Nick Glunt | Staff Writer
It was a cold Thursday morning in February. NPR’s Susan Stamberg waited anxiously in front of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. — not an uncommon locale for her, considering her regular art reporting.
But this time was different.
She had received a phone call days before from long-time listener Juan Hamilton, a sculptor and companion of painter Georgia O’Keeffe. They placed a special antenna on their roof specifically to listen to “All Things Considered,” of which Stamberg was the host.
Hamilton had asked Stamberg if she would like to attend an exclusive preview of a new art exhibit with O’Keeffe and him.
Her answer was a joking, “Oh, you know, I’ll have to look at my schedule.”
The taxi pulled up, and out stepped Hamilton — quite handsome, as Stamberg remembered. He turned to help the 96-year-old O’Keeffe from the vehicle.
“Georgia, this is Susan Stamberg,” Hamilton said. “We listen to her in Abiquiú, (N.M.).”
O’Keeffe looked at Stamberg and, as Stamberg recalled it, she “showed some teeth,” rather than smiling.
Similar mannerisms continued through the museum, and all the while, Stamberg recorded O’Keeffe’s comments and remarks. To this day, Stamberg considers the recording — though it’s not great quality — one of her most treasured.
Stamberg shared this story as part of her lecture at 10:45 a.m. Wednesday in the Amphitheater. Stamberg shared her views of art as a 40-year broadcast journalist, specifically that art will save the world.
Stamberg was the third speaker in Week Four’s topic on “A Case for the Arts.” During her speech, titled “Museums Matter,” she described herself as more of an art enthusiast than an expert.
“Why do museums matter?” Stamberg asked. “I think the answer to that is: Why do we need rain? I believe that (art) museums in particular … nurture our souls, and they help us to grow. They soak us with beauty, or discovery, or sometimes dismay — that’s fine.”
They matter, she said, because they can inspire and thrill. They can change “nondescript” towns into something more. They bring pride to people, and they can take people away from the horrors around them.
Furthermore, Stamberg said, artwork has the ability to relate people with each other. She compared the paintings of Edward Hopper and Gustave Caillebotte, who each painted modern art in their own times. Even though our modern times are very different from theirs, Stamberg said, viewers are still “forced to feel” when viewing their paintings.
Directly after the 9/11 attacks, she said, museums and art helped people cope. She had a part in this by bringing pianist Leon Fleisher onto her show to aid the emotional recovery of the nation.
“Great art — whether it’s music, painting, sculpture, drawing, fiction — takes us away from the present,” Stamberg said, “and engages, clears, airs out our minds of the present, so we can go back to our realities refreshed.”
Refreshed people are more willing and able to perform the difficult tasks with which they are presented, she said.
When Stamberg was growing up, her father would take her to a museum every Saturday. She and her late husband, Louis, did the same for their son Josh, even though they sometimes had to drag him along.
She said she’s very glad they had this tradition, because her son now visits museums in every new city he visits.
“He’ll go to any museum any place,” Stamberg said, “because there will always be, and he knows this, at least one thing, one treasure, that will intrigue or provoke or enchant, puzzle, annoy him, cause a reaction. That’s the point — to prompt some sort of an emotion.”
Throughout her speech, Stamberg drew on personal experiences regarding many living and deceased artists, including Paul Gauguin, César Baldaccini, Mark Strand and Edward Hopper.
Stamberg quoted Robert Frost, saying, “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Museums, she said, are the same.
“When we have to go (to museums), they have to take us in, to welcome and expose us to the truths of our time and other times,” Stamberg said, “to help us to look at ourselves in fresh ways, to synthesize — through great works of creativity and discovery — our feelings, our fears, our aspirations. It helps us to express what has been inexpressible in our day-to-day language that we are meant to create.”
She said it’s reasons like these that she chose to spend so much of her life devoted — as both an enthusiast and a journalist — to art and museums. She didn’t have to cover so much art in her broadcasts. She chose to do so.
“I believe art will save the world,” Stamberg said, “if anything can.”
Q: How does a curator make a museum? What makes a well-curated show? Can you give us some examples of that?
A: It’s not so different from the way I work in telling stories. Have an idea. They have an idea about something. Things that have been out there, with old paintings, for hundreds of years, but try to look at it in some fresh way and tell a new story. And so much for the art curators happens because of advances in technology. Well that’s true for us as well, because there are better ways to X-ray paintings, to see what their history has been, to notice hitherto unnoticed aspects of a painting, or discovery of manuscripts, discovery of paintings that have been in somebody’s attic — all these things allow the curators to deepen their scholarship, the information they have, and shape whatever it is that is the story they want to tell in a particular exhibition. Sometimes it’s as simple as just chronological. I find those — well, I was going to say the least interestingn, but that’s not true. If you look at chronological exhibits, say, of Picasso — although there would be no museum in the world big enough to hold all of them, you could do a retrospective — but if you arranged his pictures in chronological order in an exhibition, what you would find would be extraordinary. You would see him painting his way through every era of art. Absorbing it. Changing it. And moving on to the next one. So he had to invent cubism by the end, because he’d run out of other people to be. So he had to invent this new thing, and then after that, he went back to some of those classic forms that he started with. So I can’t say chronological is the least interesting with someone like Picasso, but sometimes, often, in the case of others, it’s not as interesting as other ways of gathering.
