The Smithsonians: catch them if you can

AmericanArtMuseum

American Art Museum

By Lanie Rivera
Editor

If you’re planning to visit the Smithsonian art museums in D.C., you might want to make other arrangements — six of the galleries are closing their doors at random and without warning, according to an article on The Verge.

Sequestration budget cuts are forcing the Smithsonian to close the doors of the National Portrait Gallery, the American Art Museum, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the National Museum of African Art and the Freer and Sackler Galleries of Asian Art, six of the Smithsonian’s most prestigious galleries.

The details of the closings have not been disclosed, and the news came as a surprise to many because the Smithsonian vowed to keep its doors open despite the sequestration, according to CBS. Now, The Verge reported that the museums are supposed to cut off nearly 5 percent of its budget, approximately $42 million, in this year alone.

Employees and visitors alike are flustered that the closing schedule is not posted. Many contracted security guards from AlliedBarton (a private firm that details the staff at the Smithsonians) will be affected, but this statement from the company shows they neglect to release information about the employees’ future:

“AlliedBarton Security Services does not release information related to client contracts. We work in conjunction with our clients to meet their ongoing needs for security officer services.”

Not only will the security guards take a toll, but there will also be a freeze on new hires, a decrease of employee travel and postponed maintenance at major museums such as the National Air and Space Museum.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Secretary G. Wayne Clough testified before Congress last week to outline the effects of the sequestration:

“We have little budgetary flexibility remaining, and these required reductions will be felt by our visitors and those who are increasingly expecting services online.”

So why leave employees and visitors in the dark? 

Linda St. Thomas, a spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution, told The Verge that none of the officials even know when the exhibits will be closed:

“The reason we can’t post [closing information] online is because we don’t know … We won’t know enough time in advance to do a web post.”

Decisions will be made on a day-to-day basis by the Institution’s museum directors and heads of security.

Although these budget cuts are temporary, Smithsonian officials are not at ease. Both Clough and St. Thomas cautioned that the cuts could become permanent if they continue past 2014.

Clough didn’t expect the effects of the sequestration to even get this bad, according to the CBS article from February of this year. Clough told CBS he wanted to avoid layoffs and museum closings.

The effects of the sequestration could “translate into permanent staff reductions,” and museums will be “forced to postpone or cancel exhibitions,” Clough told The Verge.

Despite rumors of the Smithsonian Institutions charging admission, authorities made it clear that the museums will remain open to the public without a fee. The Verge reported:

The idea has been floated repeatedly by members of Congress and other parties throughout the Smithsonian’s 167-year history, but each time, the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents — the governing board of the institution — has summarily rejected it.

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Blue Streak invades your space

*Photo courtesy of the Hamiltonian Gallery

Photo courtesy of the Hamiltonian Gallery

By Lanie Rivera
Editor

Art has been known to defy conventional practices and surprise viewers for years. But this recent installation at D.C.’s Hamiltonian Gallery goes one step further — it invades your personal space.

A giant blue construction in the gallery’s hallway makes it hard for visitors to walk through without feeling uncomfortable.

You must be thinking: what’s the artist’s point?

“Blue Streak,” as it’s named, “is about these moments of awkward choice. It’s more about art-making and art-experience than it is about the distinct interpretation of a made object … about contemplating space, the memory of space, the expectations of space, and the mechanics of space as experienced by each individual viewer,” according to the Examiner.

Go check out artist Timothy “Mike” Thompson‘s piece in the “Gathering Space” exhibition.

Street Art — Baltimore Edition

By Lanie Rivera
Editor

Last weekend, I traveled to Baltimore, M.D. with a group of friends. Our day there seemed to be immersed in rich art forms, from art museums to public street art. Pictured here are a few of the many murals we found.

*Photos by Lanie Rivera

Art-o-Mat: degrading art or promoting success?

*Watch this video featuring Art-o-Mat creator Clark Whittington as he explains the genesis of his “art for the masses.”

By Lanie Rivera
Editor

The Smithsonian’s Art-o-Mat vending machine was installed in 2010, but this recent article by San Jose Mercury News (SJMN) shows that D.C. was ahead of the curve — institutions across the country are now tagging along, using the refurbished cigarette machines to dispense small art pieces for just $5 (check out their over 100 of the nationwide locations here).

Amid a time when art organizations are financially suffering, it makes sense that organizations have embraced fun technologies like the Art-o-Mat to attract customers.

Some art enthusiasts haven’t welcomed this trend — they claim the vending machines undermine the quality of art. But it’s not like these cigarette dispensers give out little snippets of Van Gogh’s work. Despite criticism from naysayers, the Art-o-Mat allows both artists and consumers to easily market and collect art, taking art from one home and bringing it straight into another.

