We recently launched a new series on ARTSblog that spotlights the staff at Americans for the Arts that I call “Ten Questions with…”, in which I will ask everyone the same questions and see where it takes us.
This time I have turned to Nora Halpern who currently serves as Vice President of Leadership Alliances for Americans for the Arts.
1. Describe your role at Americans for the Arts in 10 words or less.
Grasstops wrangler: find the person who can move issues forward.
2. What do the arts mean to you?
I find this a very difficult question to answer because the arts are infused in everything I do and everything I am. Therefore, trying to define or identify the arts as something “other,” runs counter to the way I think.
I was lucky to have been raised in a home where the arts were central. Film, music, performance, and the visual arts were vital members of the family and often the glue that got all six of us talking about one topic at a time. Long before the days of remixing and mash-ups, dinner at our house was a cornucopia of art conversations: whether debating likes and dislikes or passions and poisons.
My mother always put artful care into each meal and in addition to a place where we enjoyed her food and décor, on any given day, the dining table was also a work space for the making of objects, a surface on which one could study refracted light through a glass of water, or simply a communal place to share a favorite poem or story. As we had a no-TV rule in our house, we had to be pretty creative to remain occupied…so the arts were what called to us the most.
I have tried to raise my daughters with the same sense of seamlessness between art and life (but happily for them, TV is not a forbidden fruit in our house!). I’d like to think that they too have found a sense of solidity and strength in that philosophy of life.
Maybe “what the arts means to me” lies in arts’ ability to nurture a solid core of sensitivity, openness, inquisitiveness, and creativity.
3. If you could have any career you wanted (talent, education not required), what would it be and why?
I feel profoundly fortunate to be able to say that I have been consistently able to have a career in exactly the place I wanted to be. The visual art world is where I began my career as a curator and also where I helped to form an arts education foundation that provides access to visual artworks to communities across the country and the world.
It is interesting to me that the mission of Americans for the Arts is very similar to the one I developed for the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation in the early 1980s. I’ve never strayed far from where I wanted to be professionally and I continue to work as a curator in my free moments. I feel most energized by interactions with artists and thrive on the opportunity to contextualize work and offer a large and diverse public access to unique art experiences.
Here is a link to one of my past curatorial projects and a video of another (my only disappointment with this video is that the caption lists me as “co-curator,” when in fact I was the sole curator):
4. How many places have you lived? Where?
I have lived in three cities and one small town. First and foremost is New York City, where I was born and raised until high school. This was followed by Los Angeles, where I went to high school, college, and graduate school (Go Bruins!). L.A. is also where I began my career and family, so I lingered there for quite a while. I then moved with my husband and daughters to Oxford, England where I spent a few rainy years entrenched in academia and, finally, we moved to Washington, DC, in the fall of 2000.
5. What is the best compliment you’ve ever received?
I worked for two years as the West Coast Director of Fine Arts for a large international auction house. It remains my only for-profit arts job. Although I did well by the company in terms of the work that I brought in and sold, I was told during my first annual review that I “was not Machiavellian enough!” Although I think they meant this as a criticism and expected my response to be apologetic. I still see this as one of the best compliments I have ever received!
6. Name three people in history (dead or alive) with whom you would want to sit down to dinner.
I would love to spend an evening around a stove and dinner table with 1920s era writer Dorothy Parker, food writer M.F.K. Fisher, and the late, great Nora Ephron.
I envision M.F.K. and Nora Ephron and I cooking a multi-course meal while Dorothy mixes the cocktails. I think in another life I must have lived in the roaring twenties (or at least been a bit player in a black and white screwball comedy!).
The four of us would either get along famously; talking about food, family, and friends while exchanging witticisms and critiques of the world around us; or, we would completely clash and the morning after there would be nothing left of any of us except a pile of dirty pots, assorted scraps of torn cloth and a lot of broken dishes!
7. Would others say that you can dance? Explain.
My husband would say absolutely YES! My children would say absolutely NO!
When I am not traveling, we have a tradition in our house where we crank up the Hot Jazz Saturday Night radio show on WAMU and turn our kitchen into an impromptu dance floor. When the girls were little they would joyfully join in…now they rush to close the kitchen blinds…so as not to be humiliated in front of the neighbors. Then, they run for the hills! Parents can be so E-M-B-A-R-A-S-S-I-N-G!!
8. What is the earliest memory you have of being an audience member for a live arts event?
Growing up in Manhattan with proactively artistic parents and a much older sister who was a working modern dancer and filmmaker provided a constant, overlapping mass of artistic opportunities for me so it’s hard to narrow it down to just one art moment…or pinpoint where it all began. Here are early highlights…
I remember going to see early 20th Century experimental films with my dad at the Museum of Modern Art beginning at age 3 or 4 and discovering Picasso’s painting “Guernica” there at the same age. I became strangely obsessed by this painting which was on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art, alongside dozens of Picasso’s preparatory sketches. I’ve inserted photo my own rendition of the painting, made when I was about five.
As a kid, I had a huge crush on conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein and loved going to his concerts for children at Lincoln Center. Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” and Benjamin Britten’s “Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” were my absolute favorites.
I was also lucky to grow up at a time when the NYC Public School system had a strong commitment to the arts and I have a distinct early memory of going with my class to hear the actress Julie Harris read the poetry of Emily Dickinson in the courtyard of Lincoln Center. My second grade teacher, Miss Kinselberg, took our class to see “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Metropolitan Opera House. We had to climb to the very last row of the theatre to get to our seats and to me it was like climbing a huge carpeted mountain, and it was just as exciting as the opera itself!
9. What would the title of your autobiography be?
“No Stone Unturned”
10. Finally, if you could paint a picture or take more photos of a place you have been in your life what would you paint or photograph?
I would try to capture the watery wonderfulness of Venice, Italy and the miraculous play of light on the Venice Lagoon. This is a photo I love taken by my friend Analia Saban:
That’s it for Nora. Stay tuned for more “Ten Questions with…” soon!