A philanthropist shows me around her public-art collection. A curator gives us a private tour of a sculpture collection. I drive 5 hours to see one of the US’s newest museums in Arkansas. I nearly jump in the arms of my long-time friend at the Getty Center whom I haven’t seen in two years and who gives me the low-down on a couple of exhibits. I call an arts consultant on the East Coast and he readily accepts my help in writing a paper.
I am soaking in all that is beautiful about the human endeavor. Doors are opening, around me and inside my mind. I stand where my mother would have liked to stand—inside arts organizations, hearing people make decisions, take risks, bet on the future. We are talking about access, equity, artists’ rights, technology and the arts, what cities can do for culture, what cities can’t do, the UNESCO, how to handle art stolen by the Nazis that’s resurfacing, how to imagine a cultural center, how to show people a society in which art glues us back together.
This is why we lived in Europe when I was a child. This is why I moved to NYC five years ago. For one short year that’s already felt like three, I will stand at attention without repose or distractedness and grab any butterfly that drops a little powder off its wings. I will tell you about it until you’re bored, and I’ll be so into it that I won’t pick up on your social cues. I apologize in advance.
I’m here because of my partner, who said I couldn’t pass it up, and who said he wasn’t passing it up either. I’m here because of my mother, who passed on to me her sensitivity for any expression of humanness. I’m here because of my father, who made the tuition possible, and who believes in lifelong learning. I’m here because one sister wouldn’t stop pushing me to do it. I’m here because another sister has paved the way. I’m here because my roommate in Montreal offered me a place to call home. I’m here despite the deep concentration and isolation because my little Labrador, my sweet dark quiet shadow, keeps me sane.
This is what I’ve been giving thanks for this weekend. This is why I haven’t picked up your call. And shhhh, don’t tell anyone: I even found time to make a little art. There, could you do that over Christmas? I think not. I’m grateful for the silence in which my ideas are heard.
I saw my first temps-de-cuisse/sissonne since leaving NYC, last night at the Aspen-Santa Fe Ballet. Hey Martha, Debra Jo, I thought of you. I still haven’t taken the Steps NYC app off my phone. I won’t let go.
I sat in the dark, listening to the pianist play Philip Glass, Satie, Schumann, hearing the dancers’ labored breathing. Their silhouettes burned in my brain. This is my job now.
Art has been grabbing me lately. I’m no longer trying to put words to it. I let the heartstrings sing and the throat tighten and the tears well up. (But I tell people that my eyes are strained.)
I stared at photo portraits at Crystal Bridges—that precious gem of a museum suspended above the water in the Ozark woods, built by the Walton family on the back of the impoverishing small-town working class—and the gazes of the indigenous people generations ago halted me. For the directness of their expression. For the beauty of Will Wilson’s prints. For the nobility of the museum’s aim. For the disappearance of the rural middle class.
I breathe and dream this stuff now. Whether it’s the financing of theater, or why the museums are underfunded to start with, or who goes to art festivals, or artists’ legal rights, or the implications of Banksy’s shredded painting, or the policies related to the restitution of Nazi-appropriated works… friends are starting to understand what I’m doing here. It’s all fascinating, and I want more, and I wish it went longer than one year so that I had more time to soak it all in, and I need more people to talk about it with so we can come up with a point of view and an improvement.
Learning is a privilege, a responsibility and a humbling experience. Who knows this? I’ve been fortunate to work where people feel the same way. It can only happen if you let go of what you know, and you stop believing for a few minutes what you learned as an undergrad.
I wish I’d done this before I needed bifocals.
Ugh, anything but write my Policy of Arts & Culture homework. So this is why I’m writing to you. Don’t get me wrong—I love reading about how arts policy meshes with urban planning. We’re discussing the difficult side of the creative economy’s coin: gentrification and unequal access to employment. But as I mentioned before, my thoughts are random; they bubble from the depths in unpredictable ways. Now, for my Policy homework, I have to make it look like they came to me in rational, marching order, with a claim, a warrant, backing evidence, a rebuttal. I can’t do that to my brain! I mean, I can try, but at my age, I probably won’t get anywhere. Mostly, I’m learning the extent to which I’ve overestimated my ability to act half my age.
Just like that, on the equinox, we stepped through the portal. We left summer behind in the other room and it’s cool and drizzly. I didn’t think Big D had it in her. What a relief. As Angie would say, the heat, light, and energy level can be oppressive. The amount of stamina required of me was too intense. Now when the sun shines, it’s my friend. The sky is make-your-heart-sing blue. Riding my bike frees my amazon. I’m hanging out by the pool—the one with the infinity edge for a better view of the HVAC. The day takes a little time to rev up and wind down. Tibby likes it much better this way too. She’s once more a sweet wild swamp thing.
