Thursday, October 19, 2017

A museum for `slow looking' reopens in nation's capital -- Oct. 19, 2017 column

By MARSHA MERCER
In a noisy, fast and often vulgar world, the Freer Gallery of Art on the National Mall is a refuge of quiet beauty.
Since it opened in 1923, the Italian Renaissance-style building with its lovely central courtyard and outstanding Asian and American art collections has invited visitors to slow down and look.  
That’s just what industrialist Charles Lang Freer intended.
“The interior of this building shall be arranged with special regard for the convenience of students and others desirous of an opportunity for uninterrupted study,” he wrote in his letter offering his art to America. “No charge shall ever be made for admission.”
Freer’s vision was extraordinary, especially because he had to leave school at 14 to work in a cement factory. He made his fortune in railroad cars and became a collector and a connoisseur of Asian art.
When the Freer Gallery closed in January 2016 for nearly two years of renovations, I worried the urge to modernize might ruin its timeless elegance.  
Happily, most of the $14 million in renovations were not visible when the Freer, and the Sackler Galley that adjoins it, reopened Oct. 14.
Such things as the heating, cooling and humidity control systems were replaced and the Freer’s auditorium updated for telecasting. Carpets were removed and floors returned to the original polished terrazzo. And, of course, there’s now an app.
The museum itself is a work of art “where we hope we’re encouraging slow looking,” Julian Raby, director of what’s now called the Freer/Sackler, told reporters earlier this month.
Not quite 400,000 people a year visit the Freer and fewer visit the Sackler, an underground trove of Asian art that opened in 1987. A visitor rarely feels jostled, though he or she may have to dodge selfie-takers in the Freer’s Peacock Room.
The lavishly painted and gilded room was once the London dining room of ship owner Frederick Leyland, who hired James McNeill Whistler to add a few decorative touches in 1876. Leyland then left town, thinking the work was nearly finished.
The artist painted the room to a fare-the-well, and the angry owner would pay only half the agreed-upon price. Whistler insisted on finishing the satirical mural on one wall -- a pair of fighting peacocks he called Art and Money that symbolized his rocky relationship with his patron.
Freer later bought the room and had it reassembled in his home in Detroit. At the museum, the Peacock Room looks as it did there, with Freer’s ceramics from China, Korea, Japan and the Muslim world on the shelves.
Freer wanted not just to show what he called the points of contact between art of the East and West but how they unite us in a universalist sense of beauty, Raby said.
“Art, in other words, as a vehicle for empathy.” he said.
Today we think of the Smithsonian and art as a natural combination, but when Freer offered thousands of art works to the Smithsonian in 1905, the Board of Regents balked. The Smithsonian was about science, not art.  
A committee of regents, including inventor Alexander Graham Bell, took the train to Detroit to see Freer’s collection. Bell brought along his daughter, Daisy, an art student. She was studying with Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor who later carved Mount Rushmore.
“The four regents are men of broad education, wide experience, and of unquestioned judgment, but what they do not know about art would fill many volumes,” Freer wrote a friend, according to “Alexander Graham Bell,” a biography by Edwin S. Grosvenor, Bell’s great-grandson, and Morgan Wesson.
Daisy helped convince her father Freer’s holdings were worth having. Then President Theodore Roosevelt intervened.   
“It is impossible to speak in too high terms of the munificence shown by Mr. Freer in this offer,” Roosevelt wrote the board. “The offer is one of the most generous that ever has been made to this government, and the gift is literally beyond price.”
After a year, Bell made the motion that the regents accept Freer’s gift, and, fortunately for us, it passed unanimously. The Smithsonian would have its first art museum.
There’s never been a better time for slow looking, and the renovations have only enhanced the experience. See you at the Freer.
©2017 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Genius, Nobel prizes shine light, dispel gloom -- Oct. 12, 2017 column

By MARSHA MERCER

For anyone who needed a shot of optimism, this was a good week.

Don’t get me wrong. The news – an acclaimed Hollywood mogul allegedly molested women for years, raging wildfires devastate California, the White House limps from tweet to tweet – has been depressing.

But there were bright spots in the gloom.  

The first encouraging words came from Sweden with the announcement of the 2017 Nobel prizes. The highly prestigious awards recognize often obscure scholars and others whose work has been of “the greatest benefit to mankind.”

The Nobel prizes also pull us back from our obsession with the day’s outrages to consider what’s going right in our world.

Eight Americans won solo or shared the prizes in chemistry, medicine, physics and economics. Each prize comes with a $1.1 million check. We lost out on peace and literature, but President Barack Obama won the peace prize in 2009 and Bob Dylan for literature last year.

Then came the MacArthur fellowships, commonly known as “genius grants.” The awards from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation recognize residents or citizens of the United States with exceptional creativity.

Two dozen lucky souls won this merit lottery this year, and each will receive a $625,000 grant over five years with no strings attached.

Genius grants are meant to give promising thinkers and doers in a wide range of fields the freedom to pursue their work.

No one can apply for a grant; you must be nominated – and anyone who holds elective office or an advanced government post is automatically ineligible. Nominations and the selection process are hush-hush.

At a time when being smart seems less important than having a smart mouth, the Nobel prizes and the MacArthur awards are a gift. They remind us of the power of education, hard work and perseverance and of the vitality and rich experiences immigrants bring to America.

Two of the American Nobel winners immigrated from Germany decades ago. Joachim Frank, 77, a professor at Columbia University, shared the chemistry prize with scientists in Switzerland and the United Kingdom. Rainer Weiss, 85, who is affiliated with MIT, was one of three American winners of the physics prize. 

