Big Picture: The arts in our daily lives

Times Union Studio shot of Entertainment Editor Michael Janairo for his upcoming Unwind “Big Picture” Arts Column, shot on Wednesday, June 16, 2010, in Albany, NY. (Luanne M. Ferris/Times Union)

For two years now, I’ve had the privilege of working as the Times Union’s arts and entertainment editor.

The post offers a unique perspective on the ceaseless flow of TV, film, video games, classical music, pop music, jazz, visual arts, theater, opera, literature and festivals available to the Capital Region, as well as access to people who curate and create the cultural landscape — artists, administrators, publicists and audiences.

In this column, I want to add to the ongoing conversations about the arts in the Capital Region, and the conversations about the Capital Region in general. I believe too often the arts have been relegated to some fictional place outside daily life. I’ve often heard that the basic necessities are food, clothing and shelter, along with jobs to acquire those things and the laws to secure them. That kind of thinking, however, fails to value the basic necessity of the arts. The arts are the realizations of the imagination — of rich inner lives — which is crucial to what it means to be human.

My title “editor” doesn’t quite get to the heart of what I’m describing. A better word is culturalist.

By culturalist, I don’t mean the kind of -ist linked to a singular ideology (such as anarchist); rather, I see it as a mix of a profession (think dentist) and of someone who uses something (think guitarist).

Culture, however, is a weighty word. It has separate and distinct meanings in the realms of humanities and science: The culture of a city is quite different from the culture in a petri dish.

Or is it?

The culture of a community isn’t static. It is a living organism that requires care to thrive — or else it dies.

So if the Capital Region can be viewed as a petri dish, then what is its culture? I’m often asked that question when speaking with people outside the region. What I often say is the region is decentralized and has a bit of an identity crisis, meaning we have difficulty describing what it is (as opposed to what it is not).

Let me explain: We have no cultural center. Instead, we have great institutions in all directions such as Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown to the west; the Adirondack Museum in Blue Mountain Lake to the north; Tanglewood in the Berkshires to the east; and Art Omi in Ghent to the south. The region’s four core counties, as well, have many major institutions such as SPAC in Saratoga, Proctors in Schenectady, EMPAC in Troy and The Egg in Albany.

Of course what I’ve named are just a few places, not an exhaustive list, and I apologize to all the worthy places I’ve left out. The point is that one defining characteristic of the Capital Region is that you need a car to explore the rich offerings of its wide geography.

The region’s identity crisis is perhaps best summed up by the nickname “Smallbany.” Sure, the Capital Region exists in the shadow of the huge metropolises of Boston and New York City. And Smallbany has self-effacing charm and it sounds accurate, especially when people realize they are linked by a lot less than six degrees of separation. But it unfortunately makes Albany seem like the center of things, when it isn’t.

The Capital Region’s identity crisis has manifested itself most recently in the online discussion about the Best of the Capital Region, especially in the arguments that pit local businesses against chain restaurants and stores. Some people have even expressed embarrassment over the presence of chains. (See for yourself at and read especially the comments about Best pizza and Best Italian restaurant.)

Why? People want the Capital Region to have a distinct culture and to think of themselves as unique. Any individual’s experiences are unique, but as a group placed together by circumstance and geography, it is difficult to stand out when we are already shaped by the might of the larger American culture.

The conversation about chain vs. local, however, is just one of the conversations going on now that help define our region — and ourselves. It is an ongoing conversation in which we can all take part. Join me.

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