Saturday, October 20, 2007

Sandra Dias, "A weft worth reading," Amherst Bulletin, 19 October


In "Fiber + Book," an exhibition on display at the Fiber Arts Center in Amherst, the concept and potential meanings of a book are explored in myriad forms, and shapes that range from boats to tea cozies and maps of the heart to nests.

Mixed-media and book artist Sharon McCartney of Belchertown, who curated the show, expanded upon an exhibition held last year in which New England book artists explored the use of fabric in the construction of books. When Museums10, a collaboration of Valley museums and businesses, announced that it would sponsor a celebration of the art of the book in the Valley this fall, Susan Loring-Wells, the center's director, asked McCartney to revisit the concept. This time she invited book artists working with fiber from around the country to participate. The current exhibition runs through Oct. 27 at the center, which is located at 79 South Pleasant St.

McCartney notes in her curator's statement that fiber becomes the forum for expanding the notion of what a book is; none of the artist books have been made using traditional bookbinding processes.

"Books have been sewn, woven, knitted, quilted and collaged using diverse materials such as handmade paper, fabric, thread, wood, plastic and found objects ... books are transformed by the imagination of these artists into personalized containers to house collected images, reveal private icons, share stories, and make statements about social, political and spiritual issues," McCartney writes.

The artists use the book form as "a bridge between their private and their public lives," McCartney says. "By closely focusing your attention on both the fabrication of a piece and the story it tells, you will come to appreciate how the artists have found ways to use their beautifully crafted books to confront personal questions and universal issues."

Coverage of this small, short-run exhibit in the local press is most welcome. No less welcome would be equally detailed coverage of the major programs and exhibitions that the Museums10 partner organizations are presenting throughout the fall season.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

In the Margins: Related Events, 18-26 October

Thursday, 18 October

"Emily Dickinson's Reading: 'The Long Foreground'"
7:30 p.m.
Amherst Woman's Club, 35 Triangle Street
(corner of Triangle and Main, east of the Homestead)

Emily Dickinson's reading, broad and deep, was vital to her existence. It offered a circumference within which she dwelled and outside of which she imagined possibilities. Dickinson scholar Jack Capps will offer his perspective on "The Long Foreground" that helped to shape Dickinson's development as a poet. A reception will follow the talk.

Capps retired in 1988 as professor of English at the United States Military Academy. Author of the pioneering study Emily Dickinson's Reading (1966), Capps earned his Ph. D. at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with editor Thomas Johnson who produced the first complete collection of Dickinson's poetry.

Replenishing the Shelves

Jack Capps's lecture inaugurates a special project at the Emily Dickinson Museum, Replenishing the Shelves, to recreate the libraries of the Homestead and The Evergreens as accurately as possible. The effort is dedicated to and led by Polly Longsworth, a longtime Dickinson scholar and the first chair of the Emily Dickinson Museum's Board of Governors.

Through the three decades that Emily Dickinson wrote her poetry, ample, eclectic libraries-containing those treasures the poet called "The strongest Friends of the Soul" -stood open to her perusal in the Homestead and The Evergreens. Today, the shelves of both dwellings are bare. The project to recreate the family libraries relies upon the collections as they now exist at Harvard University's Houghton Library, where several hundred Dickinson family volumes have resided since 1950, and Brown University, which has housed the remainder of the family libraries since the early 1990s.

The Emily Dickinson Museum is looking for clean, tight books in good condition and in the exact editions known to have been in the Dickinson family libraries. Once acquired, the books will be displayed as they were when the Dickinson family occupied their homes. Full information about the project, guidelines for acquisition, and the initial booklist is available at the Museum's website.

Friday, 19 October

"Writing for Children: From Leo Tolstoy to Hampshire," with book artists Paul DuBois Jacobs, Jennifer Swender, and David Costello

5:30-7:00 p.m.
Hampshire College, Franklin Patterson Hall 108

Thursday, 25 October

Professor Kathy Peiss, Department of History, University of Pennsylvania (formerly of UMass-Amherst), will present a lecture entitled, "Weapons in the War of Ideas: Preserving Culture in World War II". Her current research is a study of librarians, books, intelligence gathering, and cultural reconstruction in the World War II era. This is the Franks and Lois Green Schwoerer 49 Annual History Lecture at Smith College.

