29 January 2015

A Confluence of Coincidences

I want to relate some coincidences that I’ve experienced in recent months.  Most of us have run into these kinds of unanticipated and serendipitous encounters from time to time.  When my family lived in Europe in the early ’60s, we were astonished at how often, when we were traveling in, say, Italy or France, we met people out on the streets whom we knew from back home.  It became a family joke, when we set out on one of these journeys, to start wondering aloud, “Who do you think we’ll meet this time?”  It seemed to happen at least once on every trip we took back then.

Once, on board a ship back to the States from Caen, France, for home leave, my folks got very chummy with a slightly older couple.  They had meals together on the voyage and met for drinks or other activities during the day.  A few days into the voyage, my father discovered that he had not only known the husband in the couple before, but that the man had been my father’s counselor at a summer camp (he’d been known then as “Uncle” Somebody-or-Other) when Dad was a preteen! 

In my freshman year of college, I joined my parents for a skiing vacation in Zermatt, Switzerland, at Christmastime.  I was about to schuß down the slope one morning when I heard someone with an American accent shout out my name.  Of course, everyone was bundled up in ski clothes, with woolen caps, turtleneck sweaters, and dark goggles, so faces were hard to recognize, but someone about 20 yards away along the same ridge—we were at the top of a popular run with a ski lodge/shop and the end of a lift right behind us, so there was a lot of activity all around—was a guy waving at me.  I had no idea who he was, but I skied over to him and he clued me in.  He was in my French class back at school in Virginia!

The truth is that I wouldn’t have known the guy even without all the ski paraphernalia and the out-of-place encounter.  I was a freshman at Washington and Lee University, and only a few months into the year, even in a small school like W&L, I hadn’t gotten to know many people outside my year (we had a “Freshman Camp” before classes started so we’d cohere into a class) or my new frat (W&L had fraternity rush the first week of school).  Because I’d been living in Germany and going to school in Geneva for two years before starting college, I was pretty fluent in French and German and tested into junior- and senior-level classes for both languages, so I didn’t know any of my upperclassmen classmates.  My French class met right after PE, which was in the gym across the campus from the classroom buildings, so I always arrived a few minutes late and slinked into a seat at the back and joined the discussion without mingling with the other students, so I really hadn’t ever actually met this guy.  (I no longer remember his name; we never became friends.  And, of course, he’d have graduated that June or the next anyway.)  I suppose he knew who I was because of the peculiarity of being a freshman in a 300-level course, and because I actually spoke (colloquial) French—which in an American school would have been rare in those days.  So, there I was, 4000 miles from campus, meeting a schoolmate for the first time.  I’d say that’s a peculiar coincidence.

Later that same year, I was on the neighboring campus of VMI, the military academy whose grounds bordered W&L’s, for some purpose I no longer recall.  A uniformed cadet called out to me across the Parade Ground as I was walking back to W&L, but I had no idea who it could be.  (It didn’t help that he used the wrong last name—but it was clear he was directing his call at me.  I guess there weren’t many people on the Parade Ground at the time.)  He turned out to be a middle school classmate from D.C. who was a Rat (first-semester cadets—check out the 1938 movie Brother Rat with Ronald Reagan, Eddie Arnold, and Jane Wyman) at VMI that year.  There was never any follow-up on this meeting—Keydets (as they’re called locally), especially first-years, have very restricted social lives, and we never got together again—but what makes this surprise encounter sort of interesting is that the Keydet’s name is Totten—Jim, I think—and he’s the grandson of Gen. George Patton.

Now for the more substantial instances.  My mother moved to a retirement residence a little over two years ago, and the community there presents many activities and entertainments across the spectrum of genres and subjects.  One is a monthly sing-along with a piano-player who bills himself as the Piano Man.  (Yes, I did ask him if he’d ever heard from Billy Joel on this, but he hasn’t.)  Mom went to one of the afternoon sessions shortly after she moved in, but I wasn’t visiting at the time, so I wasn’t with her.  As she tells it, the musician recognized her and came up to her after the gig.  He introduced himself—or re-introduced himself—and explained that he and I had known each other back before high school.  He uses the professional name Jerry Roman now, but in our childhoods, our families had been members of the same synagogue and country club when we were growing up, and we’d gone to the same summer camp for a couple of years.  We’d gone to different schools, so we didn’t have that in common in those late-1950s days, but for several years, after my parents moved from Montgomery County, Maryland, back into the District (pretty much just east across Western Avenue in that part of the area), we were close enough neighbors to walk or ride our bikes to one another’s houses.  Jerry and I weren’t so much friends as occasional playmates—I especially recall horsing around in the pool at the country club on numerous occasions.  (I expect we were about 11 or 12 at that time.)  I lost contact with Jerry; by my reckoning, I hadn’t seen him since I left Washington for boarding school in 9th grade, 53 years ago (though he insists he saw my folks sometime in the late 1960s, after they returned from overseas).  How he recognized my Mom after all that time, I’ll never figure!

Mom saw Jerry a couple of times at her residence—he plays a monthly gig there in the first week of every month—but it wasn’t until one time back in April, when I was planning a visit that Mom invited him to join us for Sunday brunch—her building sets out a helluva spread for that weekly event which is a very popular occasion for family and friends to come for a visit.  We talked through the buffet for about two hours and returned to Mom’s apartment for another hour, and the remarkable impression I had afterwards is that while Jerry and I seem to remember a lot of the same things and people—our families traveled in the same circle—we remember them all differently!  Kids we knew in common were friends of his but just acquaintances of mine, or vice versa; events he remembers directly and specifically are just tangential memories to me, things I heard about from others.  I attribute this to the fact that we weren’t schoolmates, which for elementary and middle schoolers is the center of their social lives; schul, summer camp, and the country club are ancillary, something you do on weekends or in the summertime. 

The next incident is really kind of stupid because it should have been revealed long ago, but somehow the subject never came up.  Go know, right?

My cousin Jim, who now lives nearby in Bethesda, married a woman who actually lived in my building in Manhattan.  Jim moved into Janis’s apartment and when he was working, since I was often at home days, she’d call me and suggest going to a movie.  (I even drove their first baby home from the hospital because Jim wouldn’t have been able to park.)  Of course, we remained in contact even after they moved to New Jersey because of a growing family, meeting at family gatherings like Passover and Thanksgiving as well as the occasional wedding and Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  In all that time—they married in 1979—we never compared notes about where I worked and where she went to school.

In 1987, I took a job teaching English and theater at Columbia High School in Maplewood/South Orange, one of New Jersey’s best-rated public high schools.  I only lasted a year—I was great in the theater, but awful in the classroom!  In November, Janis and Jim drove back to New Jersey for Janis’s 50th high school reunion in Summit, and I assumed that’s where she went to school.  About a week later, however, when they came by my mother’s apartment for a visit and it came up that I had taught a year at CHS, Janis announced that that was her alma mater.  (The school hadn’t been in Summit; that was just where the reunion had been held.  Janis is from South Orange, and I never knew it.)  My boss in the English department had even been one of her English teachers.  In all the years since 1987, we never discovered this coincidence!

A sidelight: one day just after that revelation, I found a collection of mementos my dad had stashed away.  He’d saved every program and flyer from a play I’d either been in or directed that he and my mom had come to—which was most of them, including school shows I directed when I taught middle school in Brooklyn and high school in Maplewood (Patricia Joudry’s Teach Me How to Cry, the fall play).  He also had the CHS student newspaper in which an interview of me appeared—the paper sent student reporters to interview all the new teachers—and Janis immediately recognized the byline: “Parnassian Role Filled” by Alissa Vradenburg in The Columbian of 22 October 1987.  (The Parnassian Society was Columbia High’s student theater club, what in most schools is called the Thespian Society.  Part of my job was to act as the Parnassians’ faculty adviser.)  The writer was the daughter of a close friend who’d been a classmate of Janis’s at CHS.  So not only do we have the base coincidence—that I taught for a year at Janis’s high school alma mater—but the twist that we didn’t know it for almost 30 years.  And then the additional coincidence that I’d been interviewed at CHS by someone Janis knows (the young woman’s now a successful entertainment lawyer in L.A.) and with whom she’s still in contact.

Now, the last coincidence:  Four years ago, I posted a collection of short reports on ROT called “Short Takes: Theater War Stories” (6 December 2010), one of which was about an amateur theater group to which I belonged when I was in the army in Berlin.  The group was called the Tempelhof American Theatre (TAT for short) because it was based at Tempelhof Air Base.  In early November, someone Googled TAT and the only hit he got was my blog article.  “It immediately dawned on” him who “Rick” is (I only use that name on ROT, no last name or full first name), and when it did, he left a Comment on the post on 19 November 2014.  

That story was about a near-disastrous performance of a play, A Hatful of Rain by Michael V. Gazzo, that we’d staged and which won the USAFE play contest in Europe in 1973.  (One of the judges was Dennis Cole.  Anybody remember him?  He was a blond, surfer-boy TV actor who never got beyond some light-weight series—the most successful of which was Felony Squad, 1966-69—and guest shots.  Hardly what you’d consider an arbiter of excellent stage work.)  We had to take the show from Berlin to Ramstein, Germany, to present it before Brig. Gen. Robert C. Thompson, Deputy Chief of Staff for engineering and services of the U.S. Air Force, Europe (USAFE), and there were several problems caused by the move, some involving the set.  The guy who recognized the anecdote, Dave, an Air Force NCO in those days, had designed and built that set!  He even filled me in on some details of the bigger story that I didn’t know (and which I’ve now appended to it as a Comment of my own, dated 4 December).  Dave and I’d been friendly enough—even though I was an Army officer and he was an Air Force non-com—that after we each got out of the service and I was at my parents’ home in D.C. and he was at his family home in Columbia, Maryland, I went over and visited with him.  That was the last time we’d had contact; it was 1974—40 years ago.  Now we’ve been exchanging e-mails and trying to catch up a little.  (Dave no longer lives in Maryland; he moved to Melbourne, Florida, after he got married and started a family.)  

