President’s Letter: August 2021

Monthly observations and insights from MAS President Elizabeth Goldstein

August 25, 2021

A friend of mine once said that it is an odd turn of language when a place name takes on the meaning of an event.  The same can be said of a date.  9/11 means a very specific event.  The same can be said for a word or phrase like Delta variant.  This has come to mean a whole myriad of things well beyond the narrower idea of a mutation of the coronavirus.  It has come to mean an under-defined but scary risk.  I was moved by Ezra Klein’s recent opinion piece in The New York Times  that lays out a COVID future that includes the variants as a flu-like risk with more and more normal everyday consequences.

These days, I have found myself trying to balance the many contradictions of the moment: the Delta variant’s real risks in a place like New York City (where our current vaccination rate is approaching 60% and where it is hard to avoid getting tested, at least by virtue of the number of testing tents I trip over on my way to the subway); the horrible news of death and illness streaming out of places in the United States and elsewhere in the world where the risks are edging out Elmhurst in the early days; and the exhaustion of all of us in month 17 of this crisis.

Lately I’ve been grappling with my own willingness to take risks to have life feel a little more normal.  I have been retracting my willingness to dine indoors and certainly am wearing my mask a lot more, even in places that don’t require it.  I feel uneasy about the compromises I have slipped into, like not being so religious about putting on my mask as a server approaches my table.  (After all, they are just as much at risk as I am, if not more so.  It feels disrespectful to think the fact that I am the customer means I should worry less about them.)

Concert Grove Pavilion in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, location of the Brendan Gill Prize Ceremony on September 14. Photo: Paul Martinka

However, like everyone else, I am looking for a little normal life.  I have been at two concerts recently seeking just that.  Both were outdoors and the audiences were being conscientious about social distancing.  In the height of the heat wave, I went to see the Carnegie Hall’s Ensemble Connect perform a series of works inspired by Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest at Madison Square Park.  (The Ghost Forest is worth a visit before it closes this fall.  It is such a chilling contrast to see the lush summer trees of Park surrounding a grove of dead ones.)

Then I went to my local park to hear the Cumbia River Band.  (The weather was more accommodating at the latter event.)  I have been hearing live music off and on because a local Latin jazz club, Terraza 7, here in Jackson Heights, has been doing outdoor programming since late last summer.  It is so wonderful to be in a live audience responding in real time to music.  It is totally different than listening to a virtual concert, because of the people watching.

My husband, the serious music person in our marriage, is always bewildered by why I am game to see a live performance of someone I make him turn off when we are making dinner!  I realize now that it is all about the audience.  If I am not moved by the sound, I can always amuse myself by watching the people around me and take in the setting.  The Ensemble Connect concert was all about setting.  The bare trees provided a foreground and context for the music.  And the people watching was great.  Little kids standing on their father’s chests, older friends enjoying a summer evening out, musicians playing along on invisible instruments and couples having a cocktail and an appetizer on their blankets.

In Travers Park the beat of the band was drawing in participants who were probably just wandering by as well as those who came deliberately.  Good for the City’s Department of Cultural Affairs for funding local community groups to do this sort of thing.  This was a Columbian band drawing a distinctly mixed audience and what fun it was.  The sari-wrapped ladies who were effortless picking up the salsa rhythms of the music.  Kids laughing as their parents dance around with them and couples for whom this is clearly a long practiced art.

I am balancing these factors because I am grappling with when MAS should return to the office, which events we feel confident (or not) about doing in person. This coming month, MAS will host its first two in-person events since March 2020. The first, our long-awaited 2020 Brendan Gill Prize Ceremony (postponed for 18 months!) will be held outdoors on September 14 at the newly-restored Concert Grove Pavilion in Prospect Park. This ceremony will pay tribute to Julia Wolfe for her magnificent oratorio, Fire in my mouth, a hauntingly beautiful retelling of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Later in the month, we will gather at Cipriani South Street for our 2021 Gala to present the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Medal to four extraordinary New Yorkers: Justin Garrett Moore, David Ehrenberg, Henry Gutman, and Michael Evans (posthumously). This space, too, chosen for its capacity for socially distancing and outdoor gathering. Though life remains a bit more complicated than it once was, there are still opportunities to be found for togetherness and celebration.

I realized after the evening in Travers Park that I have missed this part of life in New York; of the crowd having a good time without fear or worry.  I know that this has always been a respite we find in the daily troubles that mire us all sometimes.  I hope our September events capture some of that same NYC serendipity. If it is a little harder to find these days, it just means we all have to savor it a little more fully when we find it!

Elizabeth Goldstein Signature

Elizabeth Goldstein
President, Municipal Art Society of New York

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