The lecture will take place at 4:30 p.m. on , in the Neilson Library Browsing Room. For more information, contact Lyn Minnich, Smith College History Department, 585-3702.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Barry Moser, “God, Posterity, and the Well Made Object." Lecture: Graham Hall in the Brown Fine Arts Center, Smith College, 12 October, 8 p.m.

Barry Moser lectures, and, after his talk, sketches on the blackboard and explains wood engraving technique to an enthusiastic member of the audience (future artist?)

Artist Barry Moser--wood engraver, painter, printer, and cultural commentator—spoke on themes for which he has been best known in recent years, deriving from his Pennyroyal Caxton Bible (1999), the first Bible completely illustrated by one artist since that of Gustave Doré (1865).

The figure looming over and inspiring the talk was Flannery O’Connor, whom Moser admires and calls one of the greatest but most underappreciated American authors. His point of departure for this explanation of both his aesthetic vision and his views on religion and society was her declaration that God and posterity are served only by the well-made object.

What if that object is the Bible and one wishes to illustrate it? Moser, the former preacher turned enemy of all dogmatism, was in classic form as he contrasted the richness and complexity of the religious tradition with the intellectual poverty and oversimplifications of fundamentalists of all stripes. His lecture recapitulated many themes that he had addressed before, but with greater scope and in a more philosophical framework.

Moser cited an observation by religious scholar Martin Marty to the effect that the Bible presents two pictures or ways of viewing life: the vertical, dealing with relations between God and humans, and the horizontal, involving relations between humans. His focus in illustrating the Bible was on the latter, what he called “the overarching drama of humanness.”

Had he tried to depict the “vertical” relationship, he said, he would have had to turn to abstraction, as Josef Albers did in the Washburn College Bible (1979). The problem in that case, however, was that such an art would either call excessive attention to itself or perplex the viewer, or both. An art that requires specialized knowledge would only distract the reader from the text, which must remain the real focus. For that reason, Moser prefers to work in what he calls the artistic vernacular, worrying less about the “innovative” formal character of his work than about the innovative thinking that he hopes to inspire. His constant goal has been to peel away the accretions of saccharine piety, sanctity, and sanctimoniousness.

For him, the Bible is a book that should pose tough questions rather than provide pat answers, and open rather than close minds. The chief commandment for art is therefore “that it should not be boring.” He detailed the characteristics of his wood-engraved illustrations that had won him fierce hostility from some and plaudits from others: nudity; the frank and unsparing depiction of violence and tragedy; the depiction of Creation in an African setting; the insistence on the Jewish character of Jesus and other New Testament figures; troubling allusions to contemporary social issues.

In some ways, Moser reminds one of descriptions of Spinoza, who struck contemporaries as both heretical and “God-intoxicated.” Moser focused on the humans and human relationships in the Bible he said, “because I don’t know what God is.” That remains for him “an unfathomable mystery.” Citing O’Connor: “A God that you can understand is a God that is less than you.” He therefore remains humble about his work. Again, citing O’Connor: “Honesty is only honesty, not truth.”

Moser’s remarks were based on a piece in his In the Face of Presumptions: Essays, Speeches & Incidental Writings (David Godine, 2000)

Opening: "Poetic Science: Bookworks by Daniel E. Kelm," Smith College, 12 October

"Poetic Science," which runs from 12 October 2007 through 10 February 2008, is the first area solo show of works by book artist and binder Daniel Kelm, who with his wife and fellow artist, Greta Sibley, runs the Garage Annex School for Book Arts in Easthampton.

Kelm's opening lecture to a standing-room only crowd in Stoddard Hall was in effect an intellectual and aesthetic autobiography. He recounted his itinerary from budding juvenile inventor, to student and teacher of chemistry, to book artist. What was most striking, in addition to the sheer enthusiasm for the subject, was the sense of logical consistency: At the end, one came away with the impression that the present destination was inevitable, at least to the extent that all the elements of his wide-ranging intellect and equally probing art fitted seamlessly together, and that each would seem incomplete without the others.