These last two events happened within days of each other.  That’s a coincidence of its own, I think.

24 January 2015

'Choir Boy' (Studio Theatre, Washington, D.C.)

Once again I made the trip downtown in Washington to see a show at the Studio Theatre here.  This was the matinee performance of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy on Sunday, 11 January 2015, presented in the Studio’s 225-seat Metheny Theatre at the company’s Northwest 14th Street home in the Logan Circle neighborhood. 

Directed at Studio by Kent Gash, the founding director of the New Studio on Broadway of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, the 100-minute Choir Boy was commissioned by New York City’s Manhattan Theatre Club.  It premièred at London’s Royal Court Theatre in the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs in September 2012 and then had its U.S. début at MTC in July 2013.  McCraney’s play went on to performances at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta (September-October 2013), the Geffen Playhouse in L.A. (September-October 2014), and GableStage in Coral Gables, Florida, in January 2015; Choir Boy will be presented at Mill Valley, California’s Marin Theatre Company in June and the Guthrie Theater of Minneapolis in June and July.  The intermissionless one-act opened at Studio on 7 January and is scheduled to close on 22 February. 

McCraney was born in 1980 in Miami, where he attended the New World School of the Arts High School.  He went on to the Theatre School at DePaul University in Chicago where he got a BFA in acting.  He graduated from the Yale School of Drama’s playwriting program in 2007 with the Cole Porter Playwriting Award.  He acted with the Steppenwolf Theater Ensemble in Chicago and the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois.  McCraney’s also worked with Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Etienne of the Bouffes du Nord in Paris.  For his writing, the 34-year-old artist has received the first Paula Vogel Playwriting Award (2007), London’s Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright (2008), the New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award for The Brothers Size (2009), the Steinberg Playwright Award (2009), the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize  (2013), and the MacArthur Fellowship (the “genius” grant; 2013), among other honors.  From 2009 to 2011, McCraney was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s International Playwright in Residence; he was the Hodder Fellow at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton University in 2009 and currently holds a seven-year residency at the New Dramatist Center in New York.

Among McCraney’s other plays are The Brother/Sister Plays trilogy: The Brothers Size (Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival, New York, 2006), In The Red and Brown Water (Young Vic Theatre, London, 2008), Marcus; Or the Secret of Sweet (Public Theater, 2009); The Breach (Southern Rep Theatre, New Orleans, 2007); Wig Out! (Vineyard Theater, New York, 2008); American Trade (Hampstead Theatre, London, 2011); Head of Passes (Steppenwolf Theatre Company, Chicago, 2013).  Studio artistic director David Muse characterizes the “beating heart of” McCraney’s work as “language,”  asserting of the playwright’s prose, “On the page, it looks like verse.  To the ear, it sounds like music,” and Lauren Halvorsen, Studio’s dramaturg, writes, “His work is characterized by rich emotional landscapes and lyrical, character-driven language.”  According to Muse, McCraney’s plays focus on “the recurring theme of fitting in.  Of brotherhood and its challenges,” and Halvorsen observes that Choir Boy explores the “friction between upholding tradition and speaking your truth.” 

A coming-of-age story about responding to human differences and to bullying by multidimensional characters who’re bonded by the Gospel music they sing together and the common humanity we all share, Choir Boy, set in the present, depicts a year in the lives of a group of African-American students at the fictional Charles R. Drew Preparatory School for Boys, a historically black boarding school somewhere in the South, as they struggle with questions of identity and sexuality.  Pharus Jonathan Young is a bright, devoted, and enthusiastic Drew student.  At the end of his junior year, his pride in singing the school anthem at the graduation ceremony on the eve of the school’s 50th anniversary is marred by the anti-gay slurs hissed at him from the auditorium by one of his schoolmates, causing the young student-singer to stop in mid-performance.

Pharus doesn’t speak of his sexuality—the school is essentially in denial that homosexuality might actually exist at Drew—but as the character’s portrayed somewhat effeminately, he’s not really hiding it, either.  (Concerned about the image set by the school’s choir “lead,” Headmaster Marrow warns Pharus about “your wrist.”  The student responds disingenuously that it’s just a wrist, “a joint on my arm!”)  The action begins when he refuses to divulge the name of the boy who taunted him, insisting on behaving “as a Drew man should.”  Even under threat of expulsion, Pharus maintains that this would be a breach of the student’s honor code.

But Pharus also knows that he can exact his own private revenge.  Gospel music at Drew is a tradition nearly as old as the school itself—the play, as its title intimates, is larded with gospel singing—and that tradition is embodied in its choir, where Pharus, as Drew’s best singer, can stand out and be different without fear.  And as lead of the choir his senior year, he has the authority to decide who can and cannot sing.  At the choir’s first meeting of the new school year, after a few pointed comments from the boy he believes humiliated him, Robert “Bobby” Marrow III, nephew of the headmaster, Pharus flares into righteous mode and kicks Bobby out of the gospel group.  “Choir Boy isn’t autobiographical,” David Muse observes, “but coming from an exceptionally talented gay writer who grew up in the South, it is clearly a deeply personal work.”

I haven’t really sorted Choir Boy out yet—maybe by the end of this report I’ll have some kind of handle on it—but my initial reaction left me unimpressed.   Studio has presented three other of McCraney’s plays, The Brother/Sister Plays in 2008, 2010, and 2011, and the dramatist has a slew of awards and prizes, but I’m underwhelmed by the dramaturgy I saw here, so I’m either missing something (always a possibility) or he’s not as good as his rep.

Choir Boy’s set in the present, but contends with what I’d say is a retro issue, by now even in the black community: a gay student among the elite.  (My companions thought the play might have been set in an earlier decade to account for this attitude; the program doesn’t state the setting.)  Furthermore, I found the whole thing contrived, set up, and artificial, including, in a rare instance for Studio, the performances. There are two adults in the cast, and they’re damn near caricatures; the headmaster is almost a cartoon and I’m not sure if he’s written as one or if Marty Austin Lamar played him that way (under Kent Gash’s guidance, of course).  McCraney says of Choir Boy, “The play itself is asking us to see that all of these young men are complex, are full human beings, are, as a donor said the other night, ‘as complex as the 13.8 billion years of stardust that make us up.’”  His point, he explains, is that “the moment we look at any individual human as just simple plain what we think or have been told they are, we then stop allowing their humanity” and then Gash echoes this declaration: “There’s a line in the play: ‘We are fearfully and marvelously made.’  Well, that’s true.  And we are many things.  And the play is demanding that we reckon with that, and acknowledge it and embrace it.”  The problem I had, though, is that I didn’t actually see that on the stage. 

I also had the feeling that, first, McCraney’d written the play around the idea of using gospel music as a motif—there’s considerable singing, which doesn’t seem to have much to do with the plot or the themes—so that the music came first and the drama came second, and, further, that Gash had assembled the cast on the basis of their singing voices over their acting abilities—singers who could act, not actors who could sing.  

Now, I should confess that I’m not a fan of gospel music.  I can appreciate the vocal harmonies, but the songs themselves don’t move me.  One reason may be, of course, that they’re Christian religious songs, so I just don’t connect with them.  As little as I feel the music contributes to the drama, there’s a lot of it in Choir Boy, so I was at a distinct disadvantage from the get-go.  I’ll have to work out what any of this—the music in the play and my response or lack of response to it—means in terms of my assessment.  Again, maybe that’ll develop as I write.

The Studio’s production of Choir Boy is staged in what for all intents and purposes is an amphitheater, giving it the kind of atmosphere of an operating theater or an old-time lecture hall.  Jason Sherwood’s set is composed of a circular floor of multi-hued parquet, half-encircled by a dark-paneled wall with five open doorframes.  (In a couple of scenes, the doorways serve as shower stalls, with working spray heads in what one of my grad school teachers would call “Gee-Whizz Realism.”)  Above the doorways is a row of picture frames, but the images in them shift as the scenes change from one school space to another, and some of the wall décor changes as well.  (The pictures in the frames help establish the time as the present: I’m pretty sure, my questionable eyesight notwithstanding, that in several scenes Barak Obama is depicted.  Another set of photos seems to be a display of civil rights heroes, including Martin Luther King, Jr., and Ralph Abernathy.)  Otherwise, the only scenery that’s shifted are set pieces rolled or carried on by the actors—the beds of Pharus and his roommate’s dorm room, the benches of the choir’s practice room; many of the scenes have no other scenery than the constructed unit, as on an Elizabethan stage.  All in all, it was a perfectly serviceable set which evoked a general sense of a traditional prep school trying to hark back to the Eatons and Harrows of legend (and I went to one of those kinds of schools in this country, too) while allowing the spectators enough leeway to add our own details and specifics to make McCraney and Gash’s Drew Prep an “Everyschool” (well, okay—an “Every Prep School”).  Of course, when the boys get to singing, the little circular stage works excellently as a performance space, even if the scene is supposed to be a rehearsal or a class.  (The boys also sing in the showers at one point, putting them each in an alcove up stage, arrayed in a semi-circle like a peculiar kind of choral group.)

