Katherine Glennon: ARTISTRY SHAPING OUR CULTURAL LANDSCAPE
WHEN: 11 January 2014
WHERE: Washington, DC
INTERVIEWER: Carl Lankowski
Q: Tell us something about where you are from and how you got to Arlington.
KG: I grew up in northern Virginia. I left the area for college, then moved back to the Washington, DC to launch a career in the arts. I worked for a few years and then went to graduate school for a degree in photography. While I was there I became interested in arts education, teaching, and eventually in museum education. I worked in museum education for a number of years in Ohio. I loved that work, but I wanted to get back into more direct community programming and took a job with Arlington County to do that work.
Q: Let’s pick up some of these threads. Where and when did you attend college?
KG: I went to Connecticut College, graduating in 1985. In New London I studied visual arts, concentrating in graphic design. I think of that phase as when computers came into being, at least as far as impacting graphic design is concerned. I joke that I am part of the last generation to learn about design with tools and rubber cement to manually create a design.
Q: When were you in New London?
KG: From 1981 to 1985.
Q: Did you enter a graduate program right afterward?
KG: No. First I returned to Washington for a job at the Corcoran School of Art, in the main office. One of the benefits of the job was that I could take evening classes without having to pay tuition. That is where I got into photography. I was able to take classes with Joe Cameron and Mark Power, who are two of my favorite photographers. I left the Corcoran job when an opportunity arose to go to Greece. Except for Canada, that was my first travel outside the United States. It was an incredible experience, the source of my passion and love for travel.
Q: Why Greece?
KG: Through a connection with a friend, I had the use of an apartment in Athens. I stayed there for a month and then joined up with friends and stayed for a total of about six months.
Q: What happened next?
KG: I moved back to DC and took a job with the photographer Michael Evans, who was working on a project about homelessness in the United States. Evans worked at TIME Magazine and had been a White House photographer. For this project he hired contract photographers to explore that issue. From that project came a book and an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. That was in 1987-1988. It was a partnership between the National Mental Health Association and Families for the Homeless, and was one of the first comprehensive looks at what homelessness had become in the 1980s.
Q: What drew you to that project?
KG: It was of interest to me, because when I moved to DC I was living in Adams Morgan and working at the Corcoran and would walk back and forth to work, passing many homeless people along the way. I had never been confronted with that before. DC was such a magnet for the homeless at that time. It just seemed like a huge problem that interested me, but I didn’t know what to do or how to help. I wound up volunteering at a shelter for the years I was in DC. So, my interest in that project came from seeing the problem and being dumbstruck by it.
Q: You were in DC through the 1980s…
KG: Pretty much. In 1989 I moved to Athens, Ohio to go to graduate school at Ohio University—after a year on the photo project and a year at the Library of Congress in the Prints and Photographs Division.
Q: What were you studying at Ohio University?
KG: Photography. I got a Masters in Fine Arts in Photography. I was also studying the history of photography, as well as other art forms, such as printmaking. I was there for a little over two years. I did a little bit more travelling with a friend I met there—she and I travelled to Eastern Europe in 1991 after we graduated. It was a magical time, the second time after my trip to Greece that I was able to leave the country and see how other people lived.
Q: Where did you go?
KG: We started off in Paris. My friend has good friends all over the world, so that was really lucky. We stayed in a friend’s apartment in Paris for two and a half weeks and then we went to Corsica and Italy…
Q: an exotic station in your journey…
KG: Certainly for me it was. And then we took a very long train ride to Romania. A mutual friend had been there a year prior, with Doctors Without Borders. I found that the most exotic and exciting story and wanted to go there, too.
Q: Was she in Bucharest?
KG: Primarily Bucharest, as I recall. But we visited Cluj and Braşov and from there we went to the Czech Republic and to Poland, where my friend had friends also.
Q: Where in Poland did you go?
KG: We were in Warsaw and Krakow. What was fascinating to me in Romania was the appearance that nothing had changed over the previous 50 years. Buildings seemed like they were still in the condition they might have been right after World War Two. It looked like they were either falling apart or there were bullet holes in them. All our encounters with people were friendly; most people we met spoke English to us.
Q: Were you taking a lot of photos on the trip?
KG: We were, though at some level this was a pretext for getting closer to things that interested us. People don’t question you as much if you are carrying a camera. You can go anyplace. Without a camera people wonder what you are up to. The camera functioned as a kind of ambassador for us. I was interested in the photography, but I was actually even more interested in just being there and experiencing the place. I did take a lot of pictures but did not wind up exhibiting them.
Q: Have you made the leap to digital photography?