In a sense, it was a romance: Kelm fell in love with chemistry at age 7. He related how, from an early age, he was drawn to science not only as technical knowledge, but also as the wondrous (and to a child, quasi-magical) means of exploration and transformation of the materials around us. He described the curiosity triggered by his father’s work as a photographer and related some of his own early scientific misadventures, such as an attempt to make “perfume,” which instead yielded mainly a cloud of toxic chlorine gas that cleared the house and led to his “laboratory” being banished from the family basement. He retains both a sense of the magic and the passion for experimentation.

Kelm explained how science led him to books, which eventually directed him more deeply into science, which in turn ultimately led him back to books. After presenting spreads from the how-to experiment handbooks that so fascinated the boys of the baby boom generation, he described falling in love with books as objects as well as vessels of knowledge (noting in passing that Daniel Faraday was also a bookbinder). He was drawn in particular to the tactile elements in the tooled covers of old books, a revelation that will instantly make sense to anyone familiar with Kelm’s own highly sculptural creations, which push our notions of book structures to their limit.

As a student and teacher of chemistry, Kelm was equally drawn to philosophy. In place of what he called the Baconian belligerency of modern science, which viewed nature as an opponent to be conquered and despoiled, he welcomed the notion of interdependency and gentle mystery that he found in alchemy. Science, he lamented, had become soulless. In many ways, his views echo the plaints of diverse early nineteenth-century thinkers, from Blake to Goethe to Mary Shelley (it is no coincidence that a number of the German Romantics, such as Novalis, were trained in metallurgy and mine engineering).

Kelm devoted a good deal of the lecture to the description of his own alchemical work, in particular, attempts to build ever more efficient refining furnaces, which he evocatively described as performance sculptures (one can be seen in the exhibition). Moderns, he said, stress the spiritual side of alchemy, whereas he wanted to redirect attention to its physical aspects: Even though our scientific theories may now be different, the alchemists made great strides in technical ability. He nonetheless also took pains to explain why he found the mythical or allegorical side of alchemy so compelling as a path to a renewed sense of wonder at the processes of nature--for example, the recovery of gold from the heating of metal ash wrapped in lead as the emblematic encounter of the "gray wolf" and "rejuvenated king."

Kelm’s most explicit engagement with alchemy as subject rather than principle of his art occurs in the “Templum Elementorum,” commissioned as part of a Smithsonian exhibition on “Science and the Artist’s Book” (1995).

Exhibitors were required to base their work on a text held in the Dibner Library’s collection, and Kelm chose Vannoccio Biringuccio’s sixteenth-century De la pirotechnia (On working with fire), for its description of an innovative tower-like furnace:

Inspired by this motif, Kelm created four columnar glass vessels, keyed to the four elements and marked by their associated colors: red for Fire; yellow for Air; white for Water; and black for Earth. Each container holds a book which represents the “voice” of that element and includes alchemical symbols and words that relate to some relevant aspect of the project. These books also include examples of the related elemental metals: lead for Earth, copper for Water, tin for Air, and iron for Fire. He called the book Templum Elementorum, which means “sanctuary of the elements” in Latin.

view video

Although those of a strictly scientific and rational nature may raise an eyebrow at Kelm’s statement that objects have consciousness, few of us would deny that material objects, and above all, works of art, can speak to us by engaging our senses as well as our intellects, often in inexplicably powerful ways. Certainly, this is the belief that one takes away from the stunning exhibit, as I hope further postings on this blog will affirm.

Dan Kelm doing chemistry and displaying "Templum Elementorum" while teaching "Alchemy and the Artist's Book" at Hampshire College, Fall 2002.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Press Roundup

Some recent stories:

• Kenneth L. Ross, "Collaboration binds local book stores", Springfield Republican, 7 October: On BookStores10 as the sponsors of the "Books Out Loud" weekend.