While some artists are amateur, others, noted Art-o-Mat creator Clark Whittington in response to this post, have been practicing their craft for years but they want to contribute to Art-o-Mat’s cause:

“We have professional photographers, painters, sculptors, etc. who make a living from their art. They are involved because they believe in the original concept of Art-o-Mat … getting art into people’s hands and making it part of their lives.”

And the machines are more than just a short-term project, according to Whittington in the SJMN article:

“Art should reach out to the public … Some people think this is a fad, something with a short shelf life, but it’s not.”

Photo by Karl Mondon

Photo by Karl Mondon

SJMN offers other methods art organizations have used to integrate their work with technology. These modern advancements, including museums with smart-phone apps and pre-theater commercials “fly in the face of artistic convention.” And critics have also claimed that Art-o-Mat is the art world’s way of upping their “hipness” to attract a larger audience, according to SJMN.

But artists, amateur and seasoned, have praised the machines for providing entrepreneurial opportunities, and consumers are enthusiastic for the opportunity to engage with art in an innovative way.

Art-o-Mat artist Dean Konop commented on the Smithsonian’s blog post about their art vending machine with enthusiasm and gratitude for the opportunity this machine provides for him:

I am an artist [who has been] part of the Art*O*Mat group (Artist in Cellophane) since 2004. I have created over 650 pieces for AIC and Art*O*Mat and I find the whole experience liberating and enjoyable. To work on a project and then have them dispersed to places I have never been to is exhilarating … Plus I get my name out as an artist through this whole endeavor.

While some outright oppose the new technologies, others are simply worried that inventions like these are a sign of an arts industry crisis.

Kathryn Jones, CEO of VisualArtsTV, a company that creates innovative ways for the community to engage with art, said that the art world is desperate to attract more viewers, reported by SJMN’s recent article:

“Our industry is facing a severe sustainability crisis … If speaking to today’s audiences via the technology they are already using will help to build more demand for the performing arts then I think we are doing the industry a terrible disservice by refusing to try.”

With this in mind, the question is: does technology really degrade the quality of art?

Some art connoisseurs have argued that ploys like the vending machines are disrespectful to both artists and their work, but others know the art world has to adapt to the changing times:

While purists bemoan the cheapening of the aesthetic experience, others say it’s a sign of times: The arts, like most sectors of the economy, must evolve or die.

And evolving it is. These antique “carcinogen delivery systems” have been repurposed by North Carolinian artist Clark Whittington. They are art themselves.

And the Art-o-Mat machines are undeniably gaining attention from the art world.

The Smithsonian’s blog post reported that consumers immediately took advantage of the opportunity to collect these eccentric pieces of art.

Within the first 12 days of the machine’s installation at the American Art Museum, visitors averaged 16 art pieces dispensed per day.

Not to mention, everyone can participate. It seems like a win-win. Whittington told the SJMN that his art is meant to, at its heart, serve the public:

“This way anyone can be an art collector … It’s as democratic as you get.”

Photo courtesy of artomat.org

Photo courtesy of artomat.org

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*This post was corrected in response to a comment by the Art-o-Mat creator. He clarified that all of the Art-o-Mat artists are not amateur; many have been practicing their craft and selling their work for years.

Art students use NEXT exhibit to address political issues

Kim Jong Un

Oil painting of Kim Jong Un, the leader of North Korea, by student Robert Yi.
*Photo courtesy of VOA

By Lanie Rivera
Editor

Art students from D.C.’s Corcoran College of Art and Design presented their final art projects at the college museum, on display until May 19, many of which have a politically charged meaning.

The students’ artwork has been compiled into an exhibit called NEXT, the name symbolic of the students who will receive their degrees move on from the undergraduate art program in May.

Robert Yi, a student from South Korea, presented many paintings in the exhibit, including one of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un.

He explained his intended message to Voice of America:

“My paintings are called Mask paintings. And it’s the idea that, in society today, no matter where you are, people put on a mask,” he said. “That idea is expressed in North Korea because the people of North Korea, the citizens, put on a face…they’re required to act happy.”

Other students targeted different political issues.

Jason Tucker, a fine art photography major, sought to reflect his homosexual identity in his artwork by researching the meaning of derogatory terms for homosexual people.

“I started doing a lot of research into words that have a specific meaning within a gay male context, and so I started with the word ‘faggot,'” he said. “The root of the word comes down to ‘a bundle of sticks.’ So I started with that and wanted to make a self-portrait. So I ended up collecting my exact body weight in sticks…I wanted to take something that I’ve been called before, that was an epithet, and make something beautiful out of it.”

Read more about the D.C. students’ art exhibit here.