Last year, all six of the Americans who won the Nobel prizes in economics or the sciences were immigrants, according to the National Foundation for American Policy, a nonpartisan research group. Of the 85 Nobel prizes Americans have won in chemistry, medicine or physics since 2000, 33 have gone to immigrants, the group reported.

Among this year’s 24 genius grant winners were Gabriel Victora, 40, a Brazilian-born immunologist with a Ph.D. from New York University who studies how antibodies fight infection. 

Njideka Akunyili Crosby, 34, is a Nigerian-born painter who graduated from Swarthmore and Yale, and Viet Thanh Nguyen, 46, is a Vietnamese-American novelist with a Ph.D. from Berkeley. He also won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. 

One theme of the genius grants this year was social change, and several winners work to help improve immigrants’ lives directly or by telling their stories.

Cristina Jimenez Moreta, 33, a social organizer, is a former undocumented immigrant who came to the United States from Ecuador as a child with her family. She is co-founder and executive director of United We Dream, which advocates for immigrant youth.

“For me, this recognition is a recognition of the lives of undocumented people, of the work that we have been doing to advocate and create change,” she told The Washington Post.

Greg Asbed, 54, a Baltimore native with degrees from Brown and Johns Hopkins, is a human rights strategist who founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida.

Rami Nashashibi, 44, of Chicago, a community organizer with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, founded the Inner-City Muslim Action Network. It helps immigrants and people of color with housing, health and other necessities.

Anthropologist Jason De Leon, 40, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, founded the Undocumented Migration Project, which researches clandestine traffic along the border and collects artifacts, such as clothing and backpacks, left in the desert.

Describing this year’s crop of MacArthur fellows, Cecilia Conrad, managing director of the program, said in a statement: “Their work gives us reason for optimism and inspires us all.”

Yes, it does. And these awards also remind us why America’s role as a beacon of hope for the world still matters.

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Our 21st century normal -- the routine of mass shootings -- Oct. 5, 2017 column

By MARSHA MERCER

Not even the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history surprises us.

Shocked, saddened, angry – yes, all three. But if we’re honest we aren’t surprised anymore when a monster with a high-powered weapon – or weapons -- kills many people he has never met.

We’ve developed a sickening ritual around mass murder. The news comes with horrifying images and the awful audio of staccato pops and screams. Then, inspiring stories of true heroes, the brave first responders, and heart-rending bios of victims whose lives are tragically cut short.

We pray and hold moments of silence and candlelight vigils. We ponder how someone could do the unthinkable.

Politicians play their assigned roles: The president makes somber remarks, congressional Republicans demand that Democrats stop politicizing the tragedy, and Democrats call for sensible gun control. The gun lobby hunkers down.    

And we go on to the next man-made catastrophe.

We’ve had more than half a century to learn the drill. On Aug. 1, 1966, a young man dragged a footlocker with three rifles, two pistols, a sawed-off shotgun and provisions – including Spam, canned peaches, toilet paper and deodorant -- to the observation deck on the 30th floor of the University of Texas Tower.

He took aim from his high perch and started shooting. When the 96-minute rampage was over, 14 people were dead, and at least 33 others were wounded.

A campus became a killing field. Americans were shocked, saddened, angry – and, yes, surprised. How could this happen?

The shooter was a university student named Charles Whitman, 25, a former Eagle Scout, ex-Marine, sharpshooter. He had killed his mother and wife hours earlier.  
Whitman, it turned out, had complained of severe headaches and depression and had told a psychiatrist he fantasized about killing people from the Tower.

He left a suicide note asking that his brain be examined to “see if there is any mental disorder.”

Doctors found a malignant brain tumor the size of a pecan but were never sure if it affected Whitman’s behavior. Experts still don’t agree on his motive.

Motive is again the question as we desperately try to make sense of senseless carnage, this time on the Las Vegas strip.

Stephen Paddock, 64, had no police record. A high-stakes gambler, he checked into the Mandalay Bay resort and casino with 10 suitcases. On Sunday night, he set up guns at two windows in his 32nd floor suite. He rained bullets down on a country music festival, killing 58 people and wounding nearly 500. He killed himself as police approached.

Mary Ellen O’Toole, a forensics expert at George Mason University, believes Paddock may have studied Whitman to prepare for his rampage. It’s possible. Paddock was 13 when Whitman made worldwide news. So far, though, there’s no evidence he did so.

Paddock reportedly had 23 guns and 12 “bump stocks” at the hotel. The device makes a semiautomatic rifle act like an automatic, so instead of having to pull the trigger time after time, he could spray bullets as if he had a machine gun.

Congressional Republicans insist it’s too soon to consider gun control legislation – but it always is. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, introduced a bill Wednesday to make bump stocks and similar devices illegal.

Even before Feinstein introduced the bill, gun shops around the country reported a spike in sales of bump stocks. Banning the lethal device is eminently sensible, so it probably won’t happen.

“Nothing will change after the Las Vegas shooting” was the chilling headline in The New York Times on an op-ed by former Rep. Steve Israel, Democrat of New York.

The National Rifle Association used to support sensible measures but “now is forced to oppose them because of competing organizations,” Israel wrote.

Part of the blame goes to redistricting, which pulls Republicans farther right, making them more subject to the NRA’s score, he said, and part to Americans’ numbness to gun violence.

“You’ll watch or listen to the news and shake your head, then flip to another channel or another app,” Israel wrote. “This horrific event will recede into our collective memory.”

That’s what happened in 1966. It sadly has happened hundreds of times since and very likely will happen again. It’s the routine we have chosen. 
      

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