So let’s take stock of summer: a cracked phone, a broken camera, locked out of the apartment on moving day, and a sprained thumb. All trivial. Alrik’s still glamping with me. Our carpeted pre-fab is healing on some levels. We’re pretty deep in the park-like setting. I could get used to not smelling garbage juice. Nor do we hear cars, trucks, honking, or helicopters. No one is over the age of 37, including me (haha, just kidding… sigh).
I had an option on a birthday this month, but I passed. There comes a time when birthdays come around too damn often, like it’s another weekend or something, and you have to put a stop to it. I’m staying the same age for two years this time.
It’s too bad, because my cohort, we’re good at celebrating birthdays. We’re not particularly gifted, so we’re betting on our cuteness to get us through the program. We’ve celebrated all our teachers’ birthdays already. We have to keep it coming, thank goodness we have Xmas just after finals. And then next semester, we can do up the New Year’s thing to get to know our next bunch of profs. I’ll say this for my fellow students: they have the talent of getting their projects done so they can get on with their lives, unlike me. I belabor things. Not much has changed since grade school.
I caught up on my reading for, like, 5 minutes. So I treated myself to a movie. We went to see Spike Lee's BlackkKlansman. Alrik tried to have a conversation about it with the Uber driver on the way home. That went nowhere. He got shut down immediately. We were the only people in the movie theater. Does no one talk about stuff other than football and restaurants?
Speaking of Alrik. I told the man to go out and bring home some money. The man comes back with a job. Umm, that's not what I asked for. It might sound like the same thing, but it's not. Tibby has to stay home alone. He's not available to swim with me in the morning. We don't read together anymore. All I wanted was the pile of money. Not the extra responsibility--I've got that for both of us.
This program is getting real. We were invited by Dallas's Office of Cultural Affairs to attend the unveiling of the new cultural policy plan. Dallas's cultural pride & joy--the state-of-the arts performance venues in the Arts District--are also Dallas's ball & chain. The maintenance of these white elephants starves the artists, presenters, and small organizations in the neighborhoods. The current funding allocation privileges the old-guard, traditional arts consumer but does not encourage the creation of art in the communities, nor draw in new audiences.
Our class went to the activation meeting to witness and listen and learn. We weren't permitted to sit on the sidelines very long. Pretty soon, we were throwing down ideas and schemes. We're all artists to begin with, so our minds clicked away, the way they do. Besides, we had an untested three weeks of theory to exercise. The things my class came up with were fun, brilliant, and would make any city way more interesting and livable.
So, hire an artist to solve any and all of your problems! Big or small, we do it all.
I’m pushing hard on my bike pedals to get up this flat slope. There’s a head wind no matter my direction. My lung capacity is diving. Each coughing spasm leaves my legs weak. This twelve-day illness is perhaps asthma, perhaps pertussis. The air-con ducts spew mold that inflames my lungs. I’m on antibiotics and an inhaler. My sleep is broken up by coughing fits. I’m behind on my writing and reflection. I can’t participate in class for fear of ejecting pieces of lung. My brain won’t rise to the occasion. As they say, the wheel is true but the hamster’s dead.
And I’m still incredulous and furious that we’re spending summer and autumn in 98 degree, Where-is-everyone Texas. We’re missing the best that Montreal has to offer in municipal arts and inclusive culture. Montreal, where it’s 72 degrees and everyone is celebrating summer on the streets. We’ll get there in December, when these effervescent, joyous events are a long-ago memory and the town is bundled in yards of smelly wet wool scarves. When Dallas starts to come to life. Now that’s some backwards.
I found a silver lining to the Texas nonsense. After ten years of missed occasions, I finally get to see Corb Lund play live near Dallas in late August. I bought the tickets online in early June when I was still in New York. I miss the concert anyway. The antibiotics flatten me and I can’t leave my bed.
Alrik’s long-time friend comes to town to meet me and take us out to dinner. I can’t leave the bed that day either. I can’t wheeze through ballet class. I can’t hack in the dark at the movies. I can’t cough on the paintings in over-air-conditioned museums. I can’t choke on my dinner in restaurants. Dallas is off to a slow start.
If nothing else, I’m here for the coursework, which is everything I wished for and more. If I ever get there on this 150 pound bicycle with square wheels and flat tires.
I’m riding my bike a few flat miles in 96 degree heat before barging into refrigerated campus buildings. My lungs can’t take the sudden 20 degree difference. You know where this is going.
I’ve had a cold my first two weeks in Dallas. So I’ll do what I do best: I’ll sit this one out and observe.