Dawn Chiang’s lighting and Kathleen Geldard’s costumes both add to the atmosphere of a tradition-bound institution.  The play’s dress requirements are, needless to say, restricted by the Drew uniform, a blue blazer (the group’s star ball-player wears a Drew letter jacket), chinos, white dress shirt, and orange-and-gold striped tie.  The boys’ shoes and hairdos are the only individualized aspects of their appearances, while the adults might as well be wearing uniforms, too, since they both had on suits—Headmaster Marrow’s was a three-piece, of course.  Like their behavior, individuality and non-conformity in dress is not encouraged among the boys at Drew—though Pharus is the only student whose shoes aren’t black.  He alone wears tan bucks—not showy, but they do stand out.  (Bobby wears black running shoes with blue soles—his self-assertion, I suppose.)

I still don’t know if the complaints I have with the production style are the fault of McCraney’s script or Gash’s direction, but I’ve already said I found Studio’s Choir Boy contrived and artificial.  The formality of the setting may also have encouraged the kind of brittle, almost presentational performance style the cast employed, and since I don’t know either McCraney’s other plays or the previous productions of Choir Boy, I don’t really know if that’s common to the writer’s work or this play, or if it’s a construct of this director and this cast.  Lamar’s headmaster was so bombastic and officious that I hardly believed he was a real person.  He over-enunciated his words as if the vocabulary was all new to him, a man out of his rhetorical depth even though he’d been in his post for at least three years.  Marrow’s described in the Studio casting notice as “Shrewd operator when it comes to school politics.  Man with heart who leads with tough love,” but that’s not the figure I saw Lamar project. 

The other grown-up is Mr. Pendleton, a former history master at Drew who comes out of retirement to teach a special course and oversee the choir.  Pendleton, played by Alan Wade, is white and 60 or 70 years old, but he’s supposed to be a fervent teacher with a surprising passion about the ’60s civil rights movement (he marched with King, Marrow tells the boys) which leads to one shining moment of genuine anger when the boys start tossing the label “Nigger” at one another.  But Wade’s portrayal (and/or McCraney’s writing) makes him a doddering, slightly addled old white man among the young African Americans, trying too hard and failing.  What passes for wisdom and a Socratic attempt to encourage critical, out-of-the-box thinking only sounds like pedagogical pap.  I don’t know Wade’s work (or Lamar’s, either), so I don’t know if this is his usual kind of performance, or if he’s been miscast or misdirected, but if not for that single stand-out moment, I’d have said the character was meant to be a bad comic stereotype.

McCraney was successful, at least, in differentiating the five young students, and the actors did carve out distinct characters for them.  What I can’t say, though, is that the boys were unique or exceptional figures, more than the students in any prep school drama on screen or stage.  The fact that they’re all gospel singers comes off more as an artificial distinction, like the writers and artists at the school in the movie Words and Pictures (about which I wrote on ROT on 25 July and 16 September 2014), though in that case the writing and drawing were central to the plot.  The singing in Choir Boy seems like an add-on—and a justification for the play’s title.  Given that the students were written with so little beyond stock character traits, the actors weren’t especially motivated to rise above clichéd performances.  Even Pharus’s supposed intelligence comes off in Jelani Alladin’s portrayal as adolescent pedantry rather than real smarts.  He’s no Holden Caulfield and the other students—Eric Lockley’s Junior Davis (the naïve sidekick), Jaysen Wright’s Anthony Justin “AJ” James (the open-hearted jock), Keith Antone’s Robert “Bobby” Marrow III (the angry and privileged—and homophobic—alpha male), and Jonathan Burke’s David Heard (the sensitive would-be pastor—and closeted homosexual)—fare no better.  They don’t give dishonest performances by any means, but they never rise above the expected and stereotypical.  Even the big “surprise” at the end isn’t such a surprise—one of my companions said afterwards that she saw it coming early on in the play.  If they weren’t black and gospel singers, they could be the kids in Dead Poets Society or Tea and Sympathy (how’s that for a retro reference!), and the performances don’t rise above the familiar roles McCraney seems to have written. 

The a cappella singing is superb—which is why I feel the actors were cast for their singing talent over their acting talent—even if I never saw the thematic or dramatic purpose in the gospel music.  That shower scene, which Chiang’s lighting makes looks like it’s set in a chapel, is technically marvelous: a lot of people sing in the shower, but these guys do it in five-part harmony!  (The song is “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and the musical direction for Choir Boy is by Darius Smith.)  But what’s its point?  If gospel music is supposed to have been a thematic underpinning to whatever McCraney wants to say with Choir Boy, it didn’t communicate to me.  Granted, I’m ignorant about this musical tradition, but if the lyrics are supposed to enhance the play’s ideas and points, I didn’t hear it.  There’s a whole scene devoted to a discussion of the Negro spiritual which told me a few factoids of which I wasn’t aware, but it’s part of what I described above as Pharus’s pedantry; it didn’t reveal anything about the boys, the school, or the issues with which they’re dealing.  The cast—even Headmaster Marrow takes a turn vocalizing—executed the gospel singing well, but it never elucidated the stuff of the play for me. 

I may be a minority of one in my opinion about Choir Boy.  In the Washington Post, for instance, Celia Wren declares that “‘Choir Boy’ sings a stirring tune” with gospel songs that “open further windows onto the tangled sweep of American history and civics.”  She calls the Studio production “sturdy and often powerful” that “deals with themes of major social import.”  “Gash and his team have given the work a handsome realization,” asserts Wren.  “From start to finish, this play will have you anticipating what’s next while wondering, ‘Who’s the b[a]d guy?’” asserts Washington Informer’s D. Kevin McNeir.  “If one exists at all.”

“[T]he real power of” Choir Boy, writes Doug Rule in MetroWeekly, “is in McCraney’s subtle, graceful and evocative style of storytelling” for which Gash “has corralled a strong group of young singing actors.”  Thus the play reveals “a few tear-inducing moments” as well as “plenty of gentle laughs, through clever wordplay and a few choice cultural critiques.”  “Choir Boy looks like a big hit, and it deserves to be,” declares Washington City Paper’s Chris Klimek.  In Washington Life Magazine, Chuck Conconi reports, “Kent Gash’s smooth and understated direction allows the intensity and poignancy of McCraney’s complex script” that demonstrates “the pessimistic truth that . . . tradition can uplift, but it can also constrain.”

On MD Theatre Guide, Tina Ghandchilar recommends, “If you’re in the mood to see a play filled with some hearty gospel soulful a cappella music, Choir Boy is the show to see.”  “Director Kent Gash builds a fascinating world dense with thorny intersections of race, class, and sexuality that are sometimes funny, sometimes uncomfortable,” writes Michael Poandl of DCMetroTheaterArts, staging a play that’s “about forgiveness, and to this end there are moments that are extremely moving.”  The DCMTA reviewer found the Studio production “a thought-provoking, entertaining, and cathartic experience.”  On DC Theatre Scene, Jennifer Clements insists that “if you see one show at Studio Theatre in 2015, let it be Choir Boy.”  Having been less than satisfied by McCraney’s earlier offerings at Studio, Clements, the most enthusiastic reviewer among the local web writers, pronounces that “this powerhouse of a show is the type of journey that reverberates long after you leave the theatre,” describing the play as “nothing short of kaleidoscopic” and “a reminder of the intrinsic potency of theatre.”  She declares in the end, “It parts our lips into smiles, it shatters our hearts to dust, and begs us to look more closely at our fellow man.  This daring play should be required theatregoing for anyone who believes in the transformative power of the stage.”

In the New York-based cyber press, Jennifer Perry of Broadway World finds that “a strong ensemble cast brings [Choir Boy] to life . . . in an excellent way,” writing that “McCraney's powerful, plot-driven play is engaging to say the least.  Perry characterizes McCraney’s dialogue as “like poetry ‘with a purpose,’” emphasizing that the playwright’s use of language “sets the play apart from other popular offerings that deal with similar subject matter,” though she complains that “Choir Boy treads . . . into after-school special, predictable territory.”  Of the acting, the BWW reviewer says that the cast “uses McCraney’s powerful language to establish an emotional arch worthy of attention no matter whether one identifies with the characters’ plights or not.”  On Talkin’ Broadway, Susan Berlin calls McCraney’s play with music “riveting,” even though she observes that it’s “less a propulsive story than a series of vignettes.”  In the performances, Berlin adds that director Gash “has created an ensemble of performers who work as a unit while each actor manages to maintain his individuality.”  A “taut, well-written play,” writes Barbara Mackay of TheaterMania, which “unfolds through a series of short scenes,” and in which the “most interesting thing about these five men is the way they come together when singing.”  “McCraney's writing,” observes Mackay, “is colorful and often poetic” and “Kent Gash keeps the action flowing quickly and smoothly.”  The TM review-writer concludes, “McCraney is a young playwright to watch.”

19 January 2015

The National Museum of African Art

In the Washington Post early last November, there was a review of an exhibit of a private African-American art collection.  The exhibit was at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art on the National Mall and the reviewer, Philip Kennicott, noted that the show was planned “to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what was once called the Museum of African Art.” That “independent museum on Capitol Hill,” as Kennicott later described MAA, was started by Warren Robbins, a man who had my father’s job at the U.S. Embassy in Bonn, West Germany, a few incumbents before Dad was there.  (The post had been Cultural Affairs Officer, often unofficially called the cultural attaché.  Robbins had the job from 1958 to 1960; Dad had held the post from 1965 to 1967.)  

