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March 5, 2006

A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

January 15, 2006

Where’s The Art?

No Trains, No Galleries, No Firlefanz

I managed to beg a pair of tickets from Cathy Frank to see the puppet version of Eugene Ionesco’s play Rhinoceros for last Thursday, the 12th of January, at the Firlefanz Gallery. Cathy and her husband, Ed Atkeson, run, or I should say ran Firlefanz on Lark Street for the past three years. Firlefanz has officially closed as an art gallery and public space. This three nights of Rhinoceros was part of a farewell to Albany.

It was one of the most delightful and amazing performances of any sort that I’ve seen in years. The puppets themselves were works of art, and the play clipped along at a brisk pace with nuanced voice-acting. After a few minutes the puppetry seemed perfectly natural and one could not help but suspend disbelief. Even the occasional opening night glitches added delight, such as when a cap kept falling over the face of one of the puppet characters, and a black shrouded arm popped out from between the black curtains to push the puppet’s cap back into place.

The audience could clearly see the tremendous amount of effort that went into this complex production. It was so good that it made me sad to realize that there would be only three performances. Would all this work, beautiful puppets and all, be simply discarded after the weekend? Perhaps if the show were mediocre it would be all right, but to abandon this production seemed a crying shame bordering on a crime.

The Firlefanz store front is (was) narrow and crowded, we were lucky to get tickets for the last remaining seats. Surely the production could attract enough of a crowd to fill a bigger space. The wife suggested Steamer 10 on upper Madison, she thinks the puppets are big enough to be seen by the whole theater. They were almost too big for Firlefanz. How about it, Cathy and Ed, and the rest of the troupe?

The Monday evening before, we were at the Lark Tavern (why is the Lark Tavern on Madison? ...oh, never mind.) Nudged by my spouse, I cornered Cathy Frank and shook her down for tickets to the Thursday showing. This was during intermission at Nicole Peyrafitte’s second-Monday-of-the-month Experimental Cabaret at the Lark, a veritable circus of surprising and off the wall performances. For example, that Monday night we were particularly taken with a fabulous performance by a slender young woman in a tutu, who played first an accordion and then a saw, casting her shadow on a video projection of rhythmically jerking birds in flight, all the while singing songs in a sweet voice about arson and dismemberment. That sort of thing.

One doesn’t expect to see such interesting stuff in an upstate cow town like Albany. Apparently Nicole, or for that matter Cathy and Ed, haven’t heard that Albany is a hopeless cultural backwater that cannot support such things. (By the way, the talented young lady in the tutu was C. Ryder Cooley from San Francisco, and she is currently attending SUNYA.)

But then, Cathy and Ed must have decided that Firlefanz was not worth the trouble of keeping it open, they have cited financial drain as one of the main reasons for the closing. But here we were on Thursday night, me and the wife blowing off a meeting, shirking our public duty to see... puppets!

Boy, are we glad we went. That Thursday afternoon, when we realized that we had a scheduling conflict, I asked the wife, “Tonight, would you rather see puppets perform Rhinoceros at Firlefanz, or would you rather attend a meeting of the neighbors organizing against the Common Council’s illegal spot rezoning of part of Holland Avenue to ‘highway commercial?’”

After hemming and hawing, the wife shifted from one foot to the other and said, “There’ll be more meetings, but when will we get to see Rhinoceros at Firlefanz again?”

She had a point. Besides, the element of guilt here is strong. You see, as far as I can recall, not once in three years did we make a purchase at Firlefanz. Is that any way to support art spaces in Albany? Oh, we attended performances and special events, and of course art openings where we examined the art and delicately sampled the trays of food. But not once did we shell out for the art, not even for a trinket.

It wasn’t because we didn’t have the opportunity. Many is the time the two of us peered into the windows of Firlefanz and exclaimed happily at the displays. It wasn’t the quality of the art, certainly some of it sucked but a lot of it was really, really good, the kind of things you'd like to take home and display. It wasn’t the cost, some of it was pricey but there were some excellent bargains hanging on the wall. We’re not exactly millionaires, but we could have shelled out if we had wanted to.

So, what was our problem? What was everybody else’s problem, why didn’t the people with disposable income who live in and around Albany point their credit cards and checkbooks in the direction of Cathy and Ed’s art space?

