By AnnMarie French (LNH '17) - Communications Manager, NH Fiscal Policy Institute
With frigid winter winds whipping across the grounds, we navigated a narrow pathway through the snow alongside a monumental fireplace positioned near the entry of the MacDowell Library, guarding the location and inspiring a feeling of warmth while also challenging our sense of scale in the world.
The classroom featured three tall windows, which framed a grove of graceful trees lining the edge of the lawn, and stone walls with dark wood shelves lined with several hundred volumes published by former MacDowell Colony residents. A grand piano anchored the far end of the room.
Allyson Ryder opened the session with a brief review of our goals for the day: to become familiar with the diverse challenges and opportunities the arts, humanities, and the media in NH face today; to reflect on the role of the arts, media and humanities in the lives of the many different communities and groups in our state; to reflect on our own and others’ use of media outlets (including social media) and the many different effects of that use; and, finally, to learn how to engage with media and cultural organizations in new ways.
Our hosts at the MacDowell Colony provided a brief history of the organization, which was established in 1907 and is the oldest artist colony in the U.S. Each year artists from around the world vie for a limited number of residencies at the Colony, which has hosted writers, composers, painters, filmmakers, photographers, architects, journalists, and other visual and theatre artists. The artist residencies range from two weeks to two months in duration, with most averaging four weeks. Fellows can reapply after two years and many return multiple times over the course of their careers.
Resident artist Fred Hersch, a jazz pianist and composer, provided us with a look inside the world of the MacDowell Colony. Much of the day is spent alone in the studio, with the arrival of the “all-important lunch basket” as a pivotal point during the day, the continuation of a long-standing tradition begun by the Colony’s founders. Each evening, residents gather at 6:30 p.m. for a shared meal, which is often followed by a reading, music, or other group activity. An eight-time resident, Fred is drawn to the Colony’s commitment to shared values, which include respect for privacy and the creative process.
Studios feature a bed – perfect for creativity boosting naps -- and a table, but no internet connection. There is very limited access to the internet at the Colony, a decision designed to allow artists to detach from the outside world and focus more fully on their creative work. The Library is the one location with dedicated internet access, although the presence of cell phones gives today’s residents the ability to stay as connected (or disconnected) as they wish. Fred finds the days without checking his phone tend to be the most productive days. “The days feel longer,” he said. “Even if you take a nap.”
Fred shared the process of being a composer, and after briefly describing a personal experience that inspired the creation of one of his favorite pieces, titled “My Coma Dreams,” he sat down at the grand piano to play three unique pieces of music. The sound of the perfectly tuned instrument filled the room, and the notes carried us away to our own places for a brief time.
“We make things that have resonance in the world,” said Fred, on the contribution of artists to society.
As we paused for our first break, we were jarred from our tranquil immersion in the MacDowell experience by breaking news announcing the release of the President’s budget, which proposed major cuts to agencies that fund the arts, humanities and public media – the three areas of focus for our session day. This news cast a long shadow over the remainder of the day, as we pondered what this could mean for the arts and the ability of all citizens to access cultural opportunities. We later learned that the speakers for our final session, which would have focused on arts funding, were unable to present due to pressing needs related to the budget announcement. (While understandable, this was disappointing for many of us, as the discussion would have helped to fill an information gap regarding how the arts have been supported over time and what we might do going forward.)
The second session was titled “The Role of the Humanities in All of Our Lives” and focused on our relationship with language and the written and spoken word. Shortly into her session, presenter Courtney Marshall received an email alert announcing that the proposed budget specifically included no funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is the primary funding source for many language and culture projects and programs. “Budgets are moral documents,” she said. “Through the budget, the society is letting us know what they value.” She encouraged us to consider how we value culture in our lives. She shared a personal experience in an effort to illustrate the low value society places on humanities and language work, and the lack of appreciation of time spent on the craft.
“When I think about the importance of the humanities, I think about moving it out of the library and into the community,” said Marshall. “Humanities and language are important. Words are important,” she reminded us.
Session three, moderated by Attorney Bill Chapman, featured a discussion focused on the relationship between the current Presidential Administration and the media, the role of the media, and the importance of media literacy.
