A Two-Way Street: Urban Arts Exchange Between Boston and New York

The arts offer a unique example of a flowering cultural exchange and promising potential for collaboration between New York and Boston.

New York City Skyline Wikimedia Commons

The spotlight outlines the silhouette of a woman behind the curtain, her fingers spread in classic jazz style, striding closer and closer to the front of the stage until she emerges in full view. Clad in all black and sporting a top hat, Patina Miller reaches out and beckons to the audience to join her. The curtain collapses in the background, revealing an enchanting spectacle of hypnotizing acrobatics and high-flying performers with even higher-reaching voices.

It is June 2013, and the cast of “Pippin” is performing at the Tony Awards. Only five months earlier, “