Art Philanthropy Is Alive and Well…At Least in Manhattan

There are many games which one associates with the lives of those who are fortunate enough to spend much of their time at leisure. There are no competitors of moderate income taking part in the America’s Cup, for example. Yet an interesting piece which appeared in Vanity Fair yesterday on the game known as art collecting shows that there are some games which only the very, very comfortable are able to play. And that game has an important impact on both the art world and philanthropy.

The article in question theorizes that there is a war going on between the three most important art museums in New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.  More precisely, the piece suggests that there are power struggles among the various board members of these institutions, which are affecting the institutions themselves. The effort to preserve what is already there, while attracting more visitors to their collections so that what is sometimes termed “high art” remains relevant to younger generations, is an ongoing dilemma for many of these august bodies.

What seems particularly interesting or unusual is the idea that The Met is evolving to better reflect the ongoing history of art.  This is something which the Lauder family has moved along considerably with the donation of their collection of Cubist works. This among other artistic movements of the previous century was an area of acquisition which The Met had largely left to MoMA in the past, given their very different reasons for existing, If The Met is seeking to get into the Modern Art game now it might seem to have left it a bit late, but then again The Met is The Met.

In London of course there is a clear division of powers between the two largest art institutions of that city: The National Gallery and Tate (I still have difficulty in dropping the leading “The”.) If you are looking for Modern or Contemporary Art, you have to go south of the Thames, rather than to Trafalgar Square, in order to see it. Here in Washington, by contrast, although the Hirshhorn specializes in such things, the National Gallery also has Modern and Contemporary works in its possession. Local dictates seem to lead to inconsistent results when it comes to the honing and polishing of a particular institution’s holdings.

However the importance of recognizing these ongoing changes lies not so much in controversies over building expansions, board membership, or the like, but in the nature of the collections themselves. If a public or quasi-public institution holds fast to the idea that art is intended to educate and edify the public, then the choices which it makes in what to acquire and display tell us a great deal about not only the institution itself, but that institution’s perception of the community which it serves. That is where, sometimes, museums can lose their way, by forgetting their purpose.

Is the art museum becoming merely a place of entertainment, a charge levied by some against one of the institutions profiled in the Vanity Fair article? One could certainly look at the museum of today in that fashion. Perhaps they are viewed as a place where the discarded baubles of the dead are put out for the curious to admire, or a venue for holding swanky parties in luxurious surroundings. The counter to that argument, of course, is that art collections large and small have always been sought out by those who appreciate art, whether in the vast corridors of the former palaces of the Bourbons and Medici, or in grand country houses and estates which open their doors to visitors but still remain private residences for most of the year.

Rather perhaps the question which we ought to be asking when we see the evolution of art museums is one not of utility, but of intent. What is the goal of building up a collection of 20th century masterpieces in Manhattan, if not to keep such works hanging on the walls of a penthouse on the Upper East Side? Is it such a bad thing for someone who has been fortunate enough to succeed in this country, to share his good fortune with a major museum, for the pleasure and enlightenment of his fellow citizens?

When many of this country’s art institutions got their starts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were able to take advantage of the fact that the Old World was getting a bit decrepit and in need of American cash. Whereas most of the European art institutions have their origins in royal collections forcibly or otherwise appropriated from their former owners, in the U.S. it was the well-to-do who realized that they would have to voluntarily build such collections themselves, if there were to be comparable institutions for the benefit of the citizenry. Thus it occurred then, as it does today, that the magnates and financiers who built the original museums have their descendants at present in those who continue to benefit from the opportunities afforded those who are able to make the American dream a reality for themselves and their families, and in the process benefit their communities as well.

Many of the names have changed, as fortunes are won and lost and diluted, but the idea that something needs to be given back remains an essential component of the philanthropic spirit which created the art world as we know it in this country. When Leonard Lauder donated his Cubist collection to The Met, he thanked his children for being willing to give up part of their future inheritance – in the form of works of art estimated to be worth a total of over $1 billion – for the sake of enriching the collections of New York’s most important public educational institution. That says volumes about the state of artistic philanthropy in this country – or at least in Manhattan.

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Review: Scott Bradlee and Postmodern Jukebox at The Birchmere

My regular readers know that I had to take a break from blogging for a few weeks, both due to changing jobs and the holidays. So it seems fitting that I return to regular writing with a piece about a band that embodies one of the key virtues of Count Castiglione, the patron of this blog: that somewhat hard-to-define Italian quality known as “sprezzatura”, which Castiglione writes of so glowingly in his “Book of the Courtier”. For as I discovered last evening at The Birchmere, musician and arranger Scott Bradlee has that quality in spades, as indeed do his friends who make up the members of Postmodern Jukebox.

For those unfamiliar with Bradlee and his band, PMJ takes modern pop songs and arranges them into different musical styles – whether Prohibition-Era or ’50’s Jazz, Classic Country or Motown. The right performer is selected for the right arrangement of the song, and a video of the result is then released on YouTube for us to enjoy. It is smart, it is sometimes infinitely better than the original, e.g. the entire auto-tuned Miley Cyrus catalogue, and it is FUN.

Last evening’s performance at The Birchmere in Alexandria was fun from the start. The show included elements like silly jokes combining contemporary life and nostalgia, such as Facebook Messenger in the style of a 1940’s radio show ad, and when Bradlee himself came out on stage for the first time, he sat down at the piano and began playing the theme music to Super Mario Brothers. It was also a pleasure to see not only the performers themselves dressed stylishly for an evening performance – no torn jeans or tats in sight – but to see many members of the audience dressed up themselves, in suits and ties, evening dresses, and even a few tuxedos here and there in the crowd.