KG: I never did. I have an iPhone and did have a digital camera, but at a certain point photography changed so much—it was like my earlier story with graphic design. I was interested in 19th century processes like albumen printing and other types. And I loved the darkroom work. At a certain point a lot of the materials that liked to use were discontinued. The film quality declined, as did the paper quality. Also, I came to the view the process as environmentally unfriendly. Then there was the issue of access to a darkroom. At the same time I was becoming more interested in arts education and found that kind of work satisfied all those curiosities for me, was interesting and I continue to learn a lot about it. So, I was making a transition in my interest in photography at the same time that photography was making its own transition to digital.
Q: What was the next stage?
KG: I started working for the Ohio Arts Council in their arts-in-education program. I did three or four residencies; I would stay with a family in a town in Ohio and work with the teachers and students on a community arts project that would then be displayed in the community.
Q: This was still in the late 1980s?
KG: This was in the mid-90s. I returned from Europe to Ohio and did arts education for a while.
Q: When did you come back to the DC metropolitan area?
KG: I came back in 1999. By then I had begun working as a museum educator—at the Springfield Museum of Art and the Akron Art Museum and from there I came back to DC. In both of those institutions I was able to function as a facilitator between the museum’s resources and the community to create arts programming involving schools, families, and community members. I found that really fascinating
Q: There was a social dimension to what you did…
KG: I think so. Arts experiences are critical for people, but not everybody has access to that. Museums are great resources, because they have works of art and facilities and it’s a great place to make those connections between artists, the arts, and everybody else.
Q: Did most of your work unfold in an urban setting?
KG: Pretty much. Akron, definitely. Springfield is a pretty small city and I was there for about a year, but yes.
Q: I am beginning to see a theme uniting your observations of the homeless in DC and your work in Ohio. Is there a link?
KG: That’s interesting. I am drawn to cities. But there is need everywhere. When I was in Athens, Ohio, that was a rural, Appalachian setting and some of my first residencies were in very small towns that really looked like they hadn’t changed much since the 1960s. It is important to see that the arts are equally important in all these settings. One town that I worked in near Athens was booming in the 1890s, but many had migrated out and those still there were just subsisting. The town had a really proud history that had become invisible. So, part of what we did was uncover that by getting stories from people about their grandparents and were able in that way to build a little pride in place.
Q: Was it an industrial setting? Was it mining?
KG: It was mining.
KG: Right. The issue was what is left when you move on to a different energy source and the industry abandons the place. It’s a little depressing out there in terms of what is available for people.
Q: I can imagine, especially in light of the news this week out of Charleston, West Virginia as the drinking water for nine counties was compromised by a chemical spill linked to coal extraction.
Q: What brought you back to DC in 1999?
KG: My family is from this area and my sister had two young kids and I felt like I was missing out on their lives. So, I came back for that reason. But I also missed DC and started looking for jobs and found a position at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I started in 2000 and was there for three years, left for a year, and returned for another position
Q: What were your responsibilities at the Museum of Women in the Arts?
KG: In the first period, I was doing family and school programming. The work was like what I had been doing earlier in Akron and Springfield, connecting the museum’s resources with schools, working with teachers on programs that would integrate arts into the classroom, and then developing weekend programs at the museum, opportunities for people to engage with the arts.
Later I worked on a grant project called “Arts, Books, and Creativity.” It was an arts integration and arts research project that was funded by the U.S. Department of Education. It was to develop a curriculum that would help teachers integrate the arts in the classroom. The research piece was to see whether and how the arts helped students learn in other areas. The project centered on artists books, which integrate literacy and visual arts, to see how students show learning in literacy through meaningful integration with the arts.
Q: What were the findings? I am guessing you did indeed find a connection.
KG: We did find a connection. Interestingly—regarding a theme we touched on earlier—this program had a greater impact on at-risk students. Among English language learners or students who were for other reasons disengaged with school, the arts helped them find meaning in their work and helped them with literacy a little bit more than other students in the project.
Q: The project emphasized visual arts?
KG: Right. It focused on artists books, which is great because we were focusing on writing and visual arts and making connections between the two disciplines. So, for students who didn’t see themselves as artists, we could start with the writing and bring in the arts, while for the students who didn’t see themselves as writers, they could start with the visual arts and then bring in words to describe what they were doing. The program was for upper-elementary level—grades 3-5. It was also meant to help language arts teachers learn how to integrate visual arts to assist their students who may be struggling with writing, to give them another entrée into that discipline.
Q: Where did you draw from—primarily public schools?
KG: Yes. I should mention that the museum has a really strong collection of artists’ books—over 750 books in various formats, some with text, some without. We were able to share those with students. We worked with schools in Arlington County and in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Interestingly, the student demographics of Arlington and Albuquerque public schools at the time were very similar. There were a lot of English language learners in both school systems.