• Ed Shanahan, "For Leonard Baskin. Posthumous Exhibits, Praise and Emotion Continue to Exalt the Man and His Legacy". From Includes mention of the plaque dedication.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Emily Dickinson Poetry Marathon: 23 September

For the third time, in what is becoming a new Amherst tradition, staff and friends of the Emily Dickinson Museum assembled in shifts to read through the entire corpus--1789 pieces--of the author's poetic oeuvre.

This year witnessed several innovations:

The first and second Poetry Marathons (2004, 2006) were held in April, National Poetry Month. The first took place over a span of several days, whereas the second was run as a true marathon: long and nonstop. Both, however, took place at the Dickinson Homestead. This year, not only was the date moved to the fall, so as to coincide with BookMarks, but the readings also rotated among several locations in the Dickinson Historical District and Central Business District: Emily Dickinson Museum, Town Hall, Amherst College Frost Library, and Fiber Art Center.

Beginning the event at 6 a.m. rather than 9 a.m., as last year, may have reduced the number of public participants and onlookers in the early sessions, but assuredly gave the core group of readers (who were not free to head for their beds until approximately 4 a.m. last year) a much-needed chance to recuperate at a decent hour (we sense a new tradition in the making).

The first Marathon in 2004 earned feature coverage from National Public Radio.Listen

The photographs are from the end of the second session at the Dickinson Museum (3-6 p.m.).

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies: Art of the Book Open House, 23 September

The Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies, one of the most-undervalued cultural gems of the Valley, made its contribution to BookMarks with a special one-time mini-exhibition of treasures from its collection: its so-called "Renaissance Top 10" (actually 16).

Reading in the Renaissance: An Exhibition of Books from the Early Age of Print, the catalogue compiled by curator Philip Palmer, provides a detailed description of the content and publication history of the books, along with notable features of the individual copies in the Center's collection. For example: The Arcadia displayed here is only one of seven editions in the holdings but was the personal copy of William Wordsworth. The 1549 Pliny is one of the most recent and finest acquisitions. The 1536 Galen is the oldest book in the collection.

#1 Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia (Basel: 1549)
#2 Ben Jonson, Works (London: 1692)
#3 Sir Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia (London: 1598)
#4 John Milton, Paradise Lost(London: 1705)
#5 Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene (London: 1609)
#6 John Donne, LXXX Sermons (London: 1640)
#7 William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet (London: 1734)
#8 Ludovico Ariosto (trans. Sir John Harington), Orlando Furioso (London: 1634)
#9 William Prynne, Histrio-mastix (London: 1633)
#10 Raphael Holinshed, Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland (London: 1587)
# 11 Katherine Philips, Poems by the most deservedly admired Mrs. Katherine Philips, the matchless Orinda (London: 1667)
#12 Sir Walter Ralegh, The History of the World (London: 1621)
# 13 Geneva Bible (London: 1598)
# 14 John Gerard, The Herball, or General History of Plants (London: 1633) [ 1597 ed.]
#15 Galen of Pergamum, Opera omnium utilissima (Basel: 1536)

Search the holdings of the Renaissance Center.

"The Book Arts Legacy of Leonard Baskin," 23 September. Neilson Library Browsing Room and Mortimer Rare Book Room, Smith College

One cannot fail to take note when nearly one hundred-fifty people relinquish the outdoor pleasures of one of the most beautiful afternoons of a sunny New England autumn in order to pay homage to the makers of books and art. The occasion was the unveiling of a plaque to mark the site of Gehenna Press, sponsored by the Massachusetts Center for the Book and Historic Northampton. Although Leonard Baskin (1922-2000) founded his publishing enterprise at Yale in 1942 and operated it in a variety of locations, including Lurley, in Devon, England (1974-83), and since 1983, Leeds, Massachusetts, the location in what was arguably its classic or most influential era was at 51 Clark Avenue in Northampton, from 1955 through 1974.

Sharon Shaloo, Executive Director of the Center, opened the ceremonies by explaining the origins of the event as an offshoot of one of her organization’s major initiatives, the Literary Map of Massachusetts, part of an evolving process intended to call the attention of the public to our literary heritage and stimulate cultural tourism. Kerry W. Buckley, Executive Director of Historic Northampton and the editor of an acclaimed cultural history of the town, in turn spoke briefly about the mission of his organization and the role of the plaque program in raising public historical awareness.