The energy in the room did not lag one moment during the entire evening, something very rare indeed at any concert, particularly for one that was almost three hours long and standing room only. We were informed that the sold-out show that evening was the largest PMJ has played so far on their current tour. One could easily believe that the audiences will grow even larger, and the sold-out shows more frequent, the more this band becomes known.

Returning to where we started, “sprezzatura” can be understood as the art of making things look effortless. Castiglione advocated that the gentlemen and ladies who read his book study hard, and learn as much as possible, but then make their work seem easy. Given the extraordinary range of talent on display last evening, there were no doubt countless hours of lessons, practice sessions, rehearsals, and so forth which lead each of the performers to the point where they could entertain a large audience for several hours. Yet what struck me was the quiet, effortless confidence of those on stage. They know they are good at what they do, but are never pretentious about it: they are having a great time, and they want you to have a great time as well.

In particular, Scott Bradlee himself was something of a revelation. I already admired Bradlee’s inventiveness as well as his skills as a pianist. There are some piano phrases in the PMJ recordings of “Call Me Maybe” and “All About That Bass” that I would go back and watch repeatedly to try to get a sense of what he was doing with his fingering and phrasing. As a classically trained pianist who gave up on the instrument at 18 after my last recital, I could appreciate the technical skill on display, even if I could not reproduce it myself.

What surprised me a great deal last evening was that Bradlee was not the bandleader insisting on hogging the limelight fr himself. In fact not only did he not emcee, as I had expected he would, but he did not say one word until about 2/3 of the way through the concert. He was there to play, and to make his fellow musicians look good, but he was clearly not interested in having the spotlight for himself for any longer than was necessary, no matter how much he clearly deserved it given his genius. And that characterization is backed up by moments such as when, probably to no notice at all from most, Bradlee unexpectedly slipped in a quote of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” as a background bridge in the middle of a song, or took suggestions from the audience and on the spot created a jazz mash-up of songs from Queen, Frank Sinatra, Beyonce, and George Michael, combining them into a song of his own invention.

PMJ are beginning the European tour shortly, and those of my readers on the other side of the pond would do well to avail themselves of the opportunity to see these incredible musicians. You will come away not only impressed, but you will also have a great deal of fun. And you will have an excuse, should you choose to take advantage of it, to dress up and go out to a concert for an evening, maybe do a little dancing with the one you love – like adults used to do, before the culture decided that being an adult was something bad. It’s terrific to see musicians and indeed an audience with a greater appreciation for the music, style, and fun that our grandparents’ generation had, while not abandoning the music of today.

Frankly, I can’t WAIT to see PMJ again in concert, next time they return to DC.

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Postmodern Jukebox last evening at The Birchmere

 

The Darkness of Christmas

Scientists tell us that we crossed a line last night. At approximately 6:03 PM Eastern Standard Time, the Northern Hemisphere entered that astronomical moment known as the Winter Solstice. For the next six months, the days will gradually be getting longer, and the nights, shorter.

It just so happens that this annual nadir of daylight falls a few days before the most orgiastic public celebration of darkness on the present Western calendar. Unlike Thanksgiving, where one simply eats and drinks to excess, we not only engage in the same gastrological excesses at Christmas, but combine them with an excess of consumption of all kinds. In doing so, we allow the twinkling tree lights and flashing advertisements to deceive us into thinking that we are living surrounded by light, rather than in darkness.

Now, I enjoy gift-giving, good things to eat and drink, and parties just as much as any sensible man. Yet when we celebrate Christmas without a thought to what it means to be a Christian, then I must tell you, though you may not wish to hear it, that we are celebrating darkness. We might as well open the encyclopedia and adopt whatever pagan religious festival we come across, as an excuse for eating too much and going into debt through excessive shopping.

Christmas, you see, is actually about the existence of darkness, and how more often than not, we choose to embrace it. Indeed, we have come to love darkness so much, that God Himself had to intervene in our world in a physical way, to show us just how selfish and willful we had become. Sadly, in looking at the world in which we live, we seem intent on falling even further into that dark embrace.

The placing of the Birth of Christ at the time of year in which it occurred means more than it might, at first, appear. If December 25th is as good a candidate as any for the date of Christmas – and there are many valid reasons for accepting this ancient tradition, which I shall not address here – then we might consider what that day is generally like where He was born. The weather forecast for Bethlehem on Christmas Eve this year is 44 degrees Fahrenheit for the low (about 6 degrees Centigrade.) Whether in the 1st century or the 21st, that is not exactly balmy.

Yet whatever the actual forecast may have been, without question the Nativity occurred on one of the darkest nights of the year, thanks to the tilting of Earth on her axis. It’s interesting to consider the fact that God did not choose to enter the world in the warmth and light of summer. Instead, His Birth took place in poverty and humility, probably in the cold, but certainly surrounded by darkness.

We all know that the only way to get rid of darkness is by shining a light on it. This is what we mark at Christmastide when, as Christ says, “I came into the world as light, so that everyone who believes in Me might not remain in darkness.” (St. John 12:46) Jesus Himself recognizes that His Birth, Ministry, Passion, Death, and Resurrection are all geared toward getting us out of that darkness, but none of it can begin until He comes into the world at Christmas. Once He does, the darkness begins to dissipate.

As we go about doing all of those things we *have* to do for Christmas, we forget the darkness which made Christmas necessary at our peril. It is only through His light which broke through the physical darkness that night in Bethlehem, amidst winter chill and shabby poverty, that we can see how far into darkness we have really fallen. Let us try, this Christmas, to make a bit more time for reflecting on that fact. For the darkness will only go away, when we allow Him to cast it out by His light.

"The Adoration of the Shepherds" by Caravaggio (1609) Museo Regionale, Messina, Sicily

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by Caravaggio (1609)
Museo Regionale, Messina, Sicily