Q: The Museum of Women and the Arts is located in downtown DC. Why Arlington instead of DC?
KG: We did a lot of other programs with DC public schools. However the demographic similarities between Arlington and Albuquerque and their willingness to participate made them great partners and research subjects for the project.
Q: Part of the project was scouting out potential school systems…
KG: That actually happened the year I was not at the museum. Arlington Public Schools represents the high end of the kind of school system you would want to work with. Each school has dedicated art teachers. Students all get art every week and every year. Whereas, in Albuquerque at that time not every school had a dedicated arts teacher, students had visual art every other year—on the off years they had music. In the years without, it is up to the classroom teachers to integrate art. We were looking at how a yearlong curriculum would be implemented in different kinds of school systems—a system that doesn’t have full support for the arts, versus one that is top-notch.
Q: When did your career bring you to Arlington County?
KG: I loved the work at the museum, but I did miss doing more direct programming with community members. That is what the County position offered—an opportunity to work more directly with people in the community. Also, halfway through the project with the museum I had a child and I was so exhausted by the time the project was over, a part-time position was welcome. When I first started working with the County it was a part-time schedule. It was a chance to take a breather while continuing to work, which I love to do.
The work the County does is really interesting. I had long been following what the Cultural Affairs Division had been doing in the County and nationally, because they had been doing a lot of innovative work.
Q: Arlington had a reputation in cultural affairs?
KG: Yes. At the time, the Cultural Affairs department was quite large. There were two folklorists on staff—Mary Briggs and Chris Williams. It is unusual for a County of this size to have that in addition to the other programmers and arts professionals on staff. They were doing deep work in the community, lots of cultural heritage research, and had created an incubator program for performing arts groups in the county, about 15 years old at that point, really innovative programs to help performing arts groups grow. They provided rehearsal studios and performance space, and professional assistance on the business side. It was exciting to be a part of that. That was in addition to the County’s public art program that is nationally recognized.
Q: How and why did Arlington position itself in this way?
KG: It had a lot to do with the people who were there at the time. Norma Kaplan was the director of the division and she had a really large vision for what the county could do. The county manager, Ron Carlee at the time, had a vision for what a strong arts community can do for people who live in the county, but also to help people view the county differently. I know Norma shared that vision. Norma came from a theater background and that gave her insight into what performing arts groups needed to take that next step in growing artistically and being successful.
Q: Is that different now?
KG: The County’s vision is still very grand and it provides a lot of amenities to the community in a very progressive way in terms of transportation and social services, and the arts are still well supported.
Q: What is it about Arlington’s economic and demographic profile that has helped the county embrace arts in the ways you have described?
KG: Many innovative cultural programs were started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Arlington was the locus of a lot of immigration. Much of that was from Latin America. People in the Cultural Affairs Division recognized that as a plus, as something to investigate, to highlight and to value as a community resource. I feel the County has changed a lot since then and the demographics have changed quite a bit as well. Arlington has become wealthier, but the cost of living has also increased.
Q: When did you start working for the county?
KG: I started in August 2007. It wasn’t until late 2010 that I started working on projects involving Arlington’s sister cities, specifically on the Aachen artist exchange.
Q: You kindly provided me with a set of reference points in Arlington’s engagement with its sister cities in the arts going back nearly fifteen years. Thanks very much for doing this homework for us! Why don’t we start with the program with the Ludwig Forum for International Art [Das Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst] in 1999.
KG: That program was an exchange of artists between the Ludwig Forum and the Arlington Arts Center (AAC). In fact, I believe it was an exchange of art work; I don’t know if the artists themselves were able to travel. At the time, Claire Huschle was director of the AAC–she is now acting director of GMU’s School of Arts Management. The work of four photographers was shown at the AAC; we have a catalogue of that show. The curator from the Ludwig Forum wrote lovely essays about the artists and about the works themselves and why they were selected. It was wonderful to see the kind of thought that went into his selection of the artists. Claire then selected the work of four artists and sent it to Aachen for the Ludwig Forum to exhibit. I am pretty sure that this was the first arts exchange connected to one of Arlington’s sister cities. It was a nice way to start, to explore what the potential might be for further collaborations.
Q: How did you find out about the photo exchange?
KG: We have one catalogue left from the exchange and I read through the essays. It was long ago enough that not many people that had been with the county at the time are still with the county. It was a forensic enterprise. But I did talk with staff who had been involved in different sister city-related projects. Angela Adams is one of them–she mentioned that it would be a good idea to get back in touch with all the artists who have been involved in the exchanges through the years to see what has happened since and what impact, if any, the exchange had on their development.
Q: What a wonderful idea! It could take the form of a workshop, or perhaps something more public. Next, you list the program with our sister city in Coyoacan, a subdivision of Mexico City, in 2003-2004. That relationship was just starting and this may have been the first or one of the first events undertaken with that sister city .