As Book Arts Specialist at the Mortimer Rare Book Room and editor of Paradise Printed and Bound: Book Arts in Northampton & Beyond (2004) as well as a book artist in her own right, Barbara Blumenthal was the perfect person to provide an overview of the local book culture. Although she began with the origins—The Daily Hampshire Gazette, founded in 1786, is the ninth-oldest continuously published newspaper in the country—her emphasis was on the evolution of the recent past and the trio of figures who not only guided the Gehenna Press but founded what became a thriving book-arts community in the Pioneer Valley, and mentored today’s practitioners: bookbinder Arno Werner (1899-1995), printer Harold McGrath (1922-2000), and artist-polymath Leonard Baskin. After surveying their careers, Barbara focused on the past two decades, bookended on one side by “Form and Content,” the first retrospective and contemporary show of local book arts, organized by “bibliotect” (as he likes to call himself) David Bourbeau in 1987, and on the other, by today’s ceremony—the first such permanent public acknowledgment of the place of the book arts in the life of the Valley. Barbara’s presentation reminded us not only that we live in an extraordinarily rich book-arts community, but also that its full history has yet to be written.

Martin Antonetti, Curator of the Mortimer Rare Book Room, moderated the entire event and introduced the keynote speaker, Mark Dimunation, Chief of the Rare Book Division, Library of Congress, as “the most knowledgeable, certainly the most affable curator of rare books in the nation,” “indeed, the nation’s curator.” Mr. Dimunation lived up to the resultant high expectations.

In his address, “’Strange & Marvelous Books’: Leonard Baskin and The Gehenna Press,” he managed to attain two elusive goals: to provide an intimate portrait of an artist and his vision, and to explain how that vision changed his own, without blurring the distinctions between the two. Mr. Dimunation began with a provocative declaration: Leonard Baskin “has altered my view of how to read a book and how to view life.” The rest of the address was in effect commentary and elaboration on that theme.

He carefully outlined the evolution of the press and its distinctive aesthetic. The key was an unerring sense of design coupled with a dauntingly fertile imagination. As Baskin himself once put it, "People like me, who care about printing -- the architecture of the page -- constitute the tiniest lunatic fringe in the nation."

In Mr. Dimunation’s words, “It was as if the page had been liberated.” Baskin taught us how “to reimagine the page” and think in new ways about “the dialogue between image and text.” “Gehenna books,” Mr. Dimunation said, “are humming with that conversation.” As examples of that dialogue, he cited works based both on Baskin’s own writings and on the words of others, notably his long collaboration with poet Ted Hughes. That collaboration displayed such “tremendous depth” he said, because each artist inspired the other to embark upon new routes. Baskin thus “taught that collaboration is not merely about parts contributing to a whole, it’s about learning to speak and relate to another language.”

In part for this reason, Baskin continually returned to tradition, including his beloved Renaissance. (As many of us know, he was not only a great artist, but also a great teacher and collector, amassing a vast range of prints, books, and even early medals. He himself rather modestly called printing only a “secondary passion.”) Rather than merely copying an older aesthetic, he had the gift of being able to extract from it the essence, which he applied in ever more innovative ways to his own radically different tasks and contexts.

Concerned as he was to trace the evolution of Baskin’s work in its intellectual and technical dimensions alike, Mr. Dimunation did not fail to dwell on the later period, marked, among other things, by smaller pressruns and greater prominence of Baskin’s own texts. Among the characteristic traits were the predilection for shaped text and portrait multiples. There were new manifestations of Baskin’s long-standing interest in the animal kingdom (e.g. the works on insects) and his famously dark vision of the human fate and body, as in A Book of Demons (posthumous; 2001). In addition, there was the equally important playfulness: for example, in the triptych of fantastic biographical collections: Vnknown Dvtch Artists: Etchings & Biographical Notices (1983), Icones Librorum Artifices: Being Actual, Putative, Fugative & Fantastical Portraits of Engravers, Illustrators & Binders (1988, 2000), and Jewish Artists of the Early & Late Renaissance (1993). After picking up works such as these, in which one cannot always disentangle the real and the imaginary, Dimunation said, one is inevitably left “feeling both delighted and gullible.”

