ICA Director Jill Medvedow, Author Alex Beam and more
Institute of Contemporary Art Director Jill Medvedow discusses COVID-19’s impact on the ICA and its work to help residents in East Boston-site of ICA Watershed. Then a conversation with writer and author, Alex Beam on his new book, “Broken Glass: Mies van der Rohe, Edith Farnsworth, and the Fight Over a Modernist Masterpiece.” Plus, The Chamber Music Society of Detroit.
>> JARED BOWEN: Welcome toOpen Studio,
WGBH's weekly spotlight on arts and culture
from around the region and the nation.
I'm Jared Bowen, coming up onOpen Studio,
I.C.A. director Jill Medvedow
reflecting on the art that comes from crisis.
>> I do find that there is some optimism in imagining that
when this is all in the rearview mirror,
many artists I think, will let us walk in their shoes.
>> BOWEN: Then digesting architectural icon
the Farnsworth House.
>> I find it striking.
And I think most people, um, find it kind of ethereal.
It's really a beautiful work of art.
>> BOWEN: Plus the chamber music society
that has long dazzled Detroit.
>> When you play here, you're always received warmly,
and, you know, you can feel that.
>> BOWEN: It's all now onOpen Studio.
First up, from striking monuments
like Maya Lin's Vietnam Veterans Memorial
to indelible theater like Tony Kushner'sAngels in America,
we have always seen enduring art emerge from crisis.
I recently spoke with Institute of Contemporary Art director
Jill Medvedow about that, how the museum is contending
with the pandemic,
and how the I.C.A. isn't simply a museum anymore.
Jill Medvedow, thank you so much
for joining us.
>> It is very nice to see your face,
even though we can't be together in person.
>> BOWEN: Well, we'll be together soon enough,
I have no doubt.
Well just to start, if you could just bring me up to speed,
all of us up to speed, on where it stands now,
in terms of when you think the I.C.A. would reopen
and what you're able to do for your employees at this time.
>> Well, I'll start with our employees, our staff,
because they're our great, great asset.
Um, and right now, our employees are all either...
they're working remotely.
And everyone is really hard at work,
keeping up with all the educational programs
we do with teens and families.
We're creating lots and lots of digital content
for all of our audiences,
and we are paying all of our full-time, part-time,
and all of our scheduled hourly workers through the end of June,
which is the end of our fiscal year,
and working very hard to keep the staff intact.
In a bigger picture,
we're working with our
sister museums here in Boston--
the Isabella Stewart Gardner, the Museum of Fine Arts,
as well as the List Visual Arts Center
and the Harvard Art Museums--
discussing the kind of protocols that all of our visitors
can expect when they come
to our museums when we reopen, whenever that is.
>> BOWEN: I know that you
and some of your colleagues at institutions around...
in the Boston area sent a letter to our congressional delegation
about the importance of more funding
coming to arts institutions in particular.
Do you have a sense that you're- you're being heard
from the government?
>> I guess I would respond to that by saying
the plea for more money and for a greater public value
placed on the arts is not a new plea.
That... and it's something that we've all been
talking about and...
for a long, long time.
I think that,
like so many things, the... this pandemic has brought
into high relief some of the really infrastructure
and systemic issues of our time.
One of those is, of course, the vulnerability
of the cultural sector.
And I would say also the vulnerability of artists
who typically are self-employed or part of the gig economy.
>> BOWEN: Unlike some other businesses,
museums, the aquarium, which was also part of that letter,
you just can't lock the door and walk away.
You have, in the aquarium's case,
animals that need to be taken care of.
>> That's right.
>> BOWEN: In your case, art, that you have to make sure
>> The Gardener has a living collection
in their amazing horticulture, the zoo.
So, we do have a responsibility
not just to the present, but to the future.
And over the next, I would say 12 to 36 months,
as we really look at
what recovery and rebuilding and restoration looks like.
>> BOWEN: You've been leading the I.C.A. for 22 years.
And, of course, like anybody else in this situation,
this is nothing you've ever seen before.
What has it done to you, personally, to have to see
the museum closed like this?
>> I would say that the... the whole pandemic,
which was so avoidable, has... is heartbreaking to me.
It's a heartbreaking mess.
And, and I recognize that I personally
have not lost anybody in this virus,
though those concentric circles come closer in
and closer in to me as well as I think to so many people.
So I'm worried about our democracy and our elections.
>> BOWEN: I remember we spoke, I think in the first week
of essentially all of us being self...
finding ourselves quarantined.
And you talked to me, something--
it hadn't occurred to me until you raised it--
about the art that emerges from crisis.
And there's been very significant,
very lasting art that has emerged.