KG: I think so. What is interesting to me is that each exchange started with an exchange of people and in response to that what they saw and who they met. Each exchange developed its own flavor based on who was involved and the ideas that happened to have been articulated. In this case, a number of Arlington County staff went to Coyoacan and also to Oaxaca and met with artisans and with sister city members, spending quite a lot of time investigating the culture and experiencing it, learning and growing themselves as professionals.
Q: How long were they there?
KG: At least a week, I think. Mary Briggs, Angela Adams, and Norma Kaplan went. I don’t know whether Chris Williams went on that trip or not. As a result of the visit, four artists from Coyoacan and/or Oaxaca came to Arlington in 2004 and had a two-week residency at the Ellipse Gallery. I believe they were demonstrating and exhibiting their work at the Ellipse
Q: Remind me where the Ellipse is.
KG: It was. The Ellipse was the County’s arts gallery in the Jefferson Building on Fairfax Drive.. The Ellipse closed and was later transformed into the Terrace Gallery at Artisphere. Another result of the exchange in 2005 was a festival that highlighted a group of acrobats from Coyoacan
Q: Then you refer to an event in 2005, the Atelier Simon, from Reims.
KG: Again, that started with an exchange of staff. I am not sure whether the ASCA Reims committee mapped out an itinerary and included the Atelier Simon. This time, Claire Huschle joined Mary Briggs, Jim Byers, and Norma Kaplan as well as other staff for the visit. They toured the cathedral and saw the stained glass windows by Marc Chagall. They were astonished by the craftsmanship and beauty. They also visited the atelier where the stained glass windows were made. Jim Byers told how, on the atelier tour, they viewed works in glass from the 13th century to contemporary times, and that this place was dedicated to preserving this ancient craft, though using it in contemporary forms in the context of this great tradition in stained glass window making. The idea for the exchange was that Arlington would find an appropriate artist to work with the atelier to make windows that would be installed at Court House Plaza. If you can imagine the Court House building, right above the entrance is some glass and the art work would be placed there, a great representation of the ASCA Arlington-Reims committee and a beautiful way to announce that we value culture and the arts. It would be just stunning. A lot of work went into that project for the next several years. Then it was put on hold by Arlington I believe for financial reasons. By then, Arlington had identified an artist who lives in France not far from Riems, who would be able to go there frequently enough to make the panels. A mock-up of the design was produced. So, it is on hold indefinitely, but is a really beautiful project and a really beautiful way to marry the two cultures and to visually represent the value of the arts in our county government, too.
Q: And we already know where we will put it when it comes to pass…
KG: Yes, indeed, when it comes to pass. It was a brilliant idea.
Q: It particularly resonates this year, 2014, when we commemorate the outbreak of World War One with our friends in Aachen and Reims. Much of the building was destroyed by German shelling in the opening phase of that war. Reconstruction began in 1919 and was eventually subsidized by the Rockefellers. The cathedral was finally reopened in 1938.
KG: I saw those photos!
Q: So the reconstruction of Europe and the resilience of the European idea is very much incorporated in the cathedral and in Chagall’s 1974 windows.
KG: Jim Byers also mentioned how they were able to pull out a several hundred year old work of art for them to see. The long-term value of the culture survived. It is part of who they are and how they view themselves. To us in our relatively new country and newish county, as Jim said, it pointed to the long-term value of investment in the arts. He spoke eloquently about how that visit changed his perspective on the work he did here.
Q: An interesting juxtaposition: young traditions in culture versus one of the world’s oldest continuously existing set of governing institutions, dating back to 1776. Moving along, you have listed Bonifatius Stirnberg’s Spielschiff [play boat], highlighting Arlington’s connection to Aachen.
KG: I asked Angela about that, since it happened just about the time I started working for the county. It grew out of a staff idea. Norma had been in Aachen and seen the sculpture installed in Aachen and saw an opportunity to have the Play Ship in Arlington, too. In a way it was Norma’s personal whim that this should happen. The county had already identified the Maury School, site of the AAC, as the location for some sort of artistic playground. So, there was already an expressed desire to have something new and fun on that site. We were able to have a replica of that built in Arlington. It is interesting to have one in each location.
Q: An echo of our relationship.
KG: That’s right.
Q: The Arlington-Aachen relationship, launched in 1993-1994 was a precursor.
KG: Exactly. Having these ongoing relationships allow citizens or county staff to come up with an idea or a vision and imbues the action with purpose and meaning.
Q: One can be forgiven for reacting to that thought with a speculation about what art is, or at least what dimensions it must have. There is something exceedingly particular about any work of art. At the same time, it must be universal in the sense of being transcendent. Perhaps one of the values of a sister city relationship is that it helps facilitate that particularity.