Alluding to the title of his talk, Mr. Dimunation managed to capture the genius of an aesthetic that remained at once consistent and endlessly fresh and provocative: “When you open a Gehenna Press book,” he said, “You know what to expect and you have no idea what to expect.”

Twice in the course of his remarks, Mr. Dimunation had to slow or halt his delivery as he was moved to tears. The first time was in the middle of his talk, when showing images from Gypsy & Other Poems by James Baldwin, texts that had had deep personal meaning for him. The second time was when, after putting a photo of Baskin on the screen behind him, he uttered the closing words: “I remember the very first time I opened a Gehenna Press book.”

There is no higher tribute possible. Honos alit artes.

Following the presentations and a reception, visitors explore a special “hands-on” exhibit of Gehenna Press books in the Mortimer Rare Book Room.


Opening: ",my Verse is alive': An Exhibition Presenting the Curious Journey of Emily Dickinson's Poetry," 15 September

On 15 September, the Emily Dickinson Museum opened its BookMarks exhibition, on the book-historical aspects of Dickinson's poetry. Karen Dandurand (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) delivered a talk on the publication of the few poems that appeared in print during Dickinson's lifetime, "Re-envisioning Dickinson's 19th Century Audience."

The Dickinson Museum programming is known for its accessible yet learned lectures by leading scholars. What marked a departure this time was the launching of a full-fledged exhibition, which was a bold move in more ways than one, e.g. given that the Museum has no permanent display space.

The solution arrived at by the directors and exhibit designer Michael Hanke is strikingly efficient and elegant and suggests just what the Museum could do if and when it acquires the resources and formal exhibition facilities that it deserves.

More to come in these pages concerning the exhibition.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Opening Coverage of BookMarks, 14 September

A long-ish entry, but one that, as the opening piece, attempts to address multiple issues simultaneously. Bear with me, or skim freely.

Kristina Tedeschi's “By hook or by book. Museums 10 aims to draw visitors to the Valley with a range of book-focused events," the first major press coverage of BookMarks, appeared in the Amherst Bulletin under the dateline of 14 September:

People are "starving" for art, Pelham resident Tony Maroulis says, so Museums10 is going to give it to them - again.

A consortium of 10 area galleries and museums in Amherst, Deerfield, South Hadley and Northampton sharing marketing dollars, Museums10 began in 2005 with the common goals of working together to attract new visitors to the Valley's cultural scene.

The organization's latest endeavor, called "BookMarks: A Celebration of the Art of the Book," kicked off Aug. 25 with an exhibit at Historic Deerfield and will continue through February 2008 with scores of activities, readings, programs and exhibits - all relating to books - spanning the upper Pioneer Valley.

Like an encyclopedia article or a “family car,” such overviews are serviceable and indeed indispensable, but have their inherent limitations.

On the one hand, the article gave prominent coverage to the program: full feature space on the first page of the Arts & Leisure section, with attractive large color photos from three of the first shows (Rosamund Purcell’s “Bookworm” photographs, and “Two by Two, Face to Face: A Conversation,” by Brad and Mark Leithauser, both at Mount Holyoke; and “Ex Libris” [shown here] by Matthew Higgs and Peter Wüthrich, at UMass). The article likewise identified the partners of Museums10 and their mission: “to attract new visitors to the Valley’s cultural scene.” It highlighted their receipt of an impressive $ 50,000 grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council John and Abigail Adams Program for Cultural Economic Development and the concurrent attempt “to extend the collaboration” “to other cultural institutions and businesses.”

On the other hand (not surprisingly, perhaps) the focus was almost unrelentlingly on the cultural tourism aspect of the program. The article was in effect built around an interview with Museums10 Project Coordinator (and local gallery owner) Tony Maroulis, who is second to none in his passionate advocacy of the Amherst arts scene, especially vis-à-vis those who see our town as living in the cultural shadow of Northampton. As Tony, who used to work at the Emily Dickinson Museum, knows all too well, it is an old controversy, or at least contrast. (Susan Dickinson described nineteenth-century Amherst as a town of "diversions . . . few and tame," "differing markedly from her rival across the river . . . with its wider association and more cosmopolitan traditions." "Northampton—how jealous we were of her!")