Q: What do you think about opening up a Louvre in Abu Dhabi?
A: Well, aren’t they lucky to have all that money? I would love to go there because they are doing extraordinary things in architecture. Do you remember the time when the Japanese started buying up major works of art? I remember wandering into the Phillips and seeing some Japanese visitors with stacks of art books that they were buying and carrying back home. And then they just started amassing these extraordinary collections. And now in Dubai, that money is creating cultural opportunities for those citizens as well as destinations. I’m sure Rocco Landesman, if you went to hear him, that art works and creates cultural tourism, and brings cultural tourism — not that they need it so much in Abu Dhabi — but brings in money to a country or a town or an organization as well as spreading culture and showing people wonderful things.
Q: Your advice, please, for aspiring broadcast journalists?
A: Oh, I’m so happy that there are those. You have to go into public radio. Go and volunteer at your local public radio station. They always need help. Get a job. Now, I’m not sure if this is still true; this is traditionally been the advice I gave, which is avoid journalism school. Gosh, I hope there are no professors of journalism in this audience. Get on the job training, because there’s nothing like it. Go work at a local, small newspaper. That’s the part I’m not sure about anymore, if that’s great advice. Although this daily paper you have is really something. I’m very impressed at the level of reporting. I was reading Stanley Fish’s remarks written up in today’s paper, and it was such a terrific summary of the things that he said — very good. I’ll see what tomorrow’s paper brings. But anyway, that traditionally has been a great thing to do because you get editing by professional editors who will help guide you and shape you from the local newspapers. And they have been big enough so that the editors can take that time to help teach you. I’m afraid those days are over as papers shrink and collapse. Strangely, it’s been to the benefit of National Public Radio. It’s nothing we ever wished for, but when we started, we all have all observed our 40th anniversary now, and when we began we never dreamt that 40 years later, we would be people’s major source of information as the newspapers collapse and as television really gives up news for whatever they’re doing now. These reality shows. But now there’s this whole aspect of citizen journalism. I have very mixed feelings about that as well. I really do believe in carefully trained reporting where you’ve got editors looking over your shoulder and telling you, ‘That doesn’t work,’ ‘How do you verify that?’ ‘Who confirmed that source?’ ‘How many sources did you have on it?’ The whole business of reporting, which I fear is getting lost as well, but still the public stations are there, and they’re trying to do what they can to expand their own local news reporting. I think that would be a big piece of advice. We have a wonderful internship program — it’s very competitive — but it’s something else for young journalists to think about applying to and getting. And it’s not just gopher work. There’s plenty of gopher work that we get those poor young people to do, but there’s also really hands-on help that they provide to us all the time. And volunteering at the local public station will allow you to do things, because they’re so desperate. They really need you. They have small staffs and tremendous pressures on them to do the work. Those are the ways. I don’t know what paying jobs are anymore for young people to get into it. I don’t know.
Q: Tell us about some museums you don’t like.
A: I don’t think there’s a single museum I don’t like. That’s very shallow of me, or unselective, but as I said, there will always be some one thing — you zip through and many museums, especially in small towns, have started because the rich folks in town bought paintings and decided the way they would put their mark on the town was to start a museum and turn their personal collections over. That’s the case with Barnes, except it was not exactly voluntary on his part. He opened his home and his extraordinary collection — he has more Renoirs then anywhere else in the world — he did it first as a adjunct to the arts school that he wanted to form in which he could extend his own personal philosophies of what art should be. Well, now there’s so much controversy, as you may know, about the moving of that museum, which he was very adamant in his will: ‘They will not lend; they will not borrow; you make an appointment to come in; you can’t just wander in off the street.’ There was one rule after another in a lovely residential neighborhood outside of Philadelphia where parking was difficult, neighbors were complaining. It became a tremendous hassle, and eventually the will was broken; it spent a lot of time in court, and the decision, although it is still being fought, is to move the collection, recreate its hanging as best as they can, and it’s a very idiosyncratic way that they’re displaying art, that he decided art should be displayed in that wonderful building, home, but to recreate it in a new facility in the heart of Philadelphia. And there are arguments back and forth, there’s a film, a documentary some of you may have seen, something about theft. What is it? “The Art of the Steal,” which presents its case pretty forcefully, but you can also make the case that the level of hassle it took to get out there, and the advance planning. The first time I went there, which was in the ’60s, I think, you had to write a letter months in advance just to get permission to come, and they were told on a particular day at a particular time. So there is a case to be made for making it available, more centrally located, in a place where many many more people can have a chance to look at it.
Q: Is the Guggenheim a good place to display?