When Robbins (1923-2008) and Dad were introduced at a party, Robbins had already bought the townhouse on A Street SE that had belonged to Frederick Douglass, a former slave who became an adviser to Pres. Abraham Lincoln.  When the property had just come on the market a few years earlier, he was afraid that the historic house, which had been Douglass’s residence from 1871 to 1877, his first home in Washington, would be developed and lost.  Robbins had family money, but at the time he bought the townhouse, he had no idea what he would do with it; he only knew he wanted to preserve it.  

That’s when the former Foreign Service Officer learned that there weren’t any museums in the U.S. that focused specifically on African art (as distinguished from African artifacts and cultural/sociological objects), so that’s what he decided to use the house for.  Robbins had been collecting African art since the 1950s when he bought one piece on impulse and he wanted to introduce this unexplored but important creative wealth to American museum-goers who heretofore had only seen African art in collections at natural history museums or museums of ethnography where the emphasis wasn’t on its aesthetics.  As Robbins points out, it was largely private collectors who played an “important role” in “the universal appreciation of Africa’s creative tradition” and “its preservation as a resource for posterity.”  (Indeed, in addition to Robbins himself, two private collectors played significant parts in the very success of the Museum of African Art: Eliot Elisofon and Gaston de Havenon, about which you’ll hear more shortly.)

When my dad came along, sometime around 1967 or ’68, having just resigned from the U.S. Information Agency, then the cultural propaganda outlet of our diplomatic service, Robbins asked him if he’d like to join up, and Dad became the unpaid Director of Development for the new Museum of African Art.  (My father wasn’t entirely inexperienced in the world of art, though he had no background in African culture.  In the late 1950s, he’d bought a part-ownership in a small modern art gallery in Washington, the Gres Gallery, which I’ve mentioned once or twice on ROT.)  Fifteen years after starting MAA, Robbins (with some input from Dad) engineered the take-over by the Smithsonian of the small, but by then prominent, museum, which had by that time expanded, with the help of a Ford Foundation grant, into the neighboring townhouses.

So, you see that I have something of a personal connection to NMAfA.  I even went to the reopening gala, after the MAA expansion was completed, in May 1971 as the escort of Muriel Humphrey (1912-98), the wife of Senator-Vice President-Senator Hubert Humphrey (1911-78), who was a member of the museum’s national council.  I was in the army, assigned to the now-decommissioned Fort Holabird in Baltimore at the time, and I wore my dress blues to the semi-formal event.  A few years later, on my mother’s 50th birthday, my father threw her a big party in the museum, the guests socializing and dining amidst the art on exhibit.  (I was unable to attend this celebration because I was stationed in West Berlin by then.  I sent Mom 50 red roses at the party in my absence.)  Therefore, I decided, on the basis of this link and the interest in African art engendered by my parents’ association with the original private Museum of African Art, to compile a brief history of what is now the National Museum of African Art. 

In 1871, the renowned abolitionist, orator, and writer Frederick Douglass (1818-95), born into slavery from which he escaped in 1838, bought his first home in Washington, D.C., at 316 A Street, S.E., on Capitol Hill.  Two years later, Douglass purchased the attached house at 318; he lived and worked in the home until 1878, when he moved to Anacostia (now the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, administered by the National Park Service), though the Douglass family maintained ownership of the property until the 1920s.  The combined houses remained in private hands until 1964, when Warren Robbins bought them and established the private Museum of African Art and opened the property to the public. 

Robbins had started collecting African art while on a trip to Hamburg, West Germany, when he was Cultural Affairs Officer in Bonn, sometime in the late 1950s.  On an impulse, he spent $15 for a wooden Yoruba statue (Nigeria) in an antique shop.  A year later, once again in Hamburg, he paid $1,000 for 32 African masks, textiles, and other objects, and thus began his association with the art of Africa.  His collection attracted attention when he returned to Washington and decorated his home with the pieces and people, sometimes complete strangers, began coming by to see them.  To accommodate the growing curiosity, Robbins, who’d as yet never been to Africa, created an informal museum in the basement of his home as a way “of improving communications between cultural and racial groups,” as he later stated his goal.

In 1963, he raised $13,000 and took out a $35,000 mortgage to buy the townhouse at 316 A Street, S.E., half of Douglass’s Capitol Hill residence.  The newly-minted museum director opened his display to the public in June 1964, establishing the first museum in the U.S. dedicated to African art.  Almost immediately, nearly 200 works were pledged at gifts or loans to the nascent museum.  For the opening, Robbins’s own art was supplemented by loans from Eliot Elisofon (1911-73), a photographer and photojournalist for Life magazine with an esteemed private collection of African art, and items borrowed from the University of Pennsylvania Museum.  The museum’s mission, the new director said, was to introduce “the cultural heritage of the Negro people, known mainly in academic circles, to the attention of the general public.”  In 1966, Robbins launched the Frederick Douglass Institute of Negro Arts and History, the museum’s educational arm, and began raising additional funds to purchase the other half of the structure.  The collection was now officially named the Museum of African Art.  In addition to never having visited the continent, the former Foreign Service Officer had also never before worked in a museum, never been involved with the arts, and never raised money.   

Included in the display of masks, sculptures, carvings, bronze and iron castings, decorative items, textiles, and ceremonial objects, MAA had a gallery devoted to musical instruments.  Recorded drums, recreating the sounds of eight different kinds of drumming—from the kind that sends messages to the kind that accompanies important ceremonies—filled the air of the museum as in a second-floor gallery could be seen a Nigerian raft zither, an Ethiopian lyre, and a leg rattle from Malawi.  Along with the weapons, household items, and masks, all the objects on exhibit at MAA were displayed to emphasize their aesthetic properties—that is, the visual beauty of their form and decoration—without overlooking their sociological and spiritual import.  As the museum itself phrased it: “Today the art of Africa takes its rightful place beside the other great art traditions of the world . . . .”  In the original museum setting (before the million-dollar reconstruction), exhibits sat on rough wood flooring surrounded by tropical plants and wall hangings were displayed against clay, ivory, terracotta, or ebony-colored backgrounds.  (This tactic was clearly a replication of the theatrical setting that Warren Robbins used in his home museum before the formal foundation of MAA, when he adorned his rooms with tropical plants to suggest the African jungle.) 

In addition to its principal exhibits, the art of the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa, MAA maintained two permanent displays that related to its origins and core mission.  One was a recreation of the study Frederick Douglass used in his home in the 1870s, furnished with genuine objects, such as his desk (a gift from Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-96, prominent abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and personal effects (including his typewriter), or period-appropriate antiques based on the original furnishings.  On the walls of the study were pages from The North Star, the anti-slavery newspaper Douglass published (1847-51); photos of Douglass in his many public activities; and examples of the many letters he wrote to prominent and important correspondents. 

Nearby was a gallery that displayed reproductions of modern Western art that showed the influence of African motifs with the African art object that inspired it, such as Paul Klee’s Senecio (1922) shown with an Ashanti fertility doll (Ghana).  Other famous European and American artists in this display included Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Alexander Calder, and several German Expressionist painters.  Even though the Western art in the gallery wasn’t original—real pieces would have made this exhibit fantastic—the gallery was a source of fascination for me, a novice in African art like most Americans and Europeans at the time, and it informed my view of modern European and American art ever after.  (I later went to an exhibit at the Phillips Collection, Man Ray, African Art and the Modernist Lens—see “Art in D.C. (Dec. ’09-Jan. ’10)” on ROT, 18 January 2010—that showed the influence of this same culture on the Euro-American photographers of the 1910s and ’20s, the era in which the cognoscenti “discovered” African art.  I’d already learned where some of the striking images of our artistic heritage had come from and approached this exhibit already a little in the know, as it were.) 

In 1967, the Ford Foundation awarded the museum a $250,000, three-year grant, to be matched with funds raised form other donors.  By this time, MAA’s holdings included 300 art objects and the grant was intended to support the Douglass Institute’s efforts to create traveling exhibits, lectures, publications, audio-visual materials, and expanded educational programs.  By 1969, the New York Times reported “increased attendance and activity” at the five-year-old museum, “with weekly figures up 33 per cent.”  In April 1970, MAA closed for a major expansion and refurbishment project which would eventually double the museum’s space.  Funded largely by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities ($1 million) and the Ford Foundation ($300,000), with smaller contributions by other donors (including $40,000 from Washington philanthropist David Lloyd Kreeger, a significant supporter of the arts in the Capital, for whom the new extension was named), the remodeling was designed to unify the combined structures added over the museum’s seven-year lifetime. 

The initial plans for the MAA didn’t include exhibits of African-American artists, though temporary shows were devoted to them.  Part of the purpose of the expansion was to afford space and financing to include black American art as an integral part of the museum’s permanent collection.  (The Smithsonian’s museum doesn’t incorporate African-American art as part of its principal mission, probably on the argument that a National Museum of African American History and Culture, officially established in 2003, is in the planning stages.) 

The museum reopened in May 1971 (with the gala that I attended with Muriel Humphrey), almost exactly seven years after it first opened its doors, featuring an exhibit of items from the magnificent private collection of Gaston de Havenon, shown in public for the first time.  (You can take my word for that apparent hyperbole: I saw it—I still have the catalogue—and was thoroughly knocked out.  If anyone still believes that African art has little aesthetic appeal and is only useful as sociological or anthropological artifacts, then you need to find a copy of this catalogue somewhere—The deHavenon Collection [Museum of African Art, 1971]—and look through it.)  Some of the most beautiful and stunning pieces of art, drawn from the cultures of West Africa, were on display; de Havenon (1904-93), an art dealer and collector, acquired some of the most sublime examples of sub-Saharan creativity I’ve seen anywhere even since that introduction. 

