesman, and coached me further along this nerdway, while Linda is 100% homemaker, and their house in the meadow feels like one. We unwound so much it was hard to put our pants on in the morning.

Starlight Cafe
They live on the outskirts of Ann Arbor, and we cruised that college town with them. University cities (and it is a city) have an electric taste. Like you just stuck your tongue into a wall socket. Maybe that explains the hairdos. And the characters look the same -- always. The dissipated undergrad, the leering prof, the self-conscious young Turk, the lost young thing, the spandex, the bodypiercing, the black clothes -- and the hard eyes of the parasitical hustlers. Ah innocence. Ann Arbor has all the amenities, and we stocked up on gouache and brie and olive bread, and browsed Borders. Went to that shrine of 70’s culture: the Fleetwood Diner. And it was good (to look at, I wouldn’t dare eat there).

We also took a tour of the rural turf Tom and Linda and Chelsea have adopted as home. Dexter is a real town right on the edge of the industrial sprawl (we passed the Portapotty factory on our way to and fro). The old railway station is now home of the model RR club, with a big layout. Tom has reacquired his childhood Lionels, filled his basement with platforms, and is an underground railroad man. Did you know that Neil Young designed the remote controls that today’s model RR buffs use? WOOWOO.

This Michigan homeland is a balancing act between thundering industrial corridors and exurban nests. Rows of corn and automobiles. Tailgating drivers and smalltown conviviality. There’s also a touch of embattled ambiance this season. The fields are full of Lime disease, the woods are full of hunters, everything is fenced and posted. Maybe it was the automotive revolution, the fact that cars and hiways were born and bred in Michigan, that resulted in this scizzo feel. Like city streets laid in a grid across farmland. You can have both worlds here, but they seem to butt heads on the corner of sideroad and interstate.

Spollen turf (Peggy)

Got up our last morning and went for a bike ride along the dirt, through corridors of big maples and past soy and corn. A humid sun rising up through a yellow mist, and two deer in the breakfast soy watching this peculiar bird of passage.

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