Thursday, March 6, 2014

Does Art Have a Terroir?

Andrew Taylor's newest blog entry, essentially expounds on another recent blog post written by Sarah Lutman. I have enormous respect for both these thought leaders, and think the issue they explore is critically important, especially in light of the growth in attention to "Creative Placemaking."

Sarah, who used to run the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, muses about the current state of the Minnesota Orchestra, and uses the analogy of wine to argue for arts groups that are more deeply rooted to and OF their place. In wine, there is vins d'effort - wine of effort - meaning that that is the product of the work of the winemaker, versus vin de terroir - wine of place, or land that is a purer expression of where the wine is from - soil, climate, topography, etc. It does raise the legitimate question of the homogeneity of so many arts organizations, especially in the "classical" arts world. Every orchestra is striving to achieve a generic, global, objective of artistic quality and repertoire.

But what would the Minnesota Orchestra look like if it was striving to be a pure reflection of the soil from which it was made, of the culture and unique quality of Minnesota? Could an orchestra focus on making a special effort to hire local musicians - not traditional blind auditions to hire the "best" french horn player in the country you are able to lure to your city, but maybe cultivate and hire the best french horn player who is either from the community or has come to the community to live/study? Maybe if Bluegrass is your local music form, you become the definitive orchestra that weaves bluegrass into an orchestral approach - turning your violin section into a fiddle section.

I really find this wine analogy intriguing and useful - are too many of our arts organizations "vins d'effort", producing art that is professional, and maybe even occasionally transcendent, but is not OF the place that produced it, in some deeply visceral way? Is this part of our challenge? And even though Sarah raises this in the context of orchestras I think it has applications across all art forms.

I see a positive local example of this in the Denver Art Museum, definitely one of the country's top tier encyclopedic art museums. BUT it is not, nor will it ever be (nor should it perhaps even aspire to be) the Metropolitan Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago or Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Its personality, collection and programming reflect this place - this frontier community that is rooted in Western tradition but now a global center of newness and reinvention and merging the built environment and urbanity with natural beauty and wilderness. The Libeskind-designed expanded building itself literally mirrors the mountains that loom beyond. The collection is grounded in probably the best collection of Western art held by any museum, and also very strong Native American and pre-Colombian collections. And even though traditional shows like the current Modern Masters, that showcases the extraordinary modern art collection of the Albright-Knox in Buffalo, are certainly an important component of programming, the permanent collection, the building itself, the family programming, the programming for younger professional/adult audiences, has a quality that is unique to Denver. It is not the Denver Art Museum climbing up some virtual ladder of museum world significance to move up a rung or two. It is a Denver Art Museum aspiring to be the best museum to both serve and reflect this community through great art and the ideas generated by great art. If it does that well it IS a great global museum, but it is also embraced and loved by the community and going there becomes an experience that is part of experiencing Denver. It is not like the museum equivalent of being in a Starbucks or McDonalds where it does not matter what City you are in - where instead of getting your consistently delivered latte or Big Mac you are getting your consistently delivered Renoir or Van Gogh.

Finally, it is important to note - as Sarah does - that this is NOT creative placemaking, as it is being discussed now by ArtPlace and others. One strategy tries to improve a place through arts and culture; the other tries to make art that reflects that community. But I would argue the two are linked in that art that is rooted in place - that is terroir focused - may have a better chance, in today's world of homogeneity, to resonate with the public, to be embraced, to be supported. When THAT happens, art can play a crucial role in fostering residents of a community to become more attached to place, as the Knight Foundation found in the Soul of the Community studies a few years ago. I'll drink to that!

Images: Denver Art Museum, Ferarri Vineyard


  1. I was most impressed with the asian collection installation in the gio ponti building. I thought the installation itself was amazing, and the collection had some stunning pieces. It was beautifully lit and accessible in every way. I *wayyy* preferred the gio ponti building in general, but I won't get into any negatives about the liebskind building.

  2. Thanks for your comment Eric. Did not mean to diminish the importance of the Ponti building, which actually has its 50th anniversary coming up. In fact, the museum is now deep into a planning process to not just upgrade the building (which it deperately needs), but also to reimagine the connection between the two buildings (both physically and programmatically) so that thye are better integrated. the goal is to also better highlight the permanent collection, which is now largely in the Ponti building. Don't know how recently you were here, but I will say that have steadily increased their knowledge of how to best use the Libeskind building for installations, and I am told it works best better now than in the early years after it opened.