The art of Africa, like that of Native Americans, Australia, and other non-Western cultures, used to be called “primitive”; there even used to be a Museum of Primitive Art in New York City.  That term implied a lack of sophistication and aesthetic values, the tinkerings of childlike peoples.  The implicit insult aside, the term was just inaccurate.  One look at the objects on display at the Museum of African Art (and its successor beneath the Mall), not to mention the art museums that today have all established sections devoted to African art, will disabuse anyone of the thought that this creative work is anything less than aesthetically sophisticated and artistically refined.  The term of art today is “naïve” art, an attempt to describe its origins as untaught and traditional—which is not the same as unrefined or artless.  (This is also inaccurate, since the artists are only “untaught” in the sense that they weren’t trained in Western-style art academies or conservatories.  Traditional artists are, indeed, taught their art, but at the knees of their predecessors.  Each generation of artists is trained in the techniques and styles of its culture by those who practiced the art before.)  One glance at a Bambara antelope headdress from Mali, a BaKota reliquary figure from Gabon, or an Ashanti fertility doll from Ghana will prove that conclusively. 

This is not the place for a disquisition on African art, but a few things should be noted, as they affect the notion of an art museum devoted to its display.  First, unlike modern Western art, African art isn’t primarily decorative.  While many African cultures have extensive decorative traditions (unlike, say, the Inuit, who traveled light and had little time for or interest in decoration), almost everything Africans created was for use—if not ceremonial and religious, then practical and domestic.  The beauty of the objects, though inarguably important, is secondary to the main purpose for the object’s creation.  When we see such an art object in a museum, we’re seeing it out of context since its original intended setting is a great part of its meaning to it creators.  That, of course, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t appreciate the aesthetic appeal of the art; but we should acknowledge its greater import.  Furthermore, because African artworks are made for use, they’re never pristine and seldom very old—because most African works of art get used up over time.  (This phenomenon is furthered by the fact that African traditional art objects are created from organic materials, such as wood, grass, skins, and natural fabrics, that deteriorate in time (with the uncommon exceptions of bronze and iron sculpture).  An advantage of this artistic tradition is that work done today is very similar to that done decades and even centuries ago—but as outsiders to the cultures in which these pieces are created, we have to be very careful about the ways we look at them, understand them, and appreciate them in a museum display—not to mention how we acquire them.

By 1973, the year Robbins made his first visit to Africa, MAA included 12 exhibition galleries, an auditorium, and a library; held 5,000 objects; and had a staff of 20 (one of whom, by then, was my father).  Eventually, the museum grew to comprise adjoining buildings, ultimately including nine townhouses, 16 garages, and two carriage houses.    

(Robbins had raised money, reportedly $25,000, to buy a beaded icon called Afo-A-Kom back from a Manhattan art gallery.  The  West African Kom people considered the century-old figure sacred; it had been stolen from a hill-top village in Cameroon in 1966 and the New York Times located it at the New York gallery, where it was for sale (for a reported $60-65,000).  Robbins led a delegation to bring the statue back to its home, where he was greeted by Nsom Nggue, then fon, or king, of the Kom people, and welcomed enthusiastically by a pageant of men and women in tribal dress.)

As early as 1966, the New York Times had pronounced MAA, “a tiny but excellent” museum.  In the ensuing years, Robbins’s museum gained considerable prominence, as attested to by visits from celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali.  Washington Mayor Marion Barry (1979-91; 1995-99)—who died at 78 last 23 November—even married his third wife in the museum in 1978.)  In 1976, Robbins began a campaign to get the Smithsonian Institution to absorb the Museum of African Art.  He lobbied friends in Congress and in October 1978, the legislature voted to authorize the acquisition.  S. Dillon Ripley, Secretary of the Smithsonian, announced the take-over in August 1979; MAA was officially renamed the National Museum of African Art in 1981.  By that time, MAA owned 8,500 African sculptures, costumes, textiles, musical instruments, and jewelry; numerous books on African culture and history; early maps of Africa; educational materials; and photographs, slides, and film segments on African art, society, and environment bequeathed to the museum by world-renowned photographer Eliot Elisofon; and had an annual budget of $900,000.  Robbins became the National Museum of African Art’s first director, remaining in that position until 1983, when he became Director Emeritus and a Senior Scholar at the Smithsonian. 

(When Robbins deeded the museum, its property, and its holdings to the Smithsonian Institution in 1979, the Institution ran it for seven years.  Then, to support the construction of the new building on the Mall, the Capitol Hill property was sold in 1986.  The Capitol Hill site was purchased by the National Association for Home Care (NAHC), which operates the Caring Institute.  NAHC restored the property to the condition it was in in 1871-77 in 1990 and 1993 and opened the current Frederick Douglass Museum and Hall of Fame for Caring Americans on the property.  The museum is open to the public.)

NMAfA opened Ethiopia: The Christian Art of an African Nation in 1984, its last exhibit at the Frederick Douglass House, and in 1987, NMAfA was relocated to a new, subterranean building on the Mall behind James Renwick’s red sandstone Castle, the Smithsonian’s historic original building on Independence Avenue.  (The Arthur M. Sackler Gallery for Asian art, NMAfA’s next-door neighbor, is likewise mostly below ground.  The Sackler contains art of North Africa, as well as the Middle East and Asia.)  Congress appropriated $960,000 for the two new museums and ground was broken, with Vice Pres. George H. W. Bush officiating, on 21 June 1983.  Designed by architect  Jean Paul Carlhian of the Boston firm Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott, the four-story structure is 96% below ground, with the four-acre Enid A. Haupt Garden as its roof; only the single-story, domed entrance pavilion, 35 feet high by 90 feet long, with the admissions counter, info desk, and elevators to the exhibit floors, is at ground level.  (The Sackler’s entry is topped with pyramids.)  Based on an overall concept by Japanese architect Junzo Yoshimura, Carlhian’s $75 million, 370,000 square-foot design for the twin museums, Ripley’s last big project before his retirement in September 1984, incorporates geometric forms which are meant to provide a unity of the project to existing Smithsonian buildings: the Smithsonian Institution Building (the Castle), the Arts and Industries Building, and the Freer Gallery of Art.  According to a Smithsonian website,

The National Museum of African Art was placed adjacent to the Arts and Industries Building with circular forms derived from the semicircular arches of the Freer Gallery of Art across the way. The pink granite reflects the colors of the Smithsonian Institution Building and the Arts and Industries Building, while the gray color reflects the Freer Gallery of Art.

The NMAfA is constructed principally of red granite with a motif of circles reflected in its domed roof, round windows, curved stairways, and arched doorways.  (The Sackler, continuing the variation of a classical theme, is of grayish-tan granite and uses a diamond shape as its architectural motif.  The two museums are connected underground by a corridor or concourse that also contains offices and classrooms for various Smithsonian programs.) 

The new museum, with five times the space of MAA’s Capitol Hill home, was opened in September and that same month an anonymous donor gave NMAfA a gift of $200,000, in recognition of which the museum renamed its library the Warren M. Robbins Library, the world’s principal resource center for the research and study of the visual arts of Africa.  The new museum has 68,800 square feet of space, of which 22,000 square feet are exhibition galleries.   The main exhibition spaces are on the first and second floors below ground, with six galleries, a lecture hall, the Warren Library, the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives (containing over 350,000 items), the museum workshop, the museum store, and NMAfA admin offices.  On Sublevel 3 is another exhibition space for displays of special selections from the collection and the other Smithsonian offices and classrooms, plus the entrance to the concourse to the other buildings.  Some of the galleries are devoted to permanent displays, including the 525-object Disney-Tishman African Art Collection, a 2005 gift of unique and rare pieces from the Walt Disney World Company to NMAfA. 

Continuing installations, which rotate works from the museum’s permanent collection, span the cultures and forms of the continent below the Sahara.  Some exhibits explore a particular region, such as the lesser-known works from Sierra Leone and Liberia, the art of Benin, the pottery of Central Africa, and the archaeology of the ancient Nubian city of Kerma, as well as ceramics, small stone figures from the 15th to the 18th centuries, and the artistry of everyday objects.  NMAfA’s focus also covers contemporary art from the continent, such as Senegalese artist Ousmane Sow’s Toussaint Louverture et La Vieille Esclave (1989), a mixed-media sculpture of Haiti’s18th-century liberator.  The museum’s educational projects for both children and adults include films with contemporary perspectives on African life and storytelling programs, as well as lectures, public discussions, and musical performances.  The practical workshops, such as traditional basket-weaving, bring Africa’s oral and cultural traditions to life along with demonstrations by African and African-American artists.

By the time Warren Robbins died at 85 (of complications from a fall at his home), NMAfA held over 9,000 art objects from the continent of Africa and 30,000 books on African art, culture, and history.  As of 2009, the National Museum of African Art’s yearly budget was $6 million and its current collection, the largest public holding of contemporary African art in the United States, comprises 12,000 items.  In June, NMAfA marked its 50th anniversary, commemorating the day in 1964 that Warren Robbins opened the doors to the Frederick Douglass townhouse that had become the Museum of African Art. 

