The MoHu Arts Festival is back.
The 10-day event begins Friday, Oct. 5, as a way to draw attention to the diversity of arts offerings in the region. And once again I have mixed feelings.
Yes, it’s great the event supports the arts in all its diversity. That includes big-name guests to our region: Nobel Prize-winning novelist J.M. Coetzee at the New York State Writers Institute on Oct. 12 or Warren Haynes on Oct. 13 at The Egg come to mind.
It also includes plenty of homegrown talent, from small-scale classes such as Beginning Crochet with Barbara Neu-Berti on Oct. 7 at the Sand Lake Center for the Arts (limited to 12 students) to a big collaboration by Albany Pro Musica and Albany Symphony Orchestra, who will perform Bach’s Magnificat on Oct. 13 and 14 at Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. You can find more information about these events at http://www.mohufest.com.
If MoHu introduces you to something new about our region, even if it leaves you thinking, “I’m glad to know that’s there, even though I’d never go to that,” then it has served its purpose.
But first, it has to get over the weird name. MoHu is derived from the rivers that define our region, the Mohawk and Hudson; one of the goals of the event is to get people to go beyond their usual stomping grounds and cross the rivers to experience the region’s arts. The name sounds silly (which makes it appealing), but it hasn’t caught on.
On the Reddit online community devoted to Capital Region, at http://www.reddit.com/r/Albany/, I asked what MoHu meant to people. Responses included “Nothing” (from BenjaminSkanklin); “I think they badly need more exposure/promotion as I’ve never heard of it” (from greentangent); and a link to the MoHu site.
The major “MoHu” problem is that the name adds just another layer onto events that can create more distance between an arts event and the audience.
My favorite example of this is the Medeski, Martin and Wood show on Oct. 6 at the Massry Center for the Arts. If you go, you’ll probably just say you’re going to MMW (if you’re hip). You probably won’t mention all the other names: Premiere Performances 2012-13 Season; Massry Center for the Arts; Kathleen McManus Picotte Recital Hall; D’Arcy-Brady Stage. Add MoHu to the mix, and you just might forget we’re talking about an avant-groove jazz trio.
Last year, venues had stickers, postcards, balloons and signs proclaiming MoHu. I couldn’t help but see those signs as a kind of cultural imperialism, flags planted by marketing types trying to make the MoHu name stick.
The MoHu website features 30 pages of events and a list of venues and groups taking part. Many of them have their own marketing staffs, and some will no doubt get a boost from the MoHu efforts. Almost all of them would be offering the same events even if MoHu didn’t exist.
That’s what makes the MoHu effort seem like a cry from someone starved for attention. Yes, I know MoHu is organized by leaders of arts organizations. Yes, I’ve heard that MoHu has helped foster dialogue among leaders that didn’t exist before. That’s good for them.
Is it good for audiences? Why isn’t more attention being paid to the other half of the arts equation: the arts patron? After all, the experience of the viewer or listener or attendee gives an arts event its greatest meaning — the art becomes something communicated, and in the realization of that communicative act comes a kind of communion, a shared social reality that is distinctly human.
Last year, MoHu had a goal of tallying 50,000 attendees at the various events, and came up with an estimate that exceeded that goal. But the fact that the organizers could only offer an estimate meant they weren’t paying enough attention to the most important part — the audience.
Maybe this year will be different. Maybe they will take care to try to get an accurate count. Maybe the MoHu website and Facebook page and the venues themselves will offer audiences ways to express how they’ve experienced and understood the arts events they’ve experienced. Those kinds of reactions would be truly valuable, and a wonderful statement about the depth and breadth of the artistic endeavors of the Capital Region.
Last year, people asked, “Did you MoHu?” But that isn’t the right question. It shouldn’t be a question at all.
If MoHu is about the diversity of the arts in the region, then the organizers need to say to people: “You are MoHu.”
That is true whether people attend events or not. What people are willing to pay for, or not pay for, helps to define our cultural landscape.
It is time for people claim MoHu for themselves, because You are MoHu and I’m MoHu, too