Beyond the Chance Encounter

in_jackson_pollocks_studio_2Thinking through cultural experiences in Birmingham.

Written by Brett Levine // Photography by Mindi Shapiro

Ten years ago, when I began writing the Studio column in the inaugural issue of B-Metro, my impetus was to highlight the diversity and complexity of creative practitioners working in the greater Birmingham area. A decade later, what I have realized is that although the city is brimming with innovation, expanding the audiences who participate in the various opportunities the city offers remains a challenge, and measuring Studio’s capacity to contribute to this growth is anecdotal at best.

These observations—not so much revelations, but affirmations of long-held beliefs—led to three conclusions, each of which have implications for the cultural sector. The first conclusion is that participation in cultural events will always be a choice, despite how much people believe they “should” participate. Research from the Wallace Foundation shows that most people participate in cultural events in community environments rather than in formal cultural spaces, meaning that they are more likely to experience art, music, theatre, or dance in an open-air park or the street than they are in a museum or gallery. The question here, however, is if one can equate those two experiences. The excitement of hearing a busker playing beautifully on the street is very different from viewing an exhibition of a museum’s most significant collection pieces, innovatively displayed.

The second conclusion is this: cultural experiences should not be driven by chance encounters. They should be driven by a commitment, meaning that rather than hope you might encounter something beautiful on a casual walk through the park, you can plan your encounter with something spectacular at a gallery, in a theatre, or at a dance studio. When my wife and I are planning our vacations, we look at what it is that we will be able to see before deciding if that location is somewhere we would like to go. As a result, we’ve been fortunate enough to view some incredible exhibitions we might not have otherwise encountered. When you turn this notion toward our own community, you begin to see the diverse range of choices, at a range of levels, that can provide these same opportunities.

Finally, there is the perception that experiencing art should be easy. Somewhat surprisingly, we seem to expect our encounters with the creative arts to be simpler than our experiences of sports. As a culture, we are willing to learn how many points you earn depending on how you score in football, but we seem far less willing to study or situate the arts in a deeper context.

I had a conversation recently with someone who was taking the initiative to read a book on the history of contemporary photography. Their remark to me was twofold: one, that they wished they had read the book earlier; two, that they wished they understood more. I responded that one, they were reading it now, and two, that the process of learning was lifelong. I often explain to students that understanding the creative arts begins with understandings its foundations, then with understanding the ways the changes to those foundations results in what they now see: abstract expressionism was a response to realist painting; minimalism was a response to abstract expressionism; modern dance was a response to classical ballet. In each instance, situating what appears means understanding what comes before. So, when someone says, “I don’t know a lot about art, but I know what I like,” or, “My kid could do that,” well yes, the experience of art may be visceral, but its understanding is a little more complex. And perhaps your child could make those same gestural marks on a canvas, but are they grounded in the history of painting that made that artist do what they did in an attempt to destroy the frame?

Over the past decade, Studio has sought to focus on the creative talent of Birmingham that strives every day to rise to precisely these challenges: to test the boundaries of the creative arts across their spectrum and to do so beginning in a small city of around a million people. Supporting these communities requires commitment, and it requires effort. It requires the belief that what creatives in Birmingham do is the equal of what their contemporaries in other cities are able to achieve, and it requires a commitment on our part to be willing to engage with something we may not know. A studio is an incubator for creative ideas, and the community becomes the stage on which they are displayed. We are the audience, and this column is supposed to serve as an initial glance into their inner worlds. Once they step forward, only we can determine how what they offer is received.

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