Meg Heckman, journalism lecturer for UNH, outlined the values she tries to instill in journalism students: Verification. Transparency. Genuine curiosity about people who are different from you. She encourages them to ask questions to get to meaning, and believes it is possible to be a “compassionate skeptic” who seeks verification to get to truth. Dan Barrick, news director for NHPR, agreed that skepticism and curiosity are key to good journalism. “Your first obligation is to the truth,” he said.
When perceptions are driven by false information, it’s a problem. When false information drives policy, it’s an even bigger problem. Social media makes the challenge even greater. Heckman noted that a recent study found the majority of people don’t read past the headline before forwarding articles on social media, which contributes to the spread of false information and a growing lack of trust.
The economics of journalism is a complicated question, said Barrick. As newsrooms contract due to funding constraints, there are fewer reporters to cover the news that matters to people. The group agreed that the mainstream media has not paid attention to certain areas, which contributes to the lack of trust. Journalism needs to find a new funding model to sustain the industry and the vital role it serves.
A mid-day lunch break gave us all time to reflect on the morning’s topics and reconnect with fellow classmates, before settling back in to learn more about the arts in New Hampshire.
The first afternoon session featured Apple Hill String Quartet and a discussion of a how the arts can bridge the gaps among people and bring about social change. The Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, based in Nelson, New Hampshire, teaches music based on a model of cooperation, creativity and imagination. Without a conductor, the process is driven entirely by the participants. Apple Hill teaches students five key skills: watching, listening, being sensitive, being flexible, and adapting. (Important communications skills applicable to all aspects of life, as well.) Each player must trust the others to make sure the music comes together in a pleasing way, and it never sounds exactly the same twice.
Apple Hills’ “Playing for Peace” program brings together musicians from diverse cultures together to find common ground. The school’s chamber orchestra travels nine months each year to areas of conflict to foster a greater understanding and establish trust. Director Lenny Matczynski describes the mission as “breaking down barriers to bring about social change.” To illustrate the power of the Apple Hill experience, the musicians read a moving letter from a former student from the West Bank who described her emotional experience playing in a quartet with musicians from four different religions and cultures in the conflict fraught region, making music together and finding common ground in the process.
Lenny and the Chamber Music quartet demonstrated the process of creating music in this collaborative and democratic style. The music was captivating and allowed us to once again drift into our separate thoughts about the role music and culture play in our lives and on the world stage.
There were many layers of lessons to be learned from this group of four humble and talented chamber musicians: Learn to let the mistakes go and continue to develop. “It’s a different conception of perfect because it changes every time.” It’s not focused on technical perfection. It’s all beautiful. It’s all something to appreciate. Seek balance. Learn to find beauty in everything.
Our final session of the day examined the role social media is playing in our lives and the impact it is having on youth today. Speakers from Media Power Youth and the Derryfield School described how various qualities present in social media are contributing to increased anxiety and stress among young people, and leading to addictive and destructive behaviors. The “likes” and other positive responses have a dopamine-like effect, similar to the perceived reward from gambling, substance misuse, and other addictive behaviors. It also contributes to increased impatience and expectation for a response, a growing problem as we all become conditioned to the instant gratification of an “on-demand” world. These expectations do not apply to things like job satisfaction and strong relationships, which require time, attention and nurturing. Today’s culture places too much focus on short-term gains (like milestones and tests) at the expense of striving toward long-term goals.
The class engaged in a deep and thoughtful discussion regarding consumption of media today and over the past several decades, and how much has changed regarding the levels of anxiety among youth. While fear and stress of world events has undoubtedly contributed to a range of anxieties for generations of young people, the inability to escape what is being said marks an important distinction in today’s 24/7 response world. It was clear that this is an area of growing concern for families, for schools, and for employers, too.
This session day provided us with the opportunity to learn about the value of arts and culture to us personally and to our communities as well. Throughout the day, the earlier announcement of proposed funding cuts for the arts hung overhead, as we pondered what the future may hold: How will our cultural institutions survive? How can we instill a sense of ownership and commitment to preserving arts and culture in our communities? Will access to arts and culture be lost in places without the resources or the will to fill the potential funding gap? While we don’t have the answers to these questions now, it will be up to all of us to ensure not only that the arts survive, but thrive for the benefit future generations.