KG: I think that is true. So much of what the county does is by committee. Good things proceed from that and deserve to be highly valued. But there is something about the arts that will not fit into that, that must escape the realm of committees. We have the committees of ASCA and Arlington County staff who fashion a ground for inspiration. Take an artist like Monika Radhoff-Troll from Aachen: she has been a great inspiration, an instigator—yes, that’s what it is, an instigator.
Q: The last point of reference on your list of Arlington sister city arts collaborations was an Arlington-Reims affair in 2009 called “Crossing Glances.” Had you already arrived when this project was realized?
KG: That project may have been under discussion for some years by the time I arrived. That was an opportunity to send an Arlington artist to Reims and a Reims artist to Arlington—two photographers spending a month in each other’s location.
Q: I remember some of the work but have not seen a catalogue.
KG: I brought one with me. Here it is! The exchange resulted in an exhibition at the Ellipse Gallery, a parallel exhibition in Reims, and a catalogue as well. Both were jointly produced. The county owns all of Cécile Bethléem’s work the photographer from Reims, while the counterpart agency in Reims has John Babineau’s work. They each spent a month in the other location photographing and spent a fair amount of time printing. The photographs of each artist comprised a unique record of their experience, finding a version of each other’s cities distinctly individual and very particular. It is interesting to see one’s own place through the eyes of someone else. Notably, neither photographer highlighted people; hardly any people appear in the collection of photographs. They are mainly of place; much less of people. Cecil’s view of Arlington is really quiet – she has captured a lot that is about to change. This will be of immense value to us down the road
Q: Do you mean older neighborhoods?
KG: Not only the old neighborhoods, but even more so the old downtowns in Arlington. They are turning from two-level, suburban buildings into fifteen-level urban spaces.
Q: Thank you for bringing the catalogue. I had seen some of the pictures before when they circulated at ASCA board meetings. We ought to consider a retrospective of our sister city artistic endeavors.
KG: Something else to point out about “Crossing Glances” is that Cécile is an emerging artist. The value of the exchanges for the artists is another topic—the opportunity for artists to grow.
Q: Where did they live?
KG: They were provided apartments . I think Cecil had an apartment in Rosslyn and John had a similar situation in Reims.
Q: Is this something the county did?
KG: Yes, I think it was joint funding by ASCA and the County. We made a habit of keeping an eye out for apartments when we expected a visiting artist. Cecil’s stay was long enough so that we wanted to make sure she didn’t have to stay in a hotel the whole time.
Q: Thank you for a stirring overview of arts projects Arlington—the county and ASCA—conducted with our partners abroad. We should take this opportunity to mention our other sister cities in this context. There are San Miguel and Ivano-Frankivsk. Have we run projects with either of these in the arts?
KG: The cultural affairs division has not done anything official with San Miguel or Ivano-Frankivsk. I know that there was talk of an exchange of Arlington-based blacksmiths with smiths from Ivano-Frankivsk.
Q: A smith by the name of Rudik did venture here from Ukraine and has produced work, some of which has been placed in Arlington public spaces—I think Rudik donated a piece that now resides in the Arlington Central Library.
KG: Yes, I had heard of that. We would be happy to be involved in efforts like that to augment their impact.
Q: Off the top of my head, this might have been a missed opportunity. In this case, we probably missed the connections we could have made with you. Rudik actually worked in the shop of a local smith.
KG: Angela mentioned that it would be great if there could be a committee of county staff that could meet on a regular basis with ASCA so that whenever projects like that are happening we can make enhancing connections.
Q: Off the top of my head, one way of keeping mutually informed would be the presence of interested county staff at ASCA’s board meetings, which are always open to the public. ASCA’s central organizational principle is the city committee. We don’t normally think across the committees in whatever area—the arts, school exchanges, societal diversity and immigration, transport or environment policy, and so on.
At this point, we have surveyed ASCA-county collaborations as well as independent county or ASCA sister city projects. The one we have not yet explored is the one in which your involvement has been greatest—the Face-to-Face project. Tell us about that.
KG: Monika Radhoff-Troll was the major, tenacious instigator of the Aachen-Arlington Face-to-Face project. At a point when some Arlington county staff were in Aachen I think Monika had an opportunity to speak with someone from ASCA’s Aachen committee. Subsequently she met with Norma Kaplan and presented her idea and got an enthusiastic response. It was at a time when the county’s cultural division was really stretched by the demands associated with planning and then opening the new cultural center, Artisphere [the globe-shaped building in Rosslyn that had been the home of the Newseum, before that institution moved to DC]. Consequently, Norma spent a long time not responding to Monika’s emails. Eventually, Monika prevailed and Norma said “yes, we will do this,” at which point she handed it to me as a project to work on. At that point, in mid-2010, Monika had already developed an outline of a project designed as an artist exchange. Her organization, Dreieck (Triangle), was already involved in a number of exchanges within their own region and in other countries.
Monika was interested in organizing an exchange in which five artists would come to the United States and five from here would go there. We had a little bit of funding from a Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation grant that we were able to put towards the project and we then began scouting for Arlington-based artists who could participate in the exchange. We did a call for artists and got a number of responses. In the end, we selected three to visit Aachen for the exchange. In April 2011, Linda Maldonado, Mary Detweiler, and Lisa McCarty traveled to Aachen to work with their Aachen counterparts. Lisa is an emerging artist, a photographer, and she and Monika Radhoff-Troll made a strong connection. You never know what is going to come from these exchanges.
So, the three Arlington artists traveled to Aachen and enjoyed a wonderful reception by the ten artists involved on that side. They spent ten days together creating artwork and they developed an installation there. They all worked together in a great big room and exchanged processes and ideas, did a lot of talking, shared materials. It is an exceptionally rare experience, especially for artists from the United States to have that kind of time to simply work. I think it stretched and inspired all three artists from Arlington; the opportunity to see how people work in other countries was compelling.
Q: In effect, the women created a “flash atelier.”
KG: That’s a good way of putting it. It was an opportunity to create a site-specific installation. They worked and exhibited in Aachen’s Aula Carolina, a fantastic space [a 13th century cloister church of the Augustinian order, resonant with history and now repurposed as part of the Kaiser Karl Gymnasium secondary school]. The artists were inspired by the space and by each other and responded to their surroundings to create work. At the end of the exchange they organized an open house for the community. People came in, saw the work they created, were able to hear a public presentation and ask questions about the project. It was a quick, but intense experience for everybody.
The project theme was “working outside the box.” The idea was broad enough to accommodate almost anything, but still provided some guidance and functioned as unifying element as well. The artists embraced the opportunity in a literal way when they worked on actual boxes as a sort of icebreaker for the group.
Later in the year, in late October, five Aachen-based artists came to Arlington, living with their counterparts and working in the space of the newly opened Artisphere. They worked together on-site producing art, though they did not respond to the site in the same way they did in Aachen. They responded to their experiences here and to each other’s work. The space was smaller than in Aachen, so there was no way to escape from interaction with each other, sharing meals, supplies, and collaborating with each other. That was exciting. A month-long exhibit of the work they produced was shown at Artisphere, kicked off with a public reception.
Q: I remember a great turnout opening night and a wonderful opportunity to approach the artists and engage them about their work and the overall project.
KG: It was a great turnout. Earlier in the day Fox-5 TV came and did an interview with the artists that was broadcast live that morning.
Q: The theme wasn’t “outside the Fox”…
KG: Right! The cultural exchanges was a tremendous learning experience for the artists; it was exciting for people in Arlington to see how artists from other countries work and to think about cultural production in other countries and how that is different from here.
One exciting element was the collaboration between Lisa McCarty and Mora Radhoff-Troll, which continues to the present. They work together on projects that have been exhibited in Aachen and also in Cologne. Mora has been diligent about getting galleries to show their work. Indeed, there is a show in planning even as we speak. Meanwhile, Lisa attended graduate school and has a solo exhibition of her work in photography and film at Artisphere. She and Mora are interested in new media. The two artists have both grown a lot and have clearly influenced each other.
Q: An enduring transatlantic collaboration.
KG: Actually, Mora has an idea for another exchange, perhaps in 2015, possibly working with the Arlington Arts Center, with artists interested in media, photography and technology.
Q: Let’s talk about the aesthetics and content of the art in the 2011 “outside the box” project. How would you characterize it?
KG: Dreieck, the organization to which Mora and the other Aachen artists belong, encompassing artists from Belgium, Netherlands, and Germany in the region where the three countries share borders, is a juried institution. To become a member, you have to be juried into it. It is a professional organization for artists. In Arlington, we opened up the exchange to any artist interested in participating. We had a range of artists expressing interest. Arlington has a number of arts institutions—from the Arlington Artists Alliance, the Columbia Pike Artist Studios, the Arlington Arts Center—and they represent a whole range of interest and ability. It was great for our artists to see this type of professional organization and to be influenced by their approach. Our model has great value, too, in that we are open to anybody; anyone can come in at any level and learn and grow and have the same opportunities. It is interesting to share different approaches to art making and the professionalization of the arts.
Q: When you speak about Dreieck, you are talking about the collaboration of three countries, due to Aachen’s geographic circumstances
KG: Exactly. It is fascinating how this proximity works.
Q: You have the Belgians, the Dutch and the Germans operating together. Beyond that, Dreieck is a women’s collective.
KG: Yes. I find that really interesting. It was really convenient in terms of the home exchange, everyone of the same gender. It was something we never really explored overtly in the project. Though not overt, clearly especially the Dreieck artists’ work was very much about women’s experience, by incorporating so-called traditional women’s craft in the work.
Q: I was personally surprised at how downplayed that was.
KG: On the Arlington side, I don’t think gender as a women’s issue resonates as much in the art world. As someone who worked at the Museum of Women in the Arts, I fully believe in the value of highlighting the work of women artists. But somehow it didn’t resonate with our artists at this particular juncture in time. I don’t know, but I wonder if gender salience is different in the arts in Germany and Europe. Dreieck is, after all, a women’s collective.
Q: One thing that struck me about at least some of the work produced in this project at the Artisphere was the acute sensitivity to suffering. One of the artists came from the Balkans, so maybe that was a factor.
KG: I think that is true for political life and personal health. It is probably even more greatly reflected in some of the Dreieck artists who could not make the reciprocal exchange. In contrast, I had the sense that the artists from Arlington produced work more in the landscape tradition, more outward looking and responding to place. That said, the work done by Dreieck artists in Arlington was inspired by their travels here. One of the artists, Sylvia Nirmaier, who visited New York City before arriving in Arlington, was deeply impressed by the energy of that urban setting. Her work became vibrant and energetic. Sylvia’s work had been very much about personal, introspective matters. It demonstrates what can happen if you are able to leave where you are and see realities in other parts of the world.
We live in a densely woven international setting in Arlington. Arlingtonians are avid travelers, too, and appreciate other cultures. But at the same time, while in DC there are opportunities galore to see art from all over the world, it is nevertheless not widely recognized that this opportunity is available in Arlington as well. The county has its own amazing transnational network of artists. One of the things that was so important about the Face to Face project is having this connection close at hand. The Dreieck artists were able to meet many Arlingtonians—in addition to the artwork itself, the critical feature was the personal encounters.
Q: In contrast to some of the earlier exchanges, thinking in particular of the photographers, the Face-to-Face project highlight home-stays, right?
KG: That’s right. Partly, that was due to budgetary concerns. There was no money to do anything else. This morphed into a significant benefit of the kind that people do not have very much anymore. Surely the joy of travel is to be off the beaten path and meet with people you wouldn’t have met otherwise. I think that the home-stays and the opportunity to be in a place for a period of time allows that to happen. Pondering my own experience, what made me want to go to other places was meeting someone and bringing back great stories about it. We can look beyond our own framework and see what else is out there. I don’t think that will ever stop being important. So, for me this exchange was great for the artists, but beyond that for the community. At the time, it felt like it had been awhile since we had artists coming to and staying with us in Arlington. It was good for us as county staff to realize that we could do that. It is a lot of work and costs money, but it is a really important part of our job.
Q: How do you think you are organized to continue this work?
KG: Since Face to Face, our division has undergone some major transitions. We have opened Artisphere, a performing arts center and visual exhibition space. We have had a huge turnover in staff. And as a division we have been reorganized within Arlington Economic Development from our former home in the Department of Parks and Recreation. Consequently, our leadership has a different perspective on the arts. We are looking at arts’ value in terms of creative placemaking, which I think these exchange programs fit very nicely into.
Q: I wanted to ask you a question about the Frida Kahlo exhibit at the Artisphere in 2011. How did that one come about?
KG: It was definitely a sister city initiative and one in which Norma Kaplan was centrally involved. Kahlo lived with Diego Rivera until he died in Coyoacan, the district of Mexico City with which Arlington has a relationship. On exhibit were photos and other artifacts from Frida Kahlo’s personal archive.
Q: I went on opening night. An hour before opening, you couldn’t even get in the door, the crowd was so large.
KG: Yeah, it was insanely successful, a blockbuster for Artisphere. It drew not only from Arlington, but from the entire region.
Q: Is there a search mechanism for international exhibits?
KG: No. There could be; there should be. Within AED there is a liaison between the County and Arlington’s sister cities, but she just left and that position is now open.
Q: In my last trip to Aachen in September 2013, I was introduced to a photography collector, Gabriele Koenig, who built up a collection of photographs from East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Ludwig Forum organized a show encompassing something approaching 200 pieces from her collection. It was curated by Ludwig Forum director, Brigitte Franzen, who wrote the catalogue essay. It was called EROS UND STASI—the polarization of the two terms is about as extreme as you can get, portraying intimacy in two entirely different ways. That exhibit has been offered to us in Arlington and I am presently searching for an appropriate venue. What I am trying to convey with this observation is that the good work of you and your predecessors over the last two decades continues. Thanks to your efforts, a tradition of sharing has been established in the visual arts.