>> Where I default to kind of immediately would be
a painting, likeGuernica, um, you know,
and the power of that painting and the shift,
that it represented from any kind of glorification of war
in terms of his... history paintings
about heroes and leaders, to the trauma and chaos,
and devastation of war,
or Goya and his Disasters of War
from the early 1800s.
But it's also made me think how...
of art that has been part of my kind of
the, the landmarks and the touchstones
of my own career,
of thinking about the Vietnam War
or thinking of the art that came out of the AIDS era.
Whether it's Keith Haring, or Felix Gonzalez Torres,
to thinking about some of the monumental work we've seen--
the National Memorial for Peace and Justice
in Montgomery, Alabama,
which takes individual loss
and brings it into a collective monument,
or the Vietnam War Memorial, or the AIDS quilt.
And then I think this, you know,
makes me think about many of the works in the I.C.A. collection,
and artists like Mona Hatoum, um, who talks about
her Palestinian heritage and oppression.
Kara Walker's monumental installation at the I.C.A.
about the antebellum South
and the violence and sexual violence there.
Steve Locke, you know, who, um...
who did a very extraordinary
series of drawings about the murders of black men.
Um, so we don't know what will come from this.
>> BOWEN: You've kind of answered my question,
which was going to be do we... is it too early to tell
if that's being done now?
But you have every confidence that that will surface.
>> I don't know.
I think right now many of the artists I've talked to
are not, not able to get into their studios, right?
Because they are at home, or they're taking care of children,
or parents, or not able to travel to where they need to.
So I don't know that it's being made right now.
But what I do know is that in the time it takes
for artists to do what they do best, to pay attention, right?
To pay attention and then to draw our attention
to our world, to our interior and exterior worlds.
We will see...
we will see, and we will be able to take pleasure in the arts,
and in all it and they have to offer us.
>> BOWEN: I've learned what you're doing in East Boston,
which is of course,
the site of the I.C.A.'s other museum now,
other museum space, the Watershed.
But you recognized a need there
that wasn't necessarily being met.
>> Once everything got shut down
and we understood the kind of scope of this crisis,
we, we reached out to our community partners
and heard loud and clear and consistently
in all the conversations that there was a dire
and a really very urgent need for fresh and healthy food.
And so we moved quickly, really in the span of two days.
We reached out to our fantastic I.C.A. caterer,
the Catered Affair, led by Holly Safford,
who agreed to come forward and donate all of their labor,
to create boxes of produce and fresh milk and dairy products.
With our community partners, we are now using the Watershed
as a food distribution site to feed 400 families
over the next month.
>> BOWEN: It's not simply the job of museums to just show art,
as you're showing.
>> Well, you know me...
(Jared laughs) ...the years,
and I think the I.C.A. was built,
and my whole career has been built on
exploring and demonstrating and deepening the connection
between civic life and contemporary art.
And this is one example where the arts are in service
to our community.
>> BOWEN: Well, Jill Medvedow, it's always a great pleasure
to see you and speak with you, even if it's remotely.
Thank you so much.
>> Well, I will see you soon.
And I look forward to that.
Thanks for everything, Jared.
>> BOWEN: Next, one of the most significant architectural icons
in this country is the glass Farnsworth House
Designed by Mies van der Rohe in the 1940s,
it was a marvel from the day its first resident,
Edith Farnsworth, moved in.
But asThe Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam
writes in his new book Broken Glass,
the modernist masterpiece became a monster.
Alex Beam, author ofBroken Glass,
thank you so much for joining us.
>> Jared, it's nice to see you.
Thank you very much.
>> BOWEN: So for people who aren't familiar
with the Farnsworth House, how do you describe
where it stands in the-- literally stands, I guess too--
in the canon of American architecture?
>> Ah, it's probably the...
best regarded, the most highly regarded example
of modernist residential architecture
of the 20th century.
It's easiest to understand in the context
of the better known Glasshouse,
which is a copy of the Farnsworth House
in New Canaan, Connecticut.
>> BOWEN: Here in your book, you tell this story
of these two figures who come together--
very maverick, very independent.
Tell us who Mies Van der Rohe and Edith--
Dr. Edith Farnsworth-- were when they met.
They met, um, during the last uh... last year of the war
in Chicago on the Gold Coast.
Mies Van der Rohe, it's hard to...
it's not hard, but it's complicated,
who he was in 1945.
He was probably with, say, Le Corbusier,
the most highly regarded European architect of that time.
He fled Nazism because basically Hitler didn't like
his architecture and Mies just wanted to build.
And chance threw him together with this sort of
41-year old, I guess, you know, doctor,
Dr. Edith Farnsworth.
Edith was a handsome, intelligent lady.
Anyway, they're having this ridiculous dinner party
and she says, "I got this nice riverside property.
Would you build me a house there?"
