A few years ago, the Englert Theatre and FilmScene initiated a campaign to make Iowa City “the Greatest Small City for the Arts.” And that title is justified. Not only do our local arts organizations bring us incredible performances, but we also boast a highly talented home-grown community of artists and performers. As the fall season opens before us, we see all this on full display — in arts festivals such as the Witching Hour, in the return of the full complement of university arts programs and much more. As the leaves fall, the arts programs available to us just keep increasing after the richness of our Summer of the Arts festivals.
But what makes Iowa City a “great” arts community is not just the content. Yes, the performances themselves and the rich array of venues are primary. There is no art without art. But our wonderful world of the arts offers us something else fundamental to our community: ritual.
The repeated patterns of ritual provide us with a coherent framework to enact two of the most significant aspects of human experience: reverence and belonging. Whether it’s in a religious service or a rite of passage ceremony (the two types of rituals most of us today are likely familiar with), the ultimate message is the same: “This is what we honor and value. This is who we are. This is how you are a part of us.”
Rituals are defined in part by recurrence. Yet despite their repetitive nature, they are very special, even sacred. Entering into ritual requires that we cross a threshold into a numinous space and time that simultaneously grounds us in our place and elevates us to an extraordinary realm. And this is what happens when we fully enter into a live performance. So it’s crucial that we cultivate and participate in these ritualistic elements of the arts experience.
These elements can be simple, such as settling in at “your” spot on the Ped Mall for a summer Friday night concert or following your habit of visiting your favorite mural during each downtown visit. But ritual experiences can also be more complex. Granted, for a night at the Englert, I’m really looking forward to enjoying the talents of Trombone Shorty, Joan Baez or Paula Poundstone. But essential to entering that art space is crossing the threshold with Kent Smith, dapperly attired in his beautiful long maroon coat, holding the theater door open and saying gently and respectfully, “Good evening. Welcome to the Englert.” And once having reentered the century-old performance space and jovially greeting familiar fellow community members, you await the appearance of the Englert’s Katie Roche on stage to perform the invocation: to affirm the community purpose of this nonprofit organization, to “bless” your presence through a sincere thank-you, and to call forth the art that is about to unfold. A couple blocks away, a different invocation is likely happening as Andrew Sherburne or another FilmScene stalwart prepares you in a similar way for your arrival into the magical realm of the motion picture arts.
The communal experience of a very special visitor’s art is the core of the ritual of a live performance, but art is often most meaningful when you are awash in the joy of your friends, neighbors and children sharing their talents with you and the rest of the community. Some of my most memorable Englert experiences have been the Corridor Jazz Project concerts that my kids and their fellow area students performed in, as well as the old “Festival of Carols” holiday concert when a broad swath of our community’s talents helped us celebrate the season.
Similarly (although the prelude to any act we’re about to enjoy at Jazz Fest is crossing the Clinton Street barricades, processing through the local vendor tents and gathering along our city center streets or on the Pentacrest lawn), the highest calling for me is to the stages with the high school bands and combos, the Silver Swing Band (our over-50 ensemble who perform thanks to the Senior Center, UI music programs and West Music), and local legends such as Saul Lubaroff. These performances have brought me into reverence of the art realm but also, more than others, have affirmed my belonging to this place.
Granted, sometimes the ritual — or even the art space itself — should or must change. The flood of 2008 fated the original Hancher Auditorium and Voxman Music Building to demolition, and the original UI Museum of Art building to repurposing. But it didn’t take long for the new Hancher to become beloved once again. The new Voxman Concert Hall was also new, but what never changed was, for example, the universal, timeless protocol of the UI Symphony Orchestra members entering the stage and tuning up, the concertmaster’s quieting of the instruments, the pregnant silent pause, the onstage arrival of the conductor, our collective applause, the ensemble leader’s gesture for the entire orchestra to rise — it all tells us exactly where we are and why we are there, and does so whether we’re in Voxman or New York’s Kennedy Center.
And just this past month, our community joyfully gathered for the dedication ceremony and opening of the new UI Stanley Museum of Art, 14 years in the making. Our pilgrimage to Pollock’s Mural and to the Stanley’s collection of African Art will require a new path and the “temple” will be different, but we will become accustomed to our altered ritual space quickly. It won’t take long to know that, yes, this is a significant place of community belonging for all of us.
No doubt, ritual can be put to bad, even dangerous, uses, most insidiously for control and exclusion. (And yes, that can happen in the world of the arts, too.) But ritual’s higher purposes of reverence and belonging cannot be denied and must be nurtured and honored. So as the Witching Hour series approaches, as the fall concert season raises its curtains, as our homes for the visual arts are renewed and reopened, remember to intentionally participate in the ritual in order to strive ever closer to the apotheosis of “This is what we honor and value. This is who we are. This is how you are a part of us.” The greatness of our small city of the arts lies in our shared reverence for creative expression and collective building of the community to which we all belong.
Thomas Dean lives, writes and belongs in Iowa City.