[The National Museum of African Art, the United States’ only museum dedicated to the collection, conservation, study, and exhibition of traditional and contemporary African art, is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. (closed 25 December).  Admission is free. NMAfA is located at 950 Independence Avenue, S.W., near the Smithsonian Metrorail station on the Blue and Orange lines.  For more information about the exhibitions and the museum, call (202) 633-4600 or visit the museum’s website, http://africa.si.edu; for general Smithsonian information, call (202) 633-1000.

[I said above that I had a personal connection, through my father, to the original Museum of African Art.  Between gifts from my folks, early inheritances, and my own acquisitions, my own small art collection includes a few pieces of works from Africa, mostly purchased from MAA.  Among these are a carved wooden Bamun figure of a boy from Cameroon, a Bambara “Chiwara” (female antelope headdress figure) from Mali, a stylized iron bird from the Bobo people of Burkina Faso, a carved wooden Yoruba twin figure, a Bronze Senufo equestrian figure from the Ivory Coast, and three carved wooden masks from the Senufo, Baule (Ivory Coast), and Ibibio (Nigeria) peoples.]


14 January 2015

Dispatches from Spain 6

by Rich Gilbert

[The continuing adventure of Rich and Sallie in Madrid, Spain, proceeds below.  Check back for installments 1 & 2 (30 November 2014), 3 & 4 (10 December 2014), and 5 (20 December 2014) to catch up with the story.]

Visiting DC – Madrid at 3 months

Madrid – January 10, 2015
Dear friends and family,

“Un otra buen día en Madrid” – another good day in Madrid.  It has been our mantra for weeks.  The weather has been cold, below freezing at night, maybe into the 50’s during the day, but bright sun every day.  Some have said this is mild winter for Madrid; if so, let’s hope it lasts.

We hope your holidays were happy ones. Sallie’s oldest son, David, his wife Heidi, and granddaughter Emily were here for a couple of weeks. We spent the holidays in Madrid, but got in some travelling also. But first . . .

Visiting D.C.

I will be in Washington from Thursday, January 15, 2015, through Tuesday, February 3, for a pair of oral arguments in the United States Court of Appeals. I hope to see many of you while I am in town. I will definitely be in Tunnicliff’s Tavern, our old Capitol Hill hangout, on Friday night, 1/17/15, with dinner later at our favorite Mexican restaurant, and probably Friday, 1/30/15, as well. Other plans are still up in the air. (I probably will watch the Super Bowl, even if Real Madrid is not playing.)  I have a hotel room for each weekend before the oral arguments, so I can spread the papers out, and friends with guest rooms have got me covered for the interim, which I greatly appreciate.  Back to Spain . . .

Holidays in Madrid

Christmas here is, of course, a big deal, like every Western country, but the actual celebration of the day tends to be quiet and spent at home. Most of the shops and restaurants which are open on the day, close by the end of the afternoon, and many do not open at all.  Our favorite bar was closed, but it is attached to a nice restaurant which was open for the afternoon meal. They were completely booked, but they agreed to prepare a roasted sucking pig for us to take home, so we had a big dinner at home.

The next day, December 26, is Boxing Day in Britain, and one of my friends with whom I have reconnected is from Bermuda and married to a Spaniard.  They have an annual Boxing Day party at their ranch about 40 miles outside the city. They invited Sallie and me and her family. It was a blast, with a very diverse group of friends. We have connected with some new folks and will likely get together with them soon. Oddly, I spent as much time speaking in German as Spanish, although many guests and the family all spoke English.

On New Year’s Eve, the tradition is to quickly consume 12 grapes at the stroke of midnight. Many folks try to do so down at the Puerta del Sol, the heart of Madrid.  Think Times Square.  We tried to go down, but like Times Square, we could not get within several blocks, so we saw in the new year in the street. Oddly, however, a lot of bars began to close shortly after midnight, so we ended going back home by 1:00.  New Year’s day is quiet like Christmas, but without the Rose Bowl Parade or any football games. The Spanish League does not play over the holidays.  I gather the English Premier League does, but I could not get away to watch them.

Madrid differs from the US is one important way.  The holidays are not over on New Year’s Day.  Instead a really big holiday is on January 6, the Day of the Three Kings, which celebrates the visit of the Magi to the Christ Child. This is the day when children get most of their presents. The city has a really big parade on the night before – think a combination of the Rose Bowl Parade and Mardi Gras parade.  They throw candy from the floats.  Sallie was feeling a little under the weather and her family had left that day, so we did not go down to watch. However, we did get to see the much smaller parade two days earlier in our local barrio, which was, frankly, a lot more fun. Interestingly, even our “big” supermarket was closed on Three Kings Day, when they were open part of the day on Christmas and New Year’s. Now everything is back to normal.  I made it back to the gym and Sallie made it to her Spanish class.

Traveling In Spain

We took a couple of trips while Sallie’s family was here. We took a two day trip, with a rental car, to Segovia, Avila, and Salamanca.  We were avoiding the toll roads and ended up driving over a beautiful mountain pass into Segovia, which I would recommend. The three cities all date back over a thousand years. Segovia had the most impressive castle and also has a huge preserved Roman aqueduct.  Avila has the best preserved city walls. Salamanca has the prettiest Plaza Mayor or city square. It is home to an ancient university of renown. It also has the most interesting cathedral, which is actually two cathedrals joined like Siamese twins, one Romanesque (12th Century) and one built between the 1500’s and 1700’s and thus a combination of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance.

Between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, we took a four day trip to Barcelona. Although I had been to Barcelona before, at Sallie’s insistence this trip was different. First of all, through airbnb, we stayed in an apartment in the old city. With its narrow winding streets, it took us a few days to get around just in our neighborhood, but it was fascinating. We went to the Picasso museum; as my artist friends will tell you, I do not really understand modern art and I joke that Picasso kind of left me at the turn of the last century, but when you see his earlier works, portraits, landscapes, etc., you realize what a gifted artist he was.  Then we went to the Barcelona History Museum. Barcelona is much older than Madrid; it was a major city during the Roman occupation of Spain. The museum is built over some ancient Roman ruins and to its credit, the architects found a way to display the ruins, by digging under the museum and constructing a labyrinth below through which you can walk on several levels. It was pretty remarkable looking at ruins going back thousands of years.

The last full day was Gaudi day.  We looked at some his buildings downtown with their fanciful architecture and design elements, but did not go inside. Then we made our way to Park Guell, the large park which he designed.  Finally, we walked down to Sagrada Familia, the cathedral which he started.  A lot of people do not realize that the building of the cathedral did not stop with Gaudi’s death.  It is still being carried out, with an expected finishing date in 2016. Inside the cathedral was not at all what I expected after seeing the much older cathedrals on our earlier trip. Gaudi and subsequent architects made strong use of light and space.  The walls down the length of the cathedral, are being built with lots of stained glass.  The walls are on the east and west sides, so the sun comes in.  Sallie got tickets online before we went, so the wait was short. We entered in the late afternoon and the setting sun through the primarily yellow, orange and red stained glass was spectacular. (The eastern wall is mostly green and blue, probably a whole different effect in the morning.) You can also take a tour of some of the towers which give a view of the city and of the ongoing construction.

I have explained to some people that Barcelona is more of a world city, while Madrid is the quintessential modern Spanish city. We found that to be true with tourists from all over the world everywhere we went in Barcelona.  We are still happy in Madrid, but I would give Barcelona plenty of time were I visiting Spain.

Spanish Politics

Speaking of Barcelona, the Cataluña independence story keeps going.  Lots of Catalan flags hanging from balconies throughout Barcelona.  The Catalan high court has recently approved charges against Artur Mas, the president of Cataluña, his vice-president and the secretary of Education for “disobedience” by having held the vote on November 9, 2014, despite being ordered to suspend it by the Spanish Constitutional Court. Meanwhile, Mas is having trouble getting some of the other Catalan independence party to go along with his idea of holding elections with one slate, composed of members from each of those parties, who will support independence. The idea is that if they get an absolute majority, that will be the effective equivalent of a referendum.

I recently had lunch with a respected Spanish attorney who explained some things about the Spanish criminal justice system.  There are official prosecutors, of course, but one level of Spanish judges are actually investigators, like our grand jury.  They can entertain charges from the official prosecutors, but also from groups who want to press charges.  There are such groups in Spain who are like watchdogs.  Imagine the ACLU being able to ask a judge to indict someone. If the judge finds these allegations have merit, he or she can refer the case to trial. Trial is not before the investigating judge. Spain has a modified jury system, in large part thanks to the work over many years of the attorney with whom I had lunch.

This independence of the investigating judge explains the case of the Infanta, the sister to the King, who is charged with money laundering in a case involving her husband.  The official prosecutor recommended that she pay a huge civil fine, sort of restitution, but did not seek criminal charges.  The investigating judge overruled him based on the complaints by these citizen groups, and she is currently facing a trial. (My attorney friend thinks that eventually those charges will be dismissed, but not right away.)

Investigating judges are very much in the news because the corruption stories just keep coming.  The ruling party tried to limit the amount of time that a judge can spend on investigating a case, sort of like a speedy trial limit, but the courts have said that is unconstitutional, pointing out, correctly, the complexity of some of these corruption schemes.  The ruling party is trying to run on the improving economic climate in Spain, while the main opponents, the Socialists, are going to run on an anti-corruption platform.  Al the parties have been tainted somewhat, but the ruling party is getting buffeted the most.  The big gainers are Podemos [which translates as “We can,” as Rich noted in the last report], the rising populist party, who would get the largest number of votes if the elections were today.  It seems likely that the Socialists and Podemos, which has a leftist bent, may form the next government, but that will be after we are gone, unless elections are called early.

