Art Talk and a Desert Double Feature

Our visit to Manhattan’s Neue Galerie last weekend reminded me why it takes more than a great collection to create a stellar arts operation.

While Neue Galerie’s collection is indeed remarkable, no question about that, their $20 per head admission fee, small exhibition space, densely-packed hanging of the art, and lack of curatorial exposition on what we were seeing made the Galerie feel like it was something of an elistist, high-brow, insider operation. I’m well-studied in the arts, so I understood why some of what I was seeing was quite special, but I don’t think that an arts novice would be able to walk into the Neue Galerie unprepared and glean such an appreciation. And absent such a sense of deeper understanding after viewing the collection, I think a lot of people might leave feeling like they had not gotten their twenty bucks worth of illumination and inspiration. I didn’t myself, truth be told. Compare and contrast that experience to our last visit to a New York museum, when Marcia and I both felt like we got our money’s worth, and then some, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Mirό: The Dutch Interiors exhibition.

Value for money notwithstanding, I tend to most highly value arts organizations that make it a priority to not only acquire great collections and traveling exhibitions, but to present them as widely and openly to the public as possible, while also providing expert curatorial context for those who may desire a deeper understanding of what they are seeing. During our many years in Albany, the magnificent Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in nearby Williamstown, Massachusetts provided us (and many others) with such value-added programming. In Iowa, I’ve been thrilled to discover that the Des Moines Art Center is equally adept at, and commited to maintaining, that community-enhancing balance between outreach, accessibility, education and illumination — all in support of an outstanding collection of fine art.

Simon of the Desert

Here’s a current example that, as it turns out, just happens to involve two of my very favorite films. Art Center Senior Curator Gilbert Vicario has organized a wonderful single-artist exhibition called Miguel Angel Ríos: Walkabout that will be on display in the Center’s Anna K. Meredith Gallery through April 22, 2012. Admission is free (though, as always in the nonprofit world, donations are appreciated), the curatorial value-added is high, and the art presented is evocative, both visually and in terms of the themes that underpin the exhibition: rites of passage, spiritual awakenings, and the self-awareness that come from solitary encounters in the desert landscape. It’s not just a collection of “important” art, but rather a holistic presentation that works on a variety of creative, intellectual and intuitive levels. Well done!

But it gets even better: this Sunday (March 18) at 1:00 PM, the Art Center will present a double film feature of Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert (1965) and Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) — both of which are films that I adore and highly recommend, either for first-time or repeat viewing. The Buñuel film is a mischievous satire from the father of film surrealism, based on the story of Saint Simeon Stylites, who lived atop a pedestal in the middle of a desert for years to show his devotion to God. Walkabout depicts an unexpected chance encounter in Australia between an aboriginal boy, who has embarked on his solitary rite of passage into manhood, and a pair of European children who are stranded in the Outback.


In both cases, the films’ protagonists set forth into the desert seeking purification and transformation. In both cases, they achieve those goals, though not in the ways that they might have expected or desired. While both films feature strong performances from their actors (especially Jenny Agutter and David Gulpilil in Walkabout, the first major film for them both), the true star of both movies is the desert itself.

Nicolas Roeg had a long career as a cinematographer before he began directing his own films, and his painterly, attentive and radiant images of the Outback capture both its uplifting and destroying power, and its role as a crucible in the lives of those who enter it. Buñuel, still working in black and white when he made Simon, captures most effectively the gritty, grey, dusty and dirty aspects of the desert experience, where wind shapes the environment more than water, and the land is ever-changing and unchanging, at the same time.

The combination of these two powerful films, the strong curatorial effort by Gilbert Vicario, and the exceptional art and vision of Miguel Angel Ríos should make Sunday afternoon at the Des Moines Art Center a transformative desert experience for all those who participate. Plus, it won’t cost a nickel to attend — although I always encourage people to make contributions commensurate with the value of their experience, and their ability to give, as they leave nonprofit arts organizations’ spaces.

Personally, I’m thinking the experience this Sunday will feel like it’s worth well more than the twenty bucks we each spent last week in New York . . .