Susan Stamberg of NPR gave a great talk this past Friday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on the subject of "why museums matter." In fact, though she used visual art and museums as a theme, she was really talking about the larger issues of the importance of the arts.
Her talk was wide ranging and much more personal than the usual arts advocacy "why the arts are important" talk, which was why it was so refreshing. Also, having heard Susan on the radio for so many years, it was also a treat to finally see and hear her in person - voice connected to a real live human being.
It was hard to take notes during her talk, because I did not want to be distracted from her words by trying to write them down. A few phrases stuck with me from her remarks. She rhetorically asked why we don't ask "why do we need rain," that art "soaks us with discovery." She noted (and believe this may have been a quote from someone else) that "art will save the world, if anything can." She recounted a New Yorker piece by Lawrence Weschler (later turned into a book) about interviewing the judge for the war crimes trial at The Hague of the perpetrators of the atrocities in Sarajevo, who was asked how he managed to survive - to keep his humanity through the horrific testimony he had to listen to day in and day out. His answer? He periodically walks over to the Vermeers, to reacquaint himself with the stirring beauty human beings are capable of.
She quoted Robert Frost - "Home is the place where when you have to go there, they have to take you in," and drew parallels to the museum as a "second home" for us of sorts - a place that takes us in with no questions asked.
She made the interesting observation that from her many stories over the past few years on shows at PMA that she has found the curators there to be wonderful communicators in a way that is far from common. An audience question later asked whether the museums she has seen somehow reflect in their curatorial approach, their personality, the City or region in which they are located, and she said that seemed to be generally true. I was able to join her for a small dinner afterward, along with some PMA staff, and this led to a conversation about whether PMA reflects the personality of Philadelphia and if so how. I actually believe there is truth to this, but that is for a future entry...
Wish I could more succinctly sum up the talk, but it was really a series of musings, meditations, on a life of trying to convey the power of art through the medium of sound, of radio, helping her listeners to "see" the art through only the sense of sound.