Spain does not really have a large anti-immigrant, anti-Europe party like France, Germany, and other northern countries, but the terrorist attacks in Paris are front page news here as well as the rest of the continent.  We shall see.

Spanish Football

The police finished their investigation of the riot that resulted in the death of a football fan from A Coruna a month ago with some thirty arrests, and violence in football seems to have receded from the sports pages.  I hope that is because the new measures are working.  We will see.

Meanwhile Real Madrid and Barcelona both lost league matches two weeks ago, but still lead the league.  Spain also has a tournament open to all the clubs in Spain, called the Copa del Reyes, (the Kings Cup), much like the U S Open Cup in the United States. Of course, in the end the big clubs are the ones left standing. The clubs play a home and away series. I saw Real Madrid tied by a third division club, but Real won on a combined score from both matches.  Real and Atletico Madrid played each other last weekend and Atletico won at their stadium, setting up a pressure game in a few weeks. Meanwhile at Barcelona, there is apparently a rift between the coach and Leo Messi, the team’s best player (one of the best in the world actually). This is like the Coach Gruden and RG III rift with the Washington football club – fills up the sports page with predictions of catastrophe, until the team wins.  Barcelona won its Cup match 5 to 0, so everybody is happy - until the next time.  Barcelona and Real Madrid have their league rematch in March; it is my on calendar.

Hope everything is well with you all, and hope to see at least some of you soon.


09 January 2015

Outsider Art

[A number of years ago, on a visit to Baltimore with my mother, we checked out a new museum.  I’m not sure what made us go to the American Visionary Art Museum—it may have been a recommendation from someone, though I don’t believe so—but we drove out of downtown Charm City in search of the rather obscure exhibition space in a part of the city to which neither of us had ever been.  It was a real kick!  I’ve recommended a visit to this odd art collection to others, especially if they have kids or grandkids anywhere from 7 or 8 to ’tweens, as a great half-day outing.  I’ve never been back, but I occasionally note mentions, listings, or reviews of AVAM—and I continue to tell people who’re heading to (or who live in) Baltimore about the museum, encouraging them to have a look, too.  One Friday while I was in Bethesda, Maryland, on a visit to my mother, the Washington Post ran the following review of an exhibit at AVAM, so I thought I’d post it and then add a little piece afterward about the history of the place.  Michael O’Sullivan’s review below appeared in the Weekend magazine of the Post on 7 November 2014; my brief history of the museum will follow.]

by Michael O'Sullivan

Quirky Baltimore museum turns over its galleries to visionaries new, old and odd

How fitting that the American Visionary Art Museum has, on the occasion of its 20th thematic exhibition, chosen to unpack the word that lies at the heart of its mission — and its name. “The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis to Finster” takes a look at the vision thing from several angles, resulting in a show that is, as devotees of the quirky Baltimore institution have come to expect, full of surprises — and a few familiar faces.

Among the surprises also is a familiar face: Terrence Howard (yes, that Terrence Howard). The Academy Award-nominated actor’s geometric constructions of acetate and glass aren’t showstoppers; they have a dated feel, halfway between op art and a kid’s science project about molecular structure. But give the guy a break. They were, after all, made in the mid-1980s, when he was still a teenager.

It’s not even clear they were intended as art. Legally emancipated from his parents at age 16, Howard briefly studied chemical engineering in New York before turning to acting. Although he has spoken publicly of his ongoing interest in science and his plans to produce synthetic diamonds, doubts remain about the extent of his academic bona fides, not to mention his artistic credentials.

Of course, that shouldn’t disqualify him from being in this museum. AVAM is notable for its championing of those with less pedigree than passion. Another artist better known as a performer is the late musician Jimi Hendrix, who is represented here by a few trippy psychedelic drawings and a self-portrait.

While taking in the show, a definition of “vision” gradually emerges from the haze. It encompasses many things: the hallucinatory results of overindulgence in drugs and alcohol; mental illness; religious enlightenment/ecstasy; the dream state; brainwashing by cults; extrasensory perception; and simple artistic inspiration. Some of the featured artists are trained. Many are not. A few are arguably not even artists.

One of the show’s most fascinating galleries is devoted to such late-20th-century cultists as Velma and Orval Lee Jaggers of the Universal World Church; Ernest and Ruth “Uriel” Norman of the Unarius Academy of Science; and James Edward Baker, a.k.a. Father Yod, who founded a commune and a famous vegetarian restaurant in Hollywood. (Look for it in the movie “Annie Hall,” when Woody Allen’s character orders a plate of “alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast.”)

Although this gallery features artifacts — jewelry, costumes, record albums, video and other ephemera — its focus is almost more anthropological than artistic. The room is slightly creepy, with some of the video and photographic material evoking memories of the Heaven’s Gate cult, several of whose members committed suicide in 1997, believing that their souls would be picked up by a spaceship that was trailing the Hale-Bopp comet. All the same, I could have devoured a whole show on this topic alone.

Some of the best works in “The Visionary Experience” are a couple of mysteriously evocative paintings by Christine Sefolosha (who also was in AVAM’s “Home and Beast” show) and two massive drawings by architect Paolo Soleri. Soleri, whose works here come from a 50-foot-long scroll, is best known for designing the utopian community Arcosanti, which has been under construction in the Arizona desert since the 1970s. A sculptural assemblage by Odinga Tyehimba also is quite powerful, evoking a religious totem.

As for the first name in the show’s subtitle, the Roman Catholic saint Francis of Assisi was no artist. He’s included as a representative of the visionary experience, for his decision to renounce his family’s wealth and follow his inner light, a theme echoed throughout this diverse show. (An alcove at the museum features a devotional icon of Francis, surrounded by animal sculptures made by Claude Yoder and other artists.)

Nowhere is that theme of answering a higher calling better expressed than in the work of Howard Finster, whose name also graces the show’s title. His art — both whimsical and inspirational — fills almost an entire gallery.

The late Georgia folk artist and Baptist minister, who often signed his work “Man of Vision,” is an AVAM favorite as well as one of the best-known creators of American visionary art. Finster said that at age 60, he received instructions from God to “paint sacred art,” to which he replied, “I can’t. I don’t know how.”

God’s comeback: “How do you know you can’t?”

This show takes that argument even further: No matter where the call to art comes from, those of us who hear it should at least give it a try.

The story behind the work

One of the most fascinating displays in “The Visionary Experience” is devoted to the work of Paul Koudounaris. Taken from the author, art historian and photographer’s 2013 book “Heavenly Bodies,” the four images on display at AVAM document a macabre yet little-known folk practice of the Catholic Church: bedecking human skeletons in jewels

The Los Angeles-based Koudounaris, who specializes in photographing mummies and other human remains, stumbled on the phenomenon quite by accident during a 2008 research trip to Europe, when he was led to a decrepit German chapel in the woods. Inside a boarded-up display case, the photographer found a human skeleton done up in the raiment and gems of a king. Since then, Koudoularis has tracked down many more such examples of this art form, in which the skeletal remains of those believed to be early Christian martyrs were re-assembled, preserved and decorated, often by nuns, as a kind of ghoulish good-luck charm.

The works can be hard to find. In the late 18th century, when their superstitious nature became an embarrassment to a modernizing church, many of the skeletons were destroyed or removed from public view. Koudoularis’s creepy yet beautiful art gives them a second — or maybe a third — life.

[The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis to Finster will be on view through 30 August 2015.  

[Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Michael O’Sullivan has worked since 1993 at the Washington Post, where he covers art, film, and other forms of popular culture.]

*  *  *  *

What is “visionary art”?  Also called “outsider art,” Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum defines visionary art as “art produced by self-taught individuals, usually without any formal artistic training, whose works arise from an intensity of innate personal vision that revels foremost in the creative act itself.”  That covers the basics as far as AVAM is concerned, but the museum continues with a few further considerations:

As such, it is not inherently created for sale or merchandising through developed or formal commercial channels.  Except that they have discovered in themselves the ability to accomplish something extraordinary, visionary artists are often otherwise ordinary people from a wide variety of walks of life, including as well many who have been institutionalized, or who are elderly, disabled, or from industry not traditionally associated with the creation of art.

“In short,” AVAM elucidates, “visionary art begins by listening to the inner voices of the soul, and often may not even be thought of as ‘art’ by its creator.”

But is visionary art different from folk art?  (The Smithsonian American Art Museum, in fact, has a department for “folk and self-taught art” that comprises the work of visionary and outsider artists along with art by folk painters like Grandma Moses, Josephus Farmer, and Albina Felski.) Though the two may use similar methods and materials, AVAM insists that it is.  The principal distinction is in the “self-taught” aspect of outsider art.  “Folk art is ‘learned at the knee,’” observes AVAM, “and passed from generation to generation, or through established cultural community traditions,” which isn’t the same as teaching yourself how to create art.  Folk art, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, comes “out of a specifically identifiable tradition”—religious, cultural, ethnic, regional, or whatever—whereas visionary art is sui generis.  While folk art, especially examples from similar groupings like, say, Navajo kachina dolls, sailors’ scrimshaw, or Amish hex signs, shares aspects in common, outsider art doesn’t necessarily line up with anything else you’ve seen before.  As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography (sorry), AVAM asserts of visionary art: “you know it when you see it.”  Furthermore, most folk art traditions go back decades and even centuries, often with little change through the generations as the tradition’s passed down.  Visionary art, however, can be as new as last week, reinvented and reimagined with each new outsider artist—few of whom have any connection to those who went before. 

