Open Studio with Jared Bowen

S8 E37 | FULL EPISODE

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.

AIRED: May 01, 2020 | 0:25:46
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TRANSCRIPT

>> 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

it's secure.

>> 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

outside Chicago.

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.

>> Right.

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.

His associate,

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.

Thank you.

>> 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.

(continues playing)

>> 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.

(continues playing)

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

of repertoire.

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,

@OpenStudioWGBH.

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