And Mies, again this comes out in the book,
Mies is very sort of chivalrous, very old school,
very attracted to women.
And so for some reason, he says yes, you know,
whether he's hoping to get a nice dinner out of it
or whatever; in any case, he says yes.
>> BOWEN: Well, that becomes the question.
Here she wanted a weekend house in this nine-acre, bucolic space
that you just described.
But he is one of the world's preeminent architects.
So did they really have the same mission at the outset?
>> She, she was interested in Mies
in every sense of the word.
And an academic has said that she was really
more of a patron in this relationship of Mies
than a client.
Now that becomes very blurred as the story progresses.
But it's become clear to me that Mies buoyed...
buoyed by her intelligence and her interest
in very arcane philosophical subjects, says,
"I'm going to build... I'm going to build
the platonic idea of a perfect summer house."
You know, a perfect villa,
a perfect modernist mid-20th century villa.
He constructs a residence exclusively made of pane glass
and beautiful white steel girders.
I think, in a way, he, he created a beautiful work,
a transcendent work of, of residential sculpture,
and felt that because of his warm, excellent relations
with the client, that he could do that,
and that she was enough of an art aficionado
to be comfortable with that.
>> BOWEN: You paint these great descriptions
of how hot it was in the summertime,
how cold it was in the wintertime,
what it was like to squeegee all those windows.
The fact that it was so close to being flooded
virtually all of the time, being right there on the river,
um, let alone the fact that
there were leaks and other things.
And you start to wonder, yes, he had wonderful concepts,
but did he know what he was doing necessarily there?
>> Well... it's hard to say.
He... you know, he was not a noted designer of residences,
he designed only one other in the United States.
who was responsible for its construction, you know,
rather sheepishly admitted like 30 years later,
"You know, I wish I had known
about roof flashing," or something.
I mean, it's, it's nuts, of course, that,
that a top-level architect wouldn't know
the, the correct materials to use at the edge of a roof.
I mean, you know, in this case,
the worst case scenario comes to pass and that
eventually there's litigation about the house
and its many shortcomings are broadcast to the world.
>> BOWEN: Well, that becomes a... the great drama
as you have access to these, these trial transcripts
and what happened.
But how... they had such a good relationship at the outset.
As you mentioned, she probably wanted to be a patron.
It seems that there is a romantic relationship.
And then how epically did it explode as it went to trial?
>> Yeah, I mean, it's a... it's, it's... the trial is
like a divorce trial.
This crazy, crazy lawsuit that Mies actually filed to get,
I guess $6,000 or $7,000,
um, you know, created this 4,000-page transcript
of utter vitriol from both sides.
As you can see in the book, you know,
Edith's lawyers deliberately humiliate Mies.
They make fun of his inability to speak very coherent English.
And they're very depreciative, shall we say, of his, you know,
the fact that he didn't put air conditioning in there,
the fact he didn't use thermal pane glass.
And they kind of put him... they kind of put him on trial
as a European aesthete who basically doesn't know
anything about plumbing.
>> BOWEN: We all know on the East Coast,
the Glass House that Philip Johnson did that is now iconic,
that people can visit just as they can the Farnsworth House.
But was there just out and out plagiarism there
by Philip Johnson when he created his house?
>> That's a complicated question.
Johnson and Mies had a, you know,
a mentor-mentee relationship, very, very weird relationship
that lasted all of Philip Johnson's life.
Um... the short answer is, in fact, it is a copy.
On the other hand, Mies was never angry
that Johnson had copied it.
Having said that, I mean, Johnson did literally take
the plans off of Mies' desk and built it before
the Farnsworth House was built, about three years before.
>> BOWEN: Take us through what it's like to be at the house.
>> (laughing): Well, it is, you know they...
they do yoga there, I mean,
it's a pretty meditative space, right?
And it's funny, uh...
my book wasn't particularly heavily edited,
but I think I included somewhere
the fact that I would live in that house.
Um, you know, the, the operative phrase for Mies is,
you know, "We will let the outside in."
He wanted to celebrate nature, really--
the river in front, the meadow behind, trees all around.
I find it striking.
And I think most people, um, find it kind of ethereal.
It's really a beautiful work of art.
>> BOWEN: Well, Alex Beam, thank you so much for being with us.
It was such a great work of art about a work of art.
>> Hey, Jared, thank you for taking the interest.
I very much appreciate it.
>> BOWEN: We move to Michigan now,
where for more than 75 years
the Chamber Music Society of Detroit has offered
a robust complement of compositions
performed by acclaimed musicians and ensembles.
>> Chamber music is this magical art form.
Chamber music is music-making and, by extension,
I think, also music listening.
The Chamber Music Society of Detroit is a presenter
of chamber music, but more than that,
we're an audience that loves chamber music.