I can’t speculate about others, but around our house there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need for new works of art. I’m not sure why that is. Maybe it’s because we’re lowlife slobs with no appreciation for the finer things. Maybe it’s because the wife is programmed to panic to the point of hysteria every time she observes me taking a strong interest in a work of art for sale in a gallery. Maybe it’s because we haven’t moved or rearranged the furniture in twenty years, so we have no need to think about the things hanging on our walls. Or maybe we just have enough “stuff.”

None of these excuses are convincing. They're pure baloney. Like most spoiled rotten decadent middle class Americans, we are constantly buying “stuff.” For instance, the wife delights in gadgets. Ask her to show off her new iPod sometime. As for me, there’s nothing I like to do more than go to Earthworld on Central Ave. and load up with comic books. Comic books! An allegedly grown man! I’ve got a massive unruly pile of them on the floor next to my side of the bed. And don’t ask us how many times we went out to eat last year. We can’t afford to tell you.

Are we guilty of some sort of prevailing Albany cow town mindset that can’t conceive of supporting artists and art spaces? When our friends Gregg and Nancy used to live down in Kingston, NY, they would occasionally invite us to the monthly Art Walk. This was a night when all the downtown art galleries great and small would throw open their doors and welcome the unwashed masses.

The event always seemed to be a great success, some of the galleries packed with so many bodies that you couldn’t get near the trays of food. We never once came close to hitting all of the galleries before the night ended. Mind you, Kingston only has a population of about 35,000, compared to Albany’s 100,000. But then, Kingston is an hour’s drive closer to New York City than is Albany. Maybe that makes the difference.

So then, if the civic leaders of Albany had the brains and the foresight to push for and develop an affordable and reliable passenger rail link to New York City, we could make up for this disparity. Certainly such a modern and reliable rail link would do wonders for Albany’s economy, particularly if it extended to Boston and Montreal. (Amtrak is better than nothing, but it is an expensive and unreliable dinosaur. Don't we deserve better?) Firlefanz survived for three years on the stingy spending of us locals, perhaps if our city had a decent rail link to the monied South it would have thrived.

Short of a clean sweep of City Hall by the voters, nothing of the sort is likely to happen. Indeed, about a week ago, it came out in the local corporate press that Jerry Jennings, The Mayor of Albany, WANTS TO MOVE THE DOWNTOWN ALBANY BUS STATION ACROSS THE RIVER TO RENSSELAER.

Now, why would anyone in their right mind want to do such a stupid, idiotic thing? It seems that the Mayor really, really wants a convention center in downtown Albany, and is willing to do anything to get it. He would probably be willing to wear a tutu, play the accordion and sing about dismemberment in a sweet voice to get his convention center. Along comes Joe Bruno, boss of the Senate, who apparently offered to do some horse trading. He is willing to help Jennings get his convention center if he moves Albany’s miserable excuse for mass transit to Bruno’s home turf.

Now, imagine if Jennings put all this effort into developing a reliable rail link with New York City, with passenger transit stations convenient to all points in downtown Albany. What a legacy to remember him by! Future generations would speak of Jerry Jennings as “the Mayor who brought Albany’s economy back to life with mass transit.” Instead, he wants to be remembered as the next Jim Coyne.

Meanwhile, Albany plods along and Cathy Frank is planning to turn the Firlefanz storefront into a pottery studio. She and Ed tried to jump-start the Albany arts scene, but the money and the commitment wasn’t coming from the community. Perhaps others will build on their work, but just as likely, others will be discouraged by their closing.

One last word about Cathy. She was once the proprietor of a restaurant on Lark Street, Cathy’s Waffle Shop. Back in the 1970’s I was a scruffy young kid subsisting on minimum wage, living in a run-down squat on the then half-abandoned block of Hudson Avenue below Dove. By necessity, I was very stingy. Although I never shoplifted and stayed out of trouble, I was always treated like dirt by shop owners, a common problem among young working guys.

One morning, I decided to splurge on breakfast at Cathy’s. I spent maybe a dollar and change on a plate of waffles, they were delicious. What made the encounter memorable, when I was leaving, Cathy made a point of chatting with me. She was friendly. She asked me to stop by again.

I was stunned! No restaurant or shop owner had ever talked to me like that. I honestly didn’t know how to react. That memory of Cathy’s random friendliness toward a disreputable looking young fellow has stayed with me all these years.

So, we need a new garlic pot for our kitchen counter. Maybe if Cathy makes a nice one in her new ceramics studio and puts it up for sale, we’ll buy it.

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