Increased cultural tourism translates to a healthier economy, Maroulis says. His interest in the possibilities of the arts feeding area commerce stems from his upbringing in Asbury Park, N.J., a "dead city," he says, which has only recently been revitalized through culture.

"It was the idea that the arts scene could draw people, and bring the town back," that inspires him, he says. "And that's my love of this: Art fueling the economy. That's the most important thing to me."

And although towns and cities in the Pioneer Valley are far from dead, M10 (as Museums10 is nicknamed) saw positive effects here on the local economy last year, Maroulis said, when the organization launched its first series of exhibits, "Go Dutch!," a six-month arts festival that included visual art, music, theater and literature centered around Dutch culture. Some 105,000 people turned out to area museums to take part in the events, marking a 15-percent increase in museum and gallery attendance from the year before. Maroulis noted that, according to his survey of area venues, 40 percent of those visitors stayed overnight, while 60 percent ate at area restaurants and went shopping, boosting the local economy via the towns, cities, museums and galleries offering events, many of which belong operate among the Five Colleges.

"Museums10 is, in many ways, the best town/gown PR you could have," Maroulis says.

My friend Tony cites intriguing figures to support his assertion that last year’s program increased both museum traffic and tourist expenditures in the local hospitality industry. One can only hope that his assumptions are correct. If one may be permitted a modicum of healthy skepticism, however: Given that “Go Dutch!” was a somewhat hastily assembled program driven by a special exhibition at the Eric Carle Museum (to which the other partners adapted themselves as best they could, faute de mieux), it might be hazardous to extrapolate on the basis of those data.

As any natural or social scientist can tell you, analogy and coincidence are not certain evidence of causality. There are in fact many variables, and unless one can isolate and calculate their individual effects, one would do well to exercise a certain caution. We really do not know whether museum attendance increased due to the intrinsic appeal of the Dutch exhibits (unlikely, in my opinion), the increased publicity on behalf of the museums as a whole (quite possible), both, or neither. And Tony would presumably not take a drop in visitorship at one or all Museums10 institutions as an irrefutable sign that a given year’s program had failed. That said, I fully share his belief in the value of cultural tourism as both an intrinsic and a social good. So, evidently, do the people of Amherst.

Given that the Bulletin article focused on cultural tourism and economic development, it was all the more surprising that it made no reference to the larger context: Amherst is in the throes of a fiscal crisis and stands on the threshold of adopting a long-overdue Master Plan required by state law (the last incarnation is over three decades old). The colleges form the stable but narrow employment base of the town, and the students and employees of the three tax-exempt institutions of higher learning also provide most of the revenue for the likewise static retail sector. As a result, residential property taxes have to generate the bulk of funds that support municipal services.

Economic development therefore stands out as a key issue, by virtue of its impact on tax revenues (and all that follows therefrom) and because it brings into high relief conflicting views about the values and character of the town. The Comprehensive Planning Committee is in the process of sifting through the final iterations of public feedback as it prepares instructions for the consultants preparing the final draft of the Plan this month.

So far, certain long-standing preferences seem to be confirmed: concentrating development in village centers, so as to prevent sprawl and preserve the historic character, configuration, and landscape of the town; favoring small enterprises and “clean” businesses (including innovative new economic sectors and “hidden tech”) over chain stores and traditional industry.

Cultural tourism is one of the more intriguing issues, which cuts across several of the seven required substantive elements of the Master Plan (notably, and not surprisingly, Economic Development and Natural and Cultural Resources).