A: That’s a controversy, too. It was when I was there, but they had (Richard) Serra, those huge waves of sculpture, and in that building, it looked great. Others say that the gallery space is not particularly conducive to looking at the art. It’s too bad, but you get to see that building; you get to have that experience of space and the pioneering way that (Frank) Gehry was able to conceive of it based on computer technology developed by the aerospace industry. He was able to create forms and architecture that have never existed before. But I haven’t gone back since, as I said, this was 2001, and I haven’t gone back to see any other sorts of exhibitions there.
Q: How many museums have opened this year, and how many have closed?
A: I don’t know the answer to that. Does anybody here? There are new wings; there are not so many brand new museums; per se, but there have been capital campaigns from before 2008 and the economic collapse to raise money for the edition of wings by major architects to many museums. So those have opened, and they have been able to take out of storage things that nobody ever had a chance to see before, and put on display. I think Cleveland was the most recent one that I visited. Oh, and also, Richmond, Va., which has a terrific wing. And I know I’m forgetting others. What is it? (Renzo) Piano’s addition to the Art Institute. Oh my lord, it’s fantastic, all that natural light pouring in. Well, Piano, didn’t he do Richmond as well? Anybody from there? I was just there a few weeks ago, but I can’t remember. And Detroit, so I’ve heard, but I haven’t seen that. That seems to be the trend, rather than brand new museums opening, although again in my hometown, Washington, they’re working toward a 2015 opening of an African-American museum, and I heard on the radio, my best source, the other day, that a small venue, 5000 square feet, has opened to show the African-American role in the Civil War somewhere in Northwest Washington. So museum spaces are opening up, but as far as new space and commissioned space, they’re attached to the older institutions. And I don’t know about closings.
Q: Are you worried about rising admissions cost?
A: You have to spend, I think it’s $20, to get into the Museum of Modern Art. I’m so spoiled, and I don’t think it’s going to last long, in Washington, D.C., where admission to every museum is free. It’s extraordinary. Except for my favorite, the Phillips. But all of those Smithsonian museums, you just walk in the door. In some ways, in this economy, they may have to start charging. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised. And charge $5, or charge $10. The worst accusations of the arts are that they are elitist, and those kinds of fees will only exacerbate that level of criticism. But there are other museums doing creative things in order to keep their doors open or their prices down. And one I’m thinking of is the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, which opens its doors to yoga classes. They have yoga classes in galleries right underneath some of their wonderful — wouldn’t you love to do that? I would. And whatever the charge for the yoga class is, a percentage of it gets brought to the museum. So those are imaginative ways. A main way that they raise money is through their museum shops, which I always find a very mixed blessing, because I hate being herded out of galleries into the shop. I’d rather have a little breathing space before they want me to spend my money on something. On the other hand, I can’t begrudge that, because it’s a good revenue producer for them, and a big percentage of their income comes from that. I just lament so the idea of how high these fees are getting. But these are our new realities, I’m afraid. We’re living in a really difficult economy, and we want to keep those museums’ doors open. Some are closing, not closing down, but because security guards are expensive, they’re cutting back on number of days the museums stay open, and I’m afraid we’ll see more of that.
Q: Is our contemporary art going to rank with the great stuff of the past?
A: Gee, don’t you wonder? A lot of it — and this is the hopeful part in a way — is being created online and through the Internet. How that gets preserved, I don’t know, because it’s out there, and it’s essentially ephemeral. Some of the recent stuff, Julian Schnabel putting pieces of crackery into his canvasses. I don’t know how you roll that up when they take down the exhibition. So the extent to which those pieces will last is unknown. There are people breaking ground. I don’t have nearly as easy a time with truly contemporary things as I do, as you can hear, with some of the things from the past. But I did talk a few months ago, again in Paris, with David Hockney, who was at an exhibition of his newest art, which is making art on iPhones and iPads. The gallery was full of one wall on which iPhones — 20 of them — were hung, all on, and the other wall was iPads all turned on, with that light coming out of all of them. And these images — which there’s an app, which I’m going to buy for the iPhone, called “Paintbox,” or something like that. And a little paint box comes up at the bottom of the screen, and you dip into it and make images on the iPhone, and he said he had gotten into it so much that he was wiping his hands on his smock and then going back to paint some more. And he started doing this — he would wake up at his house, I guess, in Whales, and next to his bed was always his sketchbook and some pencils, but he’d look out the window and see this gorgeous sunrise, and he decided he wasn’t going to sketch it, he was going to grab his iPhone, turn it on, and with this brand new app, start making sketches. And then he would email them to his friends, and that’s how this began. I offered to give him my email address. He laughed, but the other thing he said was, ‘I haven’t figured out a way to make money from this yet.’ So if David Hackney can’t make money off of this, how can these new artists and people coming in and using the web to make art, how will they ever find a way to support themselves? Although there’s room for graphic and commercial artists, I think, online. But in a way it’s a time I, as an old fogy, lament things past, but it’s really an exciting time of enormous activity and invention that could lead us places we’ve never even dreamt of before. For instance, the little disc that will be soon embedded in my head replacing Google, and just at the moment when memory is utterly shot, I can just do this and it will all come back. And you will have that, too.
—Transcribed by Josh Cooper