The Arthropologist

Salon Houston style: Arts groups reinvent conversation gathering spots for the 21st century

Salon Houston style: Arts groups reinvent conversation gathering spots for the 21st century

"And now Nancy will do an interpretive dance," I imagine Gertrude Stein saying to a gaggle of assorted artists and intellectuals gathered for spirits, discourse, and who knows what else.

"Tell her to stop and get back in the kitchen," Alice B. Toklas would say, jabbing Stein in the side.

Oh, the down side of time traveling. I know, we were all born in the wrong century.

We seem to hold the "salon" as a romantic concept in the arts. Poets, visual artists, philosophers, all carrying on in charming disheveled garrets, paints a perfectly quaint picture of the way to live. I always wondered how the rent got paid and who cleaned up after the soiree. Things didn't work out so well for Mimi in La Boheme.

 The word "salon" continues to be tossed around to mean a few things: Intimacy, artists of various disciplines coming together and a homey approach to presenting art. Let's take a look at some Houston folks who are successfully re-purposing the concept, sans the silliness and the Stein stand in.

 I even tried my own version in the '90s, gathering once a month with artist friends at Empire Cafe. Somehow, it defaulted into a brag-a-thon, along with those oversized pieces of killer chocolate cake. Dull and fattening. 

Sadly, Gil in Woody Allen's nostalgic Midnight in Paris didn't fare much better. Deftly played by Kathy Bates in Allen's film, Stein looks visibly annoyed by all the scribes and painters traipsing through her drawing room. Stein never forgave me (in my head) for dancing to her deliciously deadpan reading of The Making of Americans, which I have to tell you, is way easier to dance to than read.

Still, the renegade writer knew how to hold court. She is also now at the center of two major exhibits, Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories at The Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, and The Steins Collect: Matisse, Picasso and the Parisian Avante -Garde at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

The word "salon" continues to be tossed around to mean a few things: Intimacy, artists of various disciplines coming together and a homey approach to presenting art. Let's take a look at some Houston folks who are successfully re-purposing the concept, sans the silliness and the Stein stand in.

Salon: Houston style

Nothing beats the indie shabby chic atmosphere of Bar Boheme for Spacetaker's Thursday Cultured Cocktails. I love Boheme's old world charm, the art-informed bartenders and the casual feel of this program. Over this past season, I have discussed David Mamet with David Rainey of The Landing Theatre Company, the history of micro cinema with Delicia Harvey of Aurora Picture Show, and the spiritual nature of theater with Kevin Holden of Horse Head Theatre Co. Holden's tribal theater event, Soulstice, went down at The Silo on Saturday and he directs Mamet's American Buffalo at the Landing, Aug. 3-28.

As for the intimacy factor, I've found it has little to do with the size of the venue. It's more about the kind of connection an artist creates in the room. When Mercury Baroque's Antoine Plante introduces a piece at Cullen Theater, I feel as if he is speaking directly to me. I felt the same way during Divas World Productions Salon series. Co-founder and artistic director Sonja Bruzauskas always dreamed of collecting like minds in her living room.

When she realized her living room wasn't big enough, she created Divas World, an organization that brings together artists, scientists and intellectuals, such as Brene Brown and Romanian writer Andrei Codrescu, in one evening of music and discourse. The wine is fantastic, too. With the Salon series, you get the added drama of a radio show, which will air in 2012 on PRX Radio. Rock star neuroscientist David Eagleman moderates while The Front Row's St.John Flynn plays host.  

Misha Penton of Divergence Vocal Theater solved the too-small living room problem by opening up Divergence Music & Arts Space, a multi-purpose performance space. I like the way she puts the party in her events. The space may not be her home, but it's cozy, with funky furniture, and that big semi-industrial Spring Street Porch. Outside, there's a dramatic view of Houston, really, just like Paris. People linger, sip way-better-than-average reception wine and talk about what they have seen.

River Oaks Chamber Orchestra (ROCO) is famous for their personal approach. I visited with Enso String Quartet member and ROCO principal cellist Richard Belcher in between sets at a ROCO Music Tasting. (Belcher is featured in Musiqa's opening Play a Song for Me on Sept. 24,  ROCO's Feb. 18th concert and with The Enso through Da Camera's Debussy's Paris on March 3, 2012.)

In fact, Da Camera offers a feast of salon-like activities, but what catches my eye is the way their programing captures an era. Debussy's Paris is followed by After Debussy at The Menil on March 13, 2012. The French composer, celebrating his 150 birthday, was notorious for surrounding himself with artists from all disciplines. 

"The 2011/2012 season celebrates the creative act of taking something from the past and making it new," writes Da Camera artistic director Sarah Rothenberg in her season note. What a healthy approach to conjuring another period.

Blaffer Art Museum will resume its Contemporary Salons, started by former Director Terrie Sultan, next season when the museum reopens with a fancy new remodel. On the surface, it may look just like a panel discussion, yet officials work hard to include many perspectives. Plus, there's the mandatory wine and cheese. 

Granted, the MFAH is a big place, but look deeper into its programs and you will see intimate pockets of activity where one can get up up close to the art and the people who know about it. There's a gallery talk every third Thursday at Rienzi,  while Twilight Talks combine informal lectures with light bites and wine. Listen to rising talent up close during the HGO Studio Artists' recitals at Rienzi.

Perhaps what I treasure about the salon concept is a sense of of something happening at a smaller scale. In that case, Ana Serrano's minature city installation, Salon of Beauty, an investigation of the ephemeral nature of urban neighborhoods opening at Rice Gallery on Sept. 29, could be exactly where the modern salon is heading. 

Houston may be a sprawling city, yet the arts community has found ways to personalize the art experience. If you get desperate, you can always "hang out' on Goggle + with people in your arts circle. There are numerous opportunities to get your salon on, and better yet, you don't even need to clean up your living room. 

Gertrude Stein reading If I Had Told Him a Completed Portrait of Picasso is music to my language-loving ears.

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Dr. Robert Shimko speaks at Rienzi’s April 14th Twilight Talk. Courtesy of George Ramirez Photography
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Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, 1922, gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Photo by Man Ray
Spacetaker's weekly Cultured Cocktails happy hour at Boheme Cafe & Wine Bar offers a fun way for Houston arts groups, artists and audiences to mix, mingle and enjoy some killer-good sangria. Photo by Jenni Rebecca Stephenson
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Divas World Productions "Salon Cold War Stories: Individuals Who Pierced the Iron Curtain." Pictured are Salon host David Eagleman, left, neuroscientist and best selling author; and Andrei Codrescu, author and NPR personality. Photo by Rodney Waters
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Misha Penton, soprano and artistic director of Divergence Vocal Theater with dancer and choreographer, Meg Brooker, perform an excerpt from Elliot Cole's "Selkie, A Sea Tale," at the Divergence space opening soiree-salon on May 21. Photo by Dave Nickerson