Classes begin. They wash over us as implacably as the tides. As soon as I’ve regained my footing, the next one sends me tumbling, coughing, gasping for air. I never had good hair, so that hasn’t changed.
When I worked, I had some control over the rhythm of the stroke. No longer. The theoretical classes—“Microeconomics of the Arts Market” and “Cultural Policy”—are taught by the same person three days a week, so I can’t tell which way is up.
I got here thinking I knew in which direction I was pointed. Our five courses have jumbled that and blown everything open. I’m passionate about being an advocate for culture in immigrant communities; or showing artistic directors the harmony in numbers as a CPA; or being the best storyteller that fundraising has ever seen. I just don’t know anymore. Tracy warned me about that.
Despite my cold, I swim each day. So I get really sick. But in the pool is when ideas bubble up from not-me. I treasure those evanescent drops of air. They’ll get me through the next four months, given how far behind I’m falling.
All 13 of us, plus Alrik the honorary cohort member, are getting oriented in Dallas. We went to a ballet last night in the Arts District. Wild bunch that we are, we stayed out for a glass of wine afterwards. When we left the bar--crickets. Our voices rang against the empty performance buildings. Lincoln Center hasn't had that effect on Broadway. What's going on here?
The sun flattens SMU. When the bell rings, the Kens and Barbies climb back into their BMWs and Jeep Grand Cherokees to join the stream of machines heading to the suburbs. I've never seen such a listless campus. We don't quite know yet why we're here. Some of us have big voids to fill. Others, urgent dreams to fulfill.
I've unplugged from the necessity of a paycheck. I get just 380 days to make something happen. I have to trust that the logistics I've set up will carry me through--network, vaccinations, budget, bank accounts, storage, tax prep, stay permits. The structured discussions about arts and culture fascinate me as much as this past year's reading did. I've landed in the right place. What better thing could I be doing at this stage of my life?
Then, surprise-surprise. It takes 4 professors and 2 directors to jumble the journey I thought I was on. The prospects for the whole year changes. I listen, excited, disbelieving. I told you we would visit 4 cities in the next year. Insert three more. Brace yourself: I'm going to India and China. This is no longer a program. It's an adventure.
At my age, this is a once in a lifetime chance. I mobilize everything to honor this opportunity extended to me What about family, partner, dog? As my aunt said, "my job is to focus on me, and I've got big plans."
We got Tibby a quinceañera carriage to pull her behind our bikes all over Dallas. Hang in there baby, this year's going to be a bumpy ride.
We’re leaving NYC and crossing onto the continent. The skyline recedes. Four years fall away. The surreality of those years reveals itself. Why did I come to NYC? Why am I leaving? Behind me, a cloud of car and mental exhaust.
Those thoughts roil through my mind as we drive through Maryland, DC, the Shenandoah Valley, Nashville. I finally wake up in time to catch a glimmer of Harlem in Memphis, a glimmer of fireflies in Arkansas. Did I see the landscape? Did I go for a hike? Did I hear music? Did I eat bbq? Did I bathe in hot springs? I’m still off-gassing NYC.
At first sight of Dallas, my heart drops into my stomach. People on the continent are invisible. They live in houses. It’s one giant Schaumburg, landing pad of my immigration. By the light of flickering fluorescents, we settle into our temp digs. Smaller than our place in Harlem, can you believe it. Also, a third the rent, imagine that. Poolside grills. Pools. A dog playland with water hose free parking for our non-existent car library with free high-speed wifi loud 50-inch screen TV to watch some bachelor crap happy hour donation yoga walking paths 24-hour fountain lake and no litter. I’ve ingested the marketing brochure well. But there’s still nothing going on.
Just wait ‘til next week, when school starts. I’ve always played the long game.
Live in three countries. Move four times. Evade the pressures of a job for a year. Call on some of the world’s best known arts organizations. This had me spellbound.
Nine months later, the time for goodbyes has come. The children in the neighborhood have turned out to hug Tibby our Labrador. Friends drop by for one last farewell drink on our Harlem roof deck—then another, then another. (Admittedly we have a few bottles of liquor to liquidate.) My last ballet lesson at Steps. (The last class always produces near-perfect pirouettes.) A twinkling evening for tapas in Central Park. A large batch of titles makes its way to print but I won’t be here to see the copies at the Brooklyn Book Festival. My best friend gets a job across the street where we can commute on our bikes and eat lunch together. Except that she starts work the day I start school, 1700 miles away.
With twelve days to go, I want to call the whole thing off. Where am I barreling off to? Alrik, was this one of your ideas? No, he’s tearing himself away from his friends and family too.
During a short trip to NYC with Alrik when we first started dating, I dreamed that we were lying in sleeping bags on the floor of Penn Station, happy and safe. So let my dream come true.