The term “outsider art” was coined in 1972 by art historian Roger Cardinal to describe work by artists who were outside the mainstream by virtue both of their mental or psychological disabilities and their existence at the edges of society.  In the Huffington Post, Priscilla Frank defined the genre thus:

Outsider artworks are often extreme, obsessive, raw and bizarre. Rather than depicting the world around them, outsider artists tend to render worlds of their own, using art to provide the order, comfort or beauty their lives often lack.  While each outsider artist works in a radically different mode, all outsider artists create art that seemingly emerges outside of time, space and history, at least outside the dimensions occupied by most humans.

All of this art, whether the creator is insane, incarcerated, disabled, or just isolated, begins with a personal and private revelation, a vision, as it were, of a different, and usually better, world.  Then the outsider artist sets about creating (or recreating) that world, often in his home or backyard.  The work is often done in secret, without an audience of any kind.  It’s not done for praise or applause, the artists don’t seek attention for their work or themselves, and, as AVAM notes, most don’t even recognize what they make as art.  It’s just something they do—to exorcise demons, to praise God, to connect with another universe.  The artists’ motives are usually entirely private and often unknowable. 

Usually the work is discovered by amazed friends, relatives, coworkers, or even strangers after the artist’s death.  The response of the niece of one visionary artists is typical, after a nephew, an artist himself, saw the aesthetic value of his uncle’s creations: “I realized that it might be more than just what Uncle Jim did.”

Since each visionary artist, by definition, is a one-off, self-taught, intuitive, and independent, there’s really no such thing as one outsider artist influencing or inspiring another.  Many visionary artists are supremely nonsocial, living and working alone, often in secret, so few are even aware of other artists at all.  “Unlike folk art,” notes AVAM “visionary art is entirely spontaneous and individualized.”  Outsider artists “don’t listen to anyone else’s traditions.  They invent their own.”  As AVAM points out, visionary artists “hear their own inner voice so resoundingly that they may not even think of what they do as ‘art’ . . . .  It is this listening to one’s inner voice with such focused attention that contributes to the unusually large number of visionary artworks, many of which took decades to create.”  Nonetheless, there are commonalities, such as the recreation of the Garden of Eden and other utopian visions in the artists’ backyards, the most common theme of visionary artists worldwide—literally creating a vision of heaven on earth.  

By Resolution of the Congress, the American Visionary Art Museum was designated the nation’s official museum and education center for self-taught, intuitive artistry.  Since it opened in 1995, AVAM has striven to encourage recognition of untaught, autonomous creation as an important historic and essential part of a valued legacy of humankind.  The unique American Visionary Art Museum’s three restored historic industrial buildings, including a copper paint factory and a whiskey warehouse, are located on just over an acre of land near Federal Hill Park on Baltimore, Maryland’s Inner Harbor.  AVAM houses marvels created by students, laborers, dyslexics, misfits, recluses, mental health patients, farmers, housewives, mechanics, retirees, the disabled, the homeless, as well as the occasional neurosurgeon—all inspired by an inner light.  “From carved roots to embroidered rags, tattoos to toothpicks,” reads an AVAM release, “the visionary transforms dreams, loss, hopes, and ideals into powerful works of art.”

In 1984, Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, then director of People Encouraging People, a program of the Department of Psychiatry at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, had the idea for a museum of outsider art.  Her program was aimed at helping psychiatric patients to return to their communities, and her original thoughts were focused on the art work of the patients in People Encouraging People.  In 1985, Hoffberger visited the Collection de l’art brut in Lausanne, Switzerland, established in 1976 by French artist Jean Dubuffet as a collection of “raw art” or “unrefined art”—the French term for outsider art.  The artist defined this as art which is “totally pure, raw, entirely reinvented in all its phases by its author solely by means of his own impulses.”   “Art,” declared Dubuffet, “doesn’t lie down in the bed made for it; it runs away as soon as we pronounce its name; what it loves is being in disguise.  Its best moments are when it forgets its name.”  This visit inspired Hoffberger in her own vision for an outsider art museum in the United States.

Two years after her visit to the Collection de l'art brut, Hoffberger and the owner of the George Ciscle Gallery in Baltimore mounted an exhibit called American Outsider Art to gauge the public’s interest.  The first of its kind in Baltimore, the successful show was the opening event of a fund-raising campaign for a museum devoted to visionary art at which Hoffberger announced her plans for AVAM.  In February 1989, Hoffberger incorporated the American Visionary Art Museum as a non-profit organization and the City of Baltimore gave AVAM the rights to the Key Highway property and the State of Maryland ponied up $1.3 million in financing.  Relying heavily on small, individual contributions and donations, Hoffberger began fundraising in earnest and over six years raised $7 million.  (Hoffberger’s husband sold off his personal collection of German Expressionist art to put the fund-raising over the top and assure that AVAM would be debt-free at its inception.)  Architects Rebecca Swanston and Alex Castro agreed to collaborate on a design.  

In 1992, U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland led the entire Maryland Congressional Delegation plus Kansas Senator Robert Dole in the effort to pass the unanimous Resolution of Congress designating AVAM as the United States’ official national museum, education center, and repository for intuitive, self-taught art.  Builders J. Vinton Schafer & Sons broke ground for the new construction on Thanksgiving Day 1993 and metal artist David Hess designed the cast-tree Central Stair and all the ornamental railings and benches.  After a gala opening celebration on 11 November 1995, the American Visionary Art Museum opened to the public on 24 November, the day after Thanksgiving. 

From its start, AVAM had a stated mission, which it maintains today:

·   Expand the definition of a worthwhile life.
·   Engender respect for and delight in the gifts of others.
·   Increase awareness of the wide variety of choices available in life for all . . . particularly students
·   Encourage each individual to build upon his or her own special knowledge and inner strengths
·   Promote the use of innate intelligence, intuition, self-exploration, and creative self-reliance.
·   Confirm the great hunger for finding out just what each of us can do best, in our own voice, at any age.
·   Empower the individual to choose to do that something really, really well.

Drawing an allusion to the traditional Native American Vision Quest, AVAM asserts:

We seek to draw attention to America’s history as a mecca for forward-looking innovators, optimists, dreamers and doers—highlighting the sense that America is at her best when she actively remembers that many of her greatest citizens were very much self-taught, self-made pioneers.

The statement of goals goes on:

We believe that being overly indoctrinated with ideas of what is not supposed to work, or what cannot work, only stifles human innovation and idea making.  A freethinking educational environment opens the self-taught innovator to a greater range of dynamic possibilities.  It is this total openness to the many potentialities of change that remains at the heart of true invention—and it is in this spirit that we offer these educational goals, which we believe apply equally well to people of every age and background.

Among the artists AVAM displays are Wayne Kusy (a replica of the Lusitania made of toothpicks), Steve Heller (robots constructed of found objects like junk car parts), Patch Adams (devices to cure pain with laughter), and works by the likes of Ho Baron, Nek Chand, Howard Finster, Ted Gordon, Gregory Warmack (akaMr. Imagination”), Clyde Jones, Leonard Knight, William Kurelek, Mary Proctor, Leo Sewell, Judith Scott, Vollis Simpson, Ben Wilson, and many others of whom you’ve probably never heard making art you’ll surely never see anywhere else.  (One visitor called it a “crazy, wacky and oddly goofball art museum.”)  In addition to its changing exhibits, making use of borrowed pieces, AVAM has a permanent collection of over 4,000 pieces.  The practice is to rotate objects on exhibit on the first floor Permanent Collection Gallery in the Main Building (as well as elsewhere in the museum and its grounds) displaying about 50 items at a time.  Other spaces include the Third Floor Gallery, Tall Sculpture Barn, and the 45,000-square-foot Jim Rouse Visionary Center.  There’s an extensive collection of whirligigs of every imaginable kind and shape—a sure-fire delight for kids of all ages—and a building filled with “art cars,” vehicles entirely covered with fanciful decorations, transforming them into fantastic mobile sculptures.  (AVAM also conducts workshops on a variety of topics, holds special events throughout the year, and can be booked for events such as weddings.  The museum cafe, Rain’s Fun House, is a “neverland dreamworld of a restaurant,” in the words of one visitor, and Sideshow, the museum gift shop, is unique.)

A Washington Post 2006 review of the museum adds a dimension to the report on AVAM’s history and collections.  The facility itself is, in it’s own way, part of the experience:

An acre-plus compound along the southern edge of the Inner Harbor, the Visionary Art Museum itself is a unique statement on the Baltimore waterfront, a geometric brick-and-concrete edifice covered with fragments of mirror and tile and adorned with a looming Masonic eye. A three-ton windblown whirligig by North Carolinian Vollis Simpson spins and twirls beside the old warehouse that serves as a tall-sculpture gallery. Next door is the museum's newest space, a converted whiskey storehouse that now contains hands-on mechanical toys, jaw-dropping "art cars" and a re-created block of Baltimore's famous painted window screens. At the rear of the building, a massive sculpted hand supports a rolled movie screen, which in summer is lowered to show outdoor films to crowds seated on Federal Hill.

[The American Visionary Art Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. (closed Christmas and Thanksgiving Days); admission is $15.95 ($13.95 for seniors, $9.95 for children ages 7-18 and students; members and children 6 and younger are free).  Group rates and special arrangements are available (consult the website for further information as well as guidance concerning directions and parking).  AVAM is located at 800 Key Highway, Baltimore; (410) 244-1900; www.avam.org.]