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Thursday, September 3, 2009

TBA and the "Civic Realm"

Posted by Alison Hallett on Thu, Sep 3, 2009 at 5:23 PM

DK Row has an uncharacteristically muddled article in today's Oregonian, about TBA's failure to resonate with the general public. Row writes that TBA is "a festival that's about giving artists and performers the widest latitude no matter what, even if that excludes a wider audience." He goes on to compare the ten-day attendance at TBA (approximately 25,000 last year) with that of a single sold-out Trail Blazer game (also 25k) or the free weekend-long arts walk Art in the Pearl (75,000). That these comparisons are dismayingly facile gives a pretty good idea of the tenor of the article as a whole—whether he's failing to support his assertion that "part of the festival's mission... remains untended, namely its relationship to the rest of the city," or offering glib solutions to the festival's alleged PR problem ("maybe more money would help"), Row's real beef seems to be with TBA's basic identity as a curated contemporary arts festival.

As proof of TBA's obsolescence, Row cites an "important local art dealer who travels frequently around the country to see art and performance," who asks "'If I don't go to the festival, then why would the average person go?'" Well... because the average person doesn't travel frequently around the country to see art and performance. TBA provides those of us who are interested in contemporary art with access to work we would not see otherwise. Period.

Most galling, though, is when Row asks us to "set aside what these works mean in critical art and performance terms. Instead, let's think about what they represent in the civic realm."

I'm not going to argue here that the festival is more engaged with the fabric of the city than Row gives it credit for. Tim DuRoche makes that point ably in his response to Row's article—and frankly, it's not a question I'm particularly interested in. I care about TBA's relationship to Portland insofar as it occasionally brings interesting artistic perspectives to bear on the city (Oregon! Oregon!; last year's Halprin Project; Sojourn's Built). Otherwise, it's not something I feel strongly about. I do object, though, to an art critic asking us to set aside a work's meaning. That is fundamentally problematic.

One of the best shows I've ever seen was Gatz, Elevator Repair Service's six-hour staged reading of The Great Gatsby. There is no way to make that show accessible. None. It's not possible. It is an intimidating show. It does not exist "in the civic realm." It exists on its own terms—performance terms. People who care about performance, who saw that show, had an incredible experience. People who don't care about performance? Didn't see it. No big deal. Row writes: "Each year, I want the public beyond the insidery community of artists to get excited about the festival, to ardently run or bike from one event to another, late into the night." You know who he sounds like here? He sounds like me, talking about my job as a theater critic. Theater and performance art are a tough sell year round, not just from September 3-11. Because for the most part, the general public just isn't that interested in contemporary art. More often than not, I think the general public would rather go to a Blazer game. And there's nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, though, is asking PICA to make its programming accessible enough to be competitive with Blaze the Trail Cat. PICA is a contemporary art institute. They're not missionaries.

TBA is not a sacred cow: Critics can, and should, point out perceived weaknesses both in programming and in individual shows. But vague complaints about how the festival should better engage the public don't help anyone—least of all the very public that, by Row's own token, already finds the festival "impenetrable."

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