Did you ever wish you could pullback the curtain and get a glimpse behind the scenes of an arts committee debating who should receive grant money? It's a process that befuddles many, including artists and those who often decry the winning works as controversial or not something they believe was art. In Catherine Trieschmann's play, The Most Deserving, we get to see the Ellis County Arts Council of Kansas debate how to award $20,000 to a local artist with an "under-represented American voice."
The Most Deserving is having its New Jersey premiere at Dreamcatcher Repertory this February. The production stars Julie Chen, Andre DeSandies, Noreen Farley, Scott McGowan, Janet Sales, and Jason Szamreta. The play caught the eye of Laura Ekstrand, Dreamcatcher's Producing Artistic Director, when she learned of its debut at the Colorado New Play Summit in Denver.
"The play is hilarious," said Ekstrand. "The subject matter is so close to home for an arts organization. It's about a small town arts council sending out a grant to a single artist and all of the politics and drama and personal strife that goes into this choice. They're trying to find out who is the most deserving artist, but it's very complicated; it's not just who's the best artist, it's a lot of other stuff too."
Although the play is set in Kansas, it could take place anywhere. The same debates occur behind closed doors throughout New Jersey and the entire country. People on the committee know each other well and know many of the same artists. They are all pushing their own agendas, whether they are even aware of it or not. As usual when money is being given to artists, controversy is bound to follow.
"I think the important thing about the play being set in a small town that's isolated is that they can do whatever they want," explained Ekstrand. "They don't answer to anybody and that's the problem and the issue of the play — the arts council doesn't answer to anybody."
The committee of characters debate who should and who shouldn't be considered a minority. There are conservatives, liberals, transplants from elsewhere, and long-time citizens of Ellis County. Being arts committee members provides ultimate decision-making power. They consider extending the deadline to add more people for consideration because they make the rules. They consider artists such as a high school teacher who might be one-sixteenth Native-American and a woman that might be considered a minority by marriage. One committee member even submits himself for consideration. After being laid off from his job, he took up painting a series of Vice Presidents because Presidents have already been done. Even though his paintings are awful, he thinks he's deserving and somehow is seriously considered.
While suggesting possible artists, the Trash Man's name comes up. He's an African-American man confined to a wheelchair and living on disability just outside town limits. He creates extraordinary sculptures depicting religious subjects out of trash. The Trash Man meets every single criteria for the grant; however, he also raises one of the major themes of the play — who is a "real artist" and what is "art"?
"I'm not an expert, but if it looks like it came from the dump, then it ain't art," says one committee member.
For some on the committee, art is something that reaffirms their beliefs. Others seek art that soothes the soul. While some committee members think the role of art is to provoke, others believe art should simply match their furniture.
"Some of them have deep emotional reasons for wanting what they want and they're just full out going for it," said Ekstrand. "That's what makes it a comedy. Everyone is just barrelling ahead for whatever it is that they want and, of course, that brings a lot of conflict. What makes it so funny to me is how much everybody wants what they want. They all go to the extreme."
Ekstrand, who is directing the production, once served on a grant panel for Essex County and has experience applying for grants for Dreamcatcher as well. She believes the hardest thing is to break down something that is abstract into corporate terms. Whether seeking corporate funding or a government grant, there's a certain language that revolves around the grant process.
"There's a whole jargon that springs up around grants," she explains. "You have to translate what you do every day into this other language in order to express it with the grants. You have to quantify something that's qualitative and I find that very challenging. Some of the grants that we get or don't get offer feedback, but some of them are mysterious. The hardest part is when it's a total mystery. We'll get a yes, we'll get a no, yet we have no idea why. And certainly with the no's you want to know why you were turned down so you know what to do better next time."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind those closed doors, check out The Most Deserving at Dreamcatcher. It'll have you debating what is art and maybe even whether or not the question itself has any merit. Art means something different to everybody, and isn't that the point?
The Most Deserving
February 12 - March 1, 2015
Oakes Center - 120 Morris Avenue, Summit, NJ 07901
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.