Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Why There Are Starving Artists

I was recently forwarded an email about internationally renowned violinist Joshua Bell who, at the urging of a Washington Post writer, played his Stradivarius next to a trash can in a D.C. subway station for spare change while mid-level bureaucrats rushed by with little response. Starting at 7:51 AM, Bell played for 43 minutes some of the world’s greatest classical music on a $3.5-million violin. Only seven people stopped to listen for at least a minute, 27 blindly tossed coins totaling $32 into his open instrument case and over 1,000 people hurried by to their government office cubicles without a second look or listen.

This event took place in 2007 and the resulting article earned writer Gene Weingarten a Pulitzer Prize. News of the incident has been floating around cyberspace for two years finally reaching my inbox in Akron, Ohio this month. The story questions our perceptions of artistic value, our priorities and the numbing pace of our lives. As an arts administrator for the past 10 years, I have observed a lot about these things.

For example on artistic value, a recent visitor to the gallery I help run complained about the $100 price of an original lithograph created by a talented, local artist. He haughtily said it wasn’t worth that much and offered $50. I politely declined and reminded him that artists have to eat too.

Another example is the city-sponsored summer performances that our professional ballet company and symphony orchestra give in public parks. Thousands of delighted people pack up picnics and kids to enjoy these talented artists. In fact, this past summer there was record-breaking attendance at these free arts events. Common sense would say these performances should be great marketing opportunities spurring ticket sales for upcoming fall/winter seasons. Not true. National studies show that free arts performances don’t put paying butts in seats later. They only whet the public’s appetite for MORE FREE ARTS.

Why are artistic talents valued so much less than, say, sports talents? Remember that besides having innate abilities, visual and performing artists invest many years and many dollars into training, practice and university educations. Is a $90 ticket to a two-hour professional basketball game a better value than buying a work of art that you can enjoy every day and pass down to your children? Imagine what the crowd size would have been if Lebron James was in that subway station bouncing a basketball. OK, perhaps people would naturally notice a six foot-eight inch NBA superstar plonking a ball up and down. But shouldn’t people naturally notice the moving strains of Franz Schubert's "Ave Maria" played by a virtuoso?

On a recent trip to North Carolina, I picked up a Charlotte Observer newspaper and was struck by two, side-by-side headlines – “Football rekindles passions” and “Symphony players take pay cut.” It’s all about perceptions and priorities, isn’t it?

In defense of the government drones who ran past “the greatest American violinist active today” according to the Boston Herald -- I wonder if I were late for an 8 AM meeting and hadn’t had my Starbucks latte would I have tuned out my harried personal agenda and tuned into "Chaconne" from Bach's Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Probably not, even though Bell calls it "not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history.” Of course, when the Ohio State Buckeyes won the national football championship in 2002, I called it one of the greatest achievements in history. We all have our perceptions and priorities.

But thanks to Akron’s Tuesday Musical Association on February 2, I can relax into a seat at EJ Thomas Hall and hear Joshua Bell play his Stradivarius for $22. I can only hope he plays that Bach piece.

The true value of a home …

When my husband I bought our house last year it was sort of a “no brainer.” We bought his grandmother’s home at a price that we couldn’t resist and we could afford. Grandma was looking to downsize to an apartment and with current state of the housing market she knew that it would take a long time to sell. We bought it to avoid having to rent and in turn got a house payment lower than our some of our friends’ car payments. It was built in 1918 so it needs to be updated, although we have done a lot to it already. We’ve added central air conditioning, a new roof, an additional full bathroom, as well as some painting and new carpet. Our home is not in the suburbs and it’s not considered “new construction,” but it’s still a home and the memories that my husband’s family created there for more than 50 years live in the walls.

We’ve been in our neighborhood for almost two years now and not too much has changed. However, there are a few vacant houses near us and more than a dozen are for sale. Our property value and taxes have decreased, but our insurance has increased. According to our insurance agent, the cost to replace a home has skyrocketed. This article, published last year in the Akron Beacon Journal, explains how Akron experienced a 4.4 percent overall decrease in home values. County Fiscal Officer John Donofrio called it “an unprecedented decline caused by lackluster home sales and thousands of foreclosures.”

The world is full of unknown circumstances so it’s important to me to live within our means. It seems as though at any time you could lose your job, a family member could become ill, or you could suffer some other economic strife. We try not to overspend and certainly don’t live a lavish lifestyle. I think that some people live outside of their means and that’s how they get into trouble and lose their homes. They simply buy too much house, or car, for what they can afford. I think that your lifestyle should reflect your attitude toward living and shouldn’t take too much of your bank account to maintain.

Thursday, September 24, 2009


Standing in the full parking lot on a mid-September Saturday afternoon, next to an actual tailgate, I could hear the marching band coming across campus, the cheerful punch of bass drum cut with brass and timpani, the sound and the feet beneath it charting the course toward the new football stadium.

The sun was warm in the way apple pie is warm: the bees were drunk on it. These are lush, leafy afternoons that seem exclusive to Ohio in the early weeks of football season, and exist specifically to answer any question of why one would choose this place as home.

This is my alma mater, the University of Akron, an urban campus I attended some two decades ago and where I now teach. When I started college here, the only thing making its way through the middle of campus was a busy city street that bisected the cobble of lecture halls and occasionally sent a slow-footed co-ed to the emergency room. In the time since I graduated, and especially in the past 10 years, the place has been transformed into something I hardly recognize, with lush gardens and lawns and sculptures flanking a brick promenade where the street once ran, fanciful clock towers at the portals into campus and so many new buildings that I still sometimes stop to recollect if I’ve seen this one before.