>> What we bring to Detroit is concerts of great chamber music,
you know, year after year,
bringing in all of these world-renowned artists
and chamber ensembles
for people to enjoy.
And, you know, I think it's a great contribution
to the community, and we have a loyal core audience
that has been coming to our series for decades.
>> This is not high society;
it's just... it's a group of friends.
That society came together from
the Central European immigrants
who settled in the middle of Detroit,
led originally by Karl Haas.
They came to a way of listening to music together
that fed their own sort of musical souls beautifully,
but it also fed back to the musicians.
And then when Tiny Konikow, the second president, took over,
he developed very close relationships
with the top ensembles of the day.
And then our third president, Lois Beznos came along,
and she really professionalized the organization.
And I'm determined that, that my, my stamp
as fourth president is, is gonna be
the blowing the doors wide open and sharing that
as broadly as possible, but without changing that, that
nature of, of really loving the music for its own sake.
In chamber music there is no conductor.
One, one person will do it one way and then, spontaneously,
the next person with it will do it slightly different,
maybe a little more, maybe a little less.
The third person will follow that lead,
and the fourth person may complete it
by, by dropping off entirely,
or by saying, "No, we'll do it this way."
And that kind of interpretive, spontaneous innovation,
if you will, even though the notes are prescribed,
but the way you play them is not,
especially in the minute details.
(Playing "Piano Trio No. 2 in C-minor" by Felix Mendelssohn)
Then there is this interpretive evolution
that the audience gets to see in real time,
and that's one of the things that makes chamber music
especially magical when it's live.
>> There's a chemistry that happens
with the players on stage.
In the case of the Montrose Trio,
we've worked together for a long time.
My colleagues, Martin and Clive,
also played together in the Tokyo String Quartet
for a long... very long time.
So, we have an innate understanding
of how to listen to each other, and play music with each other,
and connect, and converse on all the great things that happen.
And I think for the audience, they feel like they become
part of the conversation.
>> When you come and hear a performance,
even like the one tonight, the Mendelssohn C-minor Trio,
you have an opportunity not just to hear it and experience it,
but in a sense to master it, master the listening of it.
Here in Detroit,
we know that we have extremely dedicated music lovers.
>> The audience is wonderfully warm and receptive,
and, I would say, knowledgeable and cultured.
So when you play here, you're always received warmly,
and, you know, you, you can feel that from the stage,
even the minute that you walk on.
>> To me, that is a great advert for Detroit,
the quality of the audience,
and, and the vision of the... of the leaders here,
and the fact that it's been around for 75 years,
and has flourished for so... for so long.
(Playing "Piano Trio No. 2 in C-minor" by Felix Mendelssohn)
>> We are dealing with incredible masterworks
In this program,
to celebrate the Chamber Music Society of Detroit,
we're playing a huge trio by Felix Mendelssohn,
big romantic work,
and another very big romantic work: the trio by Tchaikovsky.
It's the only significant chamber music work
that Tchaikovsky wrote, and it happens to be the work
that was played at... on the second half
of the very first concert of the Chamber Music Society of Detroit
75 years ago.
So we thought, "We have to play that piece to celebrate this."
(Playing "Piano Trio" by Tchaikovsky)
It's a huge honor,
for me personally
and for the Montrose Trio as a group,
to be playing this opening concert
for the 75th anniversary season.
>> It's just a huge milestone, 75 years, and, um...
how we're celebrating it, so,
with a stellar lineup of, you know, artists and programs,
with the launch of two new series,
which is a pretty major undertaking,
in Grosse Pointe and in Canton.
>> Live performance is more than just the person on the stage.
It's, it's a two-way street,
and the kind of interaction
that's modeled in that relationship,
and has been for 75 years, is, is absolutely magical,
but it's very, very special
at the Chamber Music Society of Detroit.
(ending with flourish)
(cheers and applause)
>> BOWEN: And that is all for this edition ofOpen Studio.
We have an update to bring you.
>> ♪ What the world needs now
♪ Is love, sweet love.
>> BOWEN: You might remember a few weeks ago we spoke with
Shelbie Rassler about her viral sensation,
"What the World Needs Now Is Love."
We're delighted to tell you
that she has just been accepted to Juilliard.
We wish her all the best.
Well, next week on the show, we bring you a story
of the frontline healthcare worker
treating patients with song.
>> ♪ We are on the frontline, frontline ♪
♪ For everyone.
>> BOWEN: Plus, Lee Grant, the actress now getting her due
as a documentarian far ahead of her time.
Until then, I'm Jared Bowen.
Thanks for joining us.
And as always, you can visit us online at wgbh.org/OpenStudio.
And you can follow us on Instagram and Twitter,
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