New York I Love You, But You’re Bringing Me Down

Lost in all the excitement surrounding Tuesday’s announcement in the New York Times of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s plans to create an inflatable meeting hall in its courtyard, was the article’s hackneyed condescension towards culture in our fair city. We’ve come to expect this from the New York Times and the article’s author, Nicolai Ouroussoff seldom misses an opportunity to take a dig at the District. It’s become rather predictable, even when Mr. Ouroussoff, the Times’ architecture critic, is writing a generally positive piece.

For instance, the article about the Hirschhorn begins,

I’ve never stepped onto the National Mall without feeling a mix of emotions — reverence, a flash of national solidarity, a feeling of loss — but pure delight has never been one of them.

Which is fairly tame compared to his praise of the proposed design for National Museum of African American History and Culture which began, “I’ll admit my expectations are pretty low when it comes to new architecture in the nation’s capital.” That seems positively glowing compared to the opening salvo of his review of the Newseum which lamented, “How many mediocre buildings can one city absorb?” We get it. The architecture here can be kind of, well, boring.

But I thought Ouroussoff missed the city for the neo-classical columns when towards the end of his article on the Hirschhorn he predicted, “The project could become something Washington has never had: a real democratic forum for the debate of cultural issues as varied as, say, Hollywood morals and the impact of fundamentalism on the arts.” What? That might have been true twenty years ago, but not now. There are plenty of opportunities in this town to critically engage with the great cultural issues of our day. You just have to get off the mall to find them.

Without speaking here about our own programs, just take a look at the cultural explosion of the last decade throughout Washington: the new venues of Woolly Mammoth, Shakespeare Theatre, Gala Hispanic and Signature Theatres; the artistic renaissance Michael Kaiser has brought to the Kennedy Center, grass-roots phenomena like Artomatic, the Capital Fringe Festival and DCist Exposed, the serious cultural critiques in the films at Silverdocs, one of the best live-music venues in the country at the 9:30 Club, author talks at any number of venues on a given evening, and on and on…

Perhaps I am misunderstanding and Ouroussoff  means something grander when he talks about “a real democratic forum” beyond the citizens who actually live here engaging with the culture around them on their evenings and weekends. But I think he probably knows better. DC-bashing is a kind of unconscious reflex for New Yorkers–even when they may not even really mean it.

Ouroussoff is not without a soft spot for our city, even on the National Mall. Perhaps it was a fit of Obamania pre-inaugural euphoria that caused him to consider the merits of the Mall and reminisce specifically about the Vietnam War Memorial,

As a student, I would sometimes wander down there with friends in the middle of the night, mingling with one or two other visitors. The sense of shared pathos could be overwhelming; it seemed to be one of the few places in Washington where you could experience grief without moral judgment.

While I’m not sure that the Vietnam Memorial is without moral judgment, it is clear that this critic has some true affection for this place. And he’s probably right about the architecture. But when it comes to the debate of cultural issues, there’s plenty going on in DC. While the Hirschhorn’s Up-inspired pavilion will be a welcome addition to the scene, it won’t be the first or last venue where the real citizens of this area can be just as concerned with art and culture as our countrymen in New York.

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If You’re Coming to See Regina Spektor or Anything Else at Israel@60 on the National Mall

Then stop by the Washington DCJCC’s Israeli Culture Pavillion (tent #3 on your map). The schedule of events includes:

12:15–Israeli Literature in Translation (read by Joel Snyder)

  • “At The Outset of the Day” by S.Y. Agnon
  • “An Autobiographical Note” by Amos Oz
  • excerpt from “The Lover” by A.B. Yehoshua

12:45–Short Films from the Best of the Sam Spiegel Film School in Jerusalem (Program Aleph)

  • Personal Goals by Ran Carmeli
  • Home by David Ofek
  • The Substitute by Talya Lavie

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Regina Spektor! Free Concert on the National Mall, June 1

We’ve been keeping this under our hat for a while now, but at last we can shout it to the world: Regina Spektor will be performing along with the seminal Israeli rock band Mashina on the National Mall as part of the community-wide celebration of Israel@60 on June 1. The concert is part of the opening day of the Washington Jewish Music Festival.

In many ways, Regina is the perfect performer for the occassion: Russian-born, she was part of the large emigration of Russian Jews to Israel and the United States when the Iron Curtain crumbled in the late 80s. Eventually settling in Brooklyn, Regina went to Jewish and public schools growing up with her musically-inclined family and practicing piano in the basement of her local synagogue. Appropriately enough, she first realized she could be a songwriter on a trip to Israel when she was a 16:

As she and her fellow travelers hiked in the desert, Regina would make up little songs and melodies to fill the time.

“I noticed that some kids would always try to hike next to me and ask me to sing particular songs that I had made up,” she recalls. “So I started trying to remember them. By the end of the trip, all these kids were telling me that I had to write songs!
“It had never occurred to me,” she continues. “To me, the mentality was you sit at the piano and play Bach or Mozart or Chopin. You didn’t ever improvise, so the idea of writing my own music was an intimidating one.”
“The way I got into music was totally backwards,” she says. “I’d write a song and someone would tell me, ‘That sounds like Joni Mitchell,’ and I’d go, ‘Who?'”

As part of the New York anti-folk scene (along with Beck, Ani DiFranco and Kimya Dawson), Regina’s songs have gained increasing popularity and have been used on the soundtracks of many television series including Weeds, Grey’s Anatomy and Brothers & Sisters. The video for her song Fidelity has been viewed over 4 million times on youtube. Heck, we’re gonna stop gushing and you can click below to help her on her way to 5 million.

Save the date now. June 1 is going to be awesome!

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