A brilliant mirrored polymer science center anchors one end of campus; a student rec center with a lazy river and rock climbing wall anchors the other; there’s a new student union at the center with a bowling alley and a grand piano and a Starbucks, all set off with recently constructed residence halls and academic buildings, prompting a recalibration of the campus of my own memory.

But this has become old news in Akron, in the way that everything remarkable settles eventually into its context.

So it’s been especially interesting to me just how remarkably remarkable the addition of this new football stadium has been. It’s not like it’s the only recent improvement. Far from it. But it seems to be the one that has drawn all the others into their full context.

College campuses are communities and communities are bound to their campuses. The old football stadium, harmoniously named “The Rubber Bowl,” was a Depression-era concrete donut six miles from campus. So this new complex (the cacophonously named “Summa Field at InfoCision Stadium”) has achieved a kind of dual magic in bringing the atmosphere of a college football Saturday directly onto campus, and bringing the wider community together to experience it.

As I stood in that parking lot, I heard someone call my name and looked over to see a friend, someone I went to high school with, someone I run into maybe every couple of years. We exchanged hellos and the common astonishment over how much things have changed and he told me that one of the freshmen in yonder marching band was his son, drawing the facets of this random meeting into high relief.

Later, in the stands, I found myself in a near constant state of recognizing old faces and waving across the way to people I knew. And I was only one of 30,000 people there that day, doing the same thing. “If nostalgia is a hangover,” I thought, “this is the bloody Mary,” and I wondered if that made as much sense as I think it did.

I don’t know what will happen when this place too settles into context, but I do know that the context has been changed forever and for good.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The gas bill is paid off just in time for winter!

In recent weeks a lot has changed for my husband and me. He’s back to working full time and we’re eating high on the hog. Not really, but things have gotten a little easier. We made it through the summer and we’re headed into the fall ready to accept the change of our growing family along with the changing leaves.

I opened the mail yesterday and to my delight our gas bill was only half of what I’d been paying all summer long. You may be asking why we have a high gas bill in the summer. Well, that’s because we’re still catching up from last winter. We have a colonial style home and I always mix up the square footage and the year it was built. One is 1923 and the other is 1918. Either way, it’s an old house. We installed a new furnace and central air last year; however, our windows are pretty old, so there is a good chance that we’re heating half the neighborhood.

This reminds me of when I lived on my own in a one bedroom brownstone apartment and had a gas bill for one month that totaled $1,000. The building was old and used a gravity furnace to get the heat up to my second floor apartment. I even kept the heat between 60-65 degrees and told my guests to dress in layers. But I digress.

With the new baby coming we can’t be chintzy on heat, so we have to expect to pay a little more than what we’re used to. This winter, we’re going to get on the budget billing plan so we will know exactly what to pay each month. Let’s hope that gas prices continue to fall and we have a warmer winter.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

No Capers in this Economy

Ever since my children went off to college and beyond, I hate grocery shopping. When my family was around, I prided myself in cooking excellent dinners. But now when I get home from work I’d rather grab some cheese and crackers, pour some wine and enjoy my repast with Alex Trebek and Jeopardy!

Besides my disinterest in cooking, another reason I hate grocery shopping is that I’m an impulse buyer. These days I only go to the Acme when I’m desperate for something like laundry detergent or toilet paper (or wine and cheese). That means there’s no planning involved, and I’m easily seduced into buying stuff that eventually goes bad in the fridge or expires on my shelves. For example, I have a bottle of capers in my refrigerator and two in my cupboard. Why?? I don’t know. I guess I’m just attracted to emerald-colored glass bottles filled with tiny, squished balls – probably something Freudian. I also have three bags of special purple rice that once was exclusively eaten by Chinese emperors. I’m well stocked with Pad Thai-in-a-box, dried mango slices, peach chutney, pomegranate juice, frozen collard greens and cherry-flavored rawhide bones (for my Golden Retriever). Did you know you can buy fancy tins of chunky salt crystals from Tuscany and France? Ooh la la – I have a few of those. When I checkout and discover what I owe, I get the guilts big time. After last fall’s market crash, I’ve already resolved myself that early retirement is not in my future and here I am wasting money on things that I’ll cram in cupboards and never eat.

So this week I was desperate for crackers and ran into the grocery determined to take only five minutes. Don’t ask me why I grabbed a cart, but I did and started cruising the aisles. I first noticed the couple when I was gazing at a bottle of artichoke infused olive oil. They were obviously a husband and wife team in their late 30s armed with an alphabetized box of coupons, a shopping list and a CALCULATOR.

“We need flour, George,” she said. “The large bag is a better buy, but I think it will put us over budget.”

“We saved money on those generic cookies for the kids instead of Oreos, so maybe we’ll be OK,” he said with fingers flying over the calculator keys.

In the next aisle as I was contemplating a lovely jar of spiced watermelon rind, they were searching through coupons and running the numbers on which ketchup was the bargain. We kept bumping into one another around the store – they were pricing tuna while I was throwing Indonesian minced crab into my cart -- until we finally ended up at neighboring checkouts. My cart was filled with the usual ridiculousness – baked eggplant chips, shitakes, opal-basil cinnamon vinegar, organic tofu bars, raspberry beer. They were excited because their total was under their allotted budget and could buy ice cream cones on the way home.

Now I don’t know if this frugal pair was doing calculated shopping because of the bad economy or not. Perhaps they were just accounting geeks. But the seriousness with which they discussed each purchase made me think their efforts were out of necessity. Either way they certainly taught me a lesson – or at least made me feel really, really guilty. Pickled, white asparagus anyone?