Rebuilding the Roundhouse

Conference Wrap-up Remarks

Malcolm Margolin

Malcolm Margolin, founder and publisher of Heyday Books in Berkeley, California, served as guest editor for the 2007 conference essays published in the GIA Reader, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall 2007. He attended the conference as an observer, and provided these remarks at the final plenary session.

It's so beautiful here, I wish I were a resident. And it was a joy to edit the essays and to work with Frances and Anne on it all. Being an editor gets you into other people's minds and gets you into other people's souls. You end up going from one spot to another spot and shaping it, and it's a gorgeous life.

I'm a publisher, and I characterize my life as coming into the office in the morning and walking up to a river of beauty that flows through the place. People who want to do a book come and give you the best of their thoughts, the best of their poetry, the best of their art, the most poignant and deeply felt of their aspirations.

As a publisher, every so often I have the wits to dip a ladle into that river of beauty and pull something out and call it a book.

I expected that when I came here, I was going to leave that river of beauty behind for the serious business of going to meetings and conferences and discussing things that would challenge me and that I couldn't quite understand. I found, instead, that my own river of beauty is a mere tributary on the river of beauty — the world of American art.

I was stunned by the variety of art in this enterprise — poets, singers, music, dancers, performers — and the seriousness of funders' discussions about reshaping their support.

The arts were woven into the fabric of the meeting. I've never attended a meeting quite like this. Usually there are serious panels and then off to the side is a little performance that is meant to be marginal. Here, it was woven in, and even the food and the meeting's structure were a marvelous artistic trust, the essence of art.

What I'm walking away with is a wonderful sense of abundance, of Taos' rich artistic traditions, of the abundance of the people who are working out the grantmaking.

For those of us who may go back to a world of more scarcity, it's been a kind of fall feasting. I hope we all leave with the sense of abundance and fullness that this meeting offered.

At Heyday Books we do a lot of publishing about California Indian culture and history, and I've had the privilege of watching a cultural revival of the first magnitude. One aspect of this revival is the rebuilding of traditional underground or semi-underground roundhouses in the Sierra. They're dance houses, they're for ceremony, they're for storytelling.

One roundhouse is at Trusser, east of Jackson, built in the early '70s. When the roof fell in in 1990, it was rebuilt and it is still being used as a center for culture and cultural renewal.

The people who built it said they could have built it better: They could have used creosote on the posts when they dug the post into the ground — there was nothing in the old rules that said you couldn't use creosote. They also tied the rafters with grapevine but could have used metal. Nothing in the old rules that said you couldn't use metal.

But there was one rule they did have to follow. You had to build the roundhouse so it would fall apart every twenty years so each generation could have the experience of rebuilding it.

In watching this meeting, I saw a rebuilding of the roundhouse, a rebuilding of the structures that house the arts, a deep questioning about audience, about the capacity of 501(c)(3)s, about demand, about the changing of technology, about a change of generation and how to respond to it all.

I'm not sure what I could offer to that dialogue except perhaps the advice of an editor. When something comes along to edit, you may see everything that's wrong with it, all of the incoherencies, inconsistencies, repetitions, clunky phrasing, lack of structure. If you edit this way, from problems, you'd end up doing a lousy job of editing.

What you have to do is edit from strength. If you go from what the soul of it is, its strength, then bring out that soul and strength, the problems go away.

In this conference, I heard a lot about the problems of audience, demand, lack of money, lack of data, lack of quantifiable evaluation criteria.

I didn't hear much about the strength of the arts movement. I was talking earlier to Emily Todd of the Houston Endowment, and she said something that I told her I was going to steal. I'm a man of my word. I'm going to steal it.

She said that the arts have difficulties, but it's not a crisis. If you want crisis, look at other American institutions like education or health or politics. There are other institutions that are absolutely nonfunctional in some ways.

But the arts have been doing absolutely splendid work, delivering value with very little money. They've got abundance, beauty, diversity, spontaneity. They roll along, they're reflexive, they're responsive, they're adaptable At this conference, I felt the strength of the arts community. In redesigning the world of the future, we should redesign from strength and understanding, deeply meditating upon what works and what the soul of American art is. From that, we can design the new roundhouse, one we can all dance in.

Thank you.