It sounds like we are on the threshold of a new phase of international engagement in the arts.
KG: I think so! About a year ago we had a meeting with Karl van Newkirk, who had just finished his tour as ASCA chairman, along with AED director Terry Holzheimer, to discuss what is next.
We have had a series of interns assigned to us over the years, sent to us via ASCA’s Reims committee.
Q: One problem in bringing interns is the visa process. Only two of our five cities are in countries with visa-waiver programs (Aachen and Reims).
Let’s turn to the efficacy of the sister city experience in Arlington from your point of view.
KG: I have conferred with some county staff that have benefited from participating in a staff exchanges and want to reflect their experience. Particularly, I have notes of highlights from a discussion with Angela Adams, director of the public art program, and also Jim Byers, who is an arts marketing professional and who is also an artist and did a lot of programming for the division. Angela said that one of the main benefits to staff is to be able to think internationally about the work that they do. Angela was able to go to Coyoacan and Oaxaca and said that the experience really changed her approach to indigenous work. There, traditions had been passed on. People continued to do them. Even in contemporary times, these traditions continue to have resonance. To be able to take that perspective and look at the work that people here are doing, whether they are from other parts of the world or locally rooted, the experience helped her identify here in Arlington work worth supporting. That is huge. To be able to take a perspective from another place and apply it to your work, it changes how you do your work here. Angela went further: the opportunity to represent our community internationally and encounter individuals like Monika, for example, can have a significant impact on the cultural life of the communities party to the exchange. Sister city engagement is also relevant for benchmarking excellence. Seeing your own community on a world stage compared to what others are doing lets you see what you do on a larger scale. Beyond that, such engagement also amplifies opportunities for professional development.
Q: Your remarks jolt me to observe that our region is internationally dense for obvious reasons—we live in a world capital—and to speculate that you don’t get all the benefit of that unless it is highly particularized. I hazard that it is not true just in art but in all manner of communicative nexes. Maybe what is different and distinctive about Arlington because of the kind of sister city programs it has developed, has managed to condense that person-to-person relationship across borders, which the more transactional aspect of the dense international life in the Washington metropolitan region does not.
KG: Quite right. When I was going through documents on AED’s common drive to prepare for our conversation, I came across commentary from a participant in a staff exchange some years ago in the transportation division. That person was able to see transportation systems in Europe and brought back impressions that affected planning here. Arlington is receptive anyway, but international engagement amplifies the benefits of this predisposition. Maybe nothing has so changed the face of Arlington in recent years than policy development in transportation. In the 1970s it was the subway line; nowadays it is bike paths and lanes and bike-share systems. Individuals who have these international personal encounters come back inspired and are able to make a difference. Certainly, the impact on individuals is indisputable: Mora Radoff-Troll and Lisa McCarty are changed forever. Though at different stages of their careers, their interaction has had a profound impact on both. Also, as we host representations of our partner communities here in Arlington like Stirnberg’s Spielschiff, we are also represented there. In effect, we have broadened our community by placing bits of it abroad. I cannot help but thinking about impacts of the sister city engagement on county staff. A few individuals frame visits to our partner cities as junkets. “Aren’t they lucky to spend a week in France!” But this experience has without question impacted their work and improved what they do, bringing quality and excellent back to the county.
Q: One way or another, after twenty years the sister city experience is probably rooted well enough in Arlington so that the momentum of its programs will carry it through. The experience suffuses the community. Positive sentiment in the community should be available to draw upon in defending and even expanding Arlington’s international engagement. What do you think the long term impact of these associations?
KG: They have been tremendous aids in helping county staff continually improve cultural resources here. Continued citizen input is great. It is grand to have Linda, Lisa, and Nan represent us abroad and enrich us when they return by sharing what they learned.
Q: Stepping outside the bureaucratic context, how does Citizen Katherine size up the sister city experience?
KG: Personally, it is thrilling. I like to travel. There is nothing I like to do more. Even if I am not the one traveling, I like to hear about it, see the photos, and I like to know what happened. Beyond that, artists need opportunities to have other experiences, to see the work of others. To grow through interaction with them. Different parts of the world treat the arts differently, in some ways better, in some ways not. It is really great to see the value of art in other places. The arts need nurturing. Sister city projects are a way to support this process.
Q: And the contribution of sister city programs to the quality of life in Arlington?
KG: Our sister city programs have brought the world to Arlington in a really personal way. It brings people; there is always something going on. With the homestays, it is almost like promoting extended family in Arlington with other cultures. It is hugely important to Arlington County. They are life-changing opportunities.