Local D.C. dancer creates Step Afrika! to celebrate many forms of step dancing

*Watch this Step Afrika! promotional dance video

By Lanie Rivera
Editor

D.C. native and Howard University graduate Brian Williams founded Step Afrika!, a cross-cultural dance exchange program in 1994, and now his company travels around the world to promote step tradition dancing.

The D.C. based company is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, April 16 at UNK Health & Sports Center on the University of Nebraska at Kearney campus. They will be performing locally from June 5-9 at the District’s Atlas Performing Arts Center.

What inspired Williams’ dance crew?

While studying at Howard, he had traveled to South Africa to teach business skills to students. It was there where he stumbled upon a South African dance called the “gumboot dance tradition” created by African mine workers nearly 100 years ago.

Although Williams had learned about step dancing while attending college in Washington, D.C., his curiosity was sparked — he began to research stepping.

When he started Step Afrika!, his company was the only dance group in the world that was dedicated to the tradition of step dancing. He now leads the group of seven dancers, celebrating the Zulu and gumboot dances combined with American stepping.

To read more about step dancing and Step Afrika!, check out the full story here.

Amid citizens’ anger about White House concert, educational purposes prevail

*Check out this video of the “Memphis Soul” concert on April 9, hosted by President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama at the White House.

By Lanie Rivera
Editor

Despite devastating budget cuts from the sequestration, the White House decided that their show must go on; the Obamas hosted a “Memphis Soul” concert, the 10th installation of the concert series “In Performance at the White House” on Tuesday, April 9.

While an article by Fox News cited that many Americans scoffed at the performance, angry that the exclusive star-studded show remained on schedule amid federal cuts, I have read other articles about the concert that lead me to believe this frustration is unjustified.

It seems that the event’s thoughtful purpose, private funding and student workshop (held before the concert) conflict with accusations that the first couple has become selfish, thoughtlessly spending federal funds on lavish parties while the closing the White House to the public.

The concert was an informative event that encouraged and promoted community through arts participation and appreciation; it was not a show that merely entertained the Obamas and their chosen guests.

An article by CBS quoted President Barack Obama’s comments regarding the importance of soul music:

And that was the spirit of their music — the sound of Soulsville, U.S.A., a music that, at its core, is about the pain of being alone, the power of human connection, and the importance of treating each other right … After all, this is the music that asked us to try a little tenderness …

And the Obamas’ said they hoped this Memphis Soul music event would inspire connection and respect, too. But their communal and educational intentions were not praised, or even recognized, by most citizens. Instead, many complained that federal dollars were being used for the concert.

One reader, under the name “Dry Chardonnay,” commented on the Fox News article about the concert to express frustration about U.S. spending. The commentator added that the concert was unwarranted amid a time of budget cutbacks:

When the furlough strikes in May, I will be one of the over 750,000 employees who will lose 20 [percent] of their paycheck … for goodness sakes stop throwing concerts, unless it is a fundraiser to pay down the national debt!

But according to an article posted on Red Alert Politics, the concert was funded by outside sources. “… these concerts are partially funded by private and corporate donations, [and] most of the costs are covered by PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” wrote Laura Byrne, a writer for Red Alert Politics.

Additionally, the Fox News article reported that some federal employees have made several cries against the “First Couple’s” White House events because the “people’s house” was closed to the public, yet high-profile celebrities were invited to attend the concert.

Outcries also targeted the White House’s suspension of public tours to cut back on security spending, yet its doors still opened for an event that surely required a paid Secret Service security staff, according to Fox News:

Republican lawmakers ripped the administration for its decision to cancel White House tours, which affected school groups and others who had made spring plans to visit.

Jon Hart, a Republican spokesman for Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), was one of these critics.

Although he did not specifically comment on the concert, he did bash the Obamas for discontinuing the tours, the Washington Post reported:

They can tour the country on the taxpayer’s dime but can’t allow taxpayers to tour the White House?  Seriously?

Contrarily, First Lady Michelle Obama hosted “The History of Memphis Soul,” an interactive, educational event for 120 middle and high schoolers across the country on April 9.

The workshop encouraged budding musicians and featured music industry legends such as Sam Moore, Mavis Staples, Justin Timberlake, Charlie Musselwhite and Ben Harper.

According to the CBS article, the First Lady offered words of support and advice to the students:

At the workshop, Mrs. Obama also tried to encourage the students, including some aspiring musicians, by noting that it took years of perfecting their talent for the artists perched on stools in front of them to get where they are.

Not to mention the Obamas invited the public to their recent Easter Egg Roll event on April 1.

While most people criticized these White House events, some did praise the Obamas for their efforts to promote education.

One Fox News reader by the name “xybann” wrote:

I am SO impressed that the first lady is going to talk to bunch of students about the history of Memphis Soul.  That is so important for young, eager minds to hear about from the most influential woman in America!

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