The Big Question: Prologue

Gertrude Stein: “What is the answer?”

Alice B. Toklas [silent]

Gertrude Stein: “In that case, what is the question?”


Dear Art:

We need to talk. I have always considered myself a dutiful curator, a well-behaved thinker who has dedicated her academic and professional life to learning and writing about you. As rewarding as this is — and I happen to think I have the best job ever – for the last few years I’ve been thinking that there might be something more out there for me, something even better than what we have going now. Rather than continuing with our relationship using my standard methods and comfortable formats, I’ve decided that you and I are going to have a conversation, and we’re going to include all kinds of interesting people and record what happens.


This shift in my thinking, which can be most simply described as a shift from talker to listener, is the reason I decided to create an arts space. Right from the start I asked myself why I wanted to build a non-profit arts organization (an undertaking that would seem the hardest possible option while one is pregnant, the parent of a toddler, and looking to save money). What about this undertaking mattered so much to me?  While I was thinking this over, I challenged myself to step as far back as possible, to think beyond art and into more general territory about, well, life.

It became immediately clear to me that, like Ms. Stein, I was not actually looking for an answer, but rather for a question. And the question that confronted me was, “Why do we make things?” In that moment, the idea for the Big Question at The Project Room (TPR) was born, followed by the satisfying realization that I could be on my way towards learning, not only more from art, but from life as well.

I choose the word “we” because this question is not only about me, or the artists who might be featured, or the arts community, but everyone who has ever made anything. In other words, Why Do We Make Things? is a question that can be considered by anyone, regardless of their interests, expertise or background. The emphasis is on inclusivity, an important element for me, and one of TPR’s founding principles.

Proposing a question rather than a statement also mirrors TPR’s interest in supporting works-in-progress by allowing things to be less than completely figured out. In other words, I’m not telling you what the projects are about – I’m asking you to tell me. In doing this, my hope is that this Big Question generates discussion, engages all kinds of people, and offers a platform—online and in person—for different points of view.

Chronologically, the theme of “making,” had to be the first formally tackled question because it includes the building of TPR, a process that I wanted to present in a transparent way to the public and parallel with the programming itself.

“Why on earth would you expose your incomplete work to ridicule and judgment like that,” you might ask.

First, I’m asking the artists to do it so why shouldn’t I? In other words, there is an element of risk in showing the world what you believe, and I’d like my contribution to contain no less risk than those of the artists with whom I work.

Second, I can relax into the process as an experiment and enjoy what happens without having my position on an idea determined at the outset. One of my favorite examples of this comes from the late choreographer Merce Cunningham, who believed in allowing forces beyond his control—such as chance operations—to determine outcomes. After all, I’m in charge here so I don’t have to worry about misusing patron dollars or creating a disaster that costs people their jobs, especially since there are no current patrons or staff.

Third, I believe that putting the process of creating an arts center on display will allow me to learn much more than if I had presented only what I considered a polished result. This is the most exciting part, because I’m creating a collaboration of sorts between the artists the public and myself, in which we all probably know something someone else doesn’t and can share our perspectives accordingly. And, if I’m in it to win it, as they say, I need to learn as much as possible.

My past in the performing arts likely has something to do with this works-in-progress interest. Performing (in my case, singing) is ironed out in front of your colleagues during events such as rehearsals, recitals and master classes. Mistakes get made, and rarely are you making them in the comforting solitude of your own home. One of my proudest moments came after a solo recital in which I botched up a section of a piece. I stopped, asked the accompanist to start from where I got stuck, and finished the performance feeling as if nothing had happened. The first thing my voice teacher said to me afterwards was “You have nerves of steel!” That meant much more to me than if he had said something like, “You sang beautifully!” The lesson learned from these difficult and rewarding experiences was that you only get better when practicing in front of an audience. And getting better is really what I’m after.

In this spirit, TPR will address each Big Question by inviting the public to participate in conversations, happenings, rehearsals and other experiments that challenge our assumptions not only about art, but also about contemporary life.

On an administrative note, I must acknowledge the holes in the calendar of events. This is an intentional act that allows for changes and additions to be made as we move forward, and uncover ideas that I might not have thought of yet. It’s another example of choosing the hardest possible option—curators usually like to secure programming at least two years in advance—but these gaps in programming allow TPR to be an idea in the making, rather than a fully-formed calendar-driven organization.


So, Art, here we are at the very beginning of a story, one that will unfold over the next fourteen months under this particular Big Question. Rather than publish a standard “Curator Statement” I’m choosing to give you a prologue. After all, I’m practicing as well and have a lot to learn between now and then. I’m the first to admit that I don’t know what to expect. But then, that’s part of the fun.

Jess Van Nostrand, Founder of The Project Room