On the one hand, it is appealing as a source of revenue that does not bring industry or additional construction and population to our town: Like some ancient gods of myth, the sources of our fiscal salvation will visit and then depart, without forcing us entirely to change our ways. On the other hand, cultural tourism will by definition bring visitors—and human and vehicular traffic as well as revenue-boosting expenditures—to Amherst, and that makes some people nervous because they fear it would put our "small-town" character at risk. (We are of course entitled to ask what alternative they would prefer if they are against both development and tourism, and how they propose not only to pay the bills, but also to guarantee affordable housing and social and cultural diversity.) To some extent, cultural tourism is a litmus test for political and economic realism. It could even spur more focused reflection on the need to support public transit and reduce low-occupancy automobile use. On balance, cultural tourism would seem to be one of the simplest and least controversial steps that Amherst and neighboring towns could take in order to revitalize their social life and economy.

It is striking that cultural tourism registered very high not only among the economic-development strategies, but among all questions posed in the random scientific survey that undergirds the recommendations of the Master Plan: Sixth-highest of all (mean response: 3.95 out of 5), after preservation of environmental resources (top two items), preference for clean industry, affirmation of the centrality of historic resources to the character of the Town, and support for agriculturally based businesses and services as a means of economic development. 73 percent of respondents ranked cultural tourism as "desirable" or "very desirable" as an economic development initiative, whereas only 5 percent called it "undesirable" or "very undesirable."

Public support for the arts as a whole may be softer: "Actively support contemporary cultural life" barely rose about neutral (3.23). Proposals for steps such as creation of an inventory of local cultural organizations or revolving funds to support public art and resident artists have met with a certain measure of resistance (sometimes sharp) in other, less rigorous soundings of public opinion. In these cases, precision is of course crucial. For instance, when respondents were asked to choose their most and least favorite strategies of the Master Plan, they may simply have voted their relative priorities, which is not the same as expressing absolute opposition to a given proposal. They may moreover have had fiscal issues uppermost in mind or assumed that public expenditure was involved: Under the current straitened circumstances, many citizens naturally express a preference for directing funds toward “essential services” such as schools, police, and fire department. Once again, we need to know more. Even the most scientific surveys are fairly blunt instruments in this regard.

On balance, there is reason for optimism, and were one to take a bolder stance, one might even speculate that the strong support for cultural tourism would gradually translate into greater public support, material and moral, for the local individuals and institutions that generate that culture.

[* Full disclosure: The author is Vice Chair of the Amherst Comprehensive Planning Committee, Vice Chair of the Amherst Historical Commission, and Chair of the Natural and Cultural Resources Work Group.]

What is clear is that, if we wish to promote both the arts and cultural tourism, we need to educate the public about what we are up to and why we think it is important.

This brings me back to the starting point of this posting and my questions about the Bulletin article. After all, although cultural tourism is a worthy goal, we should not forget that the culture is supposed to be the attraction.

Although the article listed sample programs from each of the ten partners and called attention to the three “big weekends”—“Art of the Book” (20-23 September), “Books Out Loud” (12-14 October), and “Books to Blogs and Back” (15-18 November), it actually had surprisingly little to say about content. There was no explanation of why the powerful theme of books (certainly of broader appeal than last year’s “Go Dutch!”) was chosen: no mention of the role of the book in art, the book as art, or the role of the book as a factor in the evolution of civilization.

Although all this will no doubt eventually emerge from the sum of the parts, it would have been nice to get an inkling of the rationale sooner rather than later. To some extent, of course, the responsibility lies with us at Museums10 rather than the press. We may tend to assume rather than explain. Perhaps we need to remind ourselves to talk about both the forest and the trees.

To return, then, to the substance of “BookMarks”:

Six weeks have passed since the opening of the first exhibition, “The Write Stuff”, at Historic Deerfield, which presents the material culture associated with literacy, from writing desks and chairs to books and inkstands, as the museum’s website puts it. "BookMarks" got a nice initial publicity bounce when the season opened, but most reporting, driven by the press release and the occasional interview, confined itself to generalities or at most the economic development angle.

One hopes that the press coverage will not be limited to overviews such as the one discussed here, admirable as they are. We need follow-up pieces and discusion of individual events and exhibitions. If the public is truly “starving for art”—and especially if it is not—then, an active local cultural journalism will be essential to the promotion of both the arts and the economic activity that they are supposed to generate.

One purpose of this blog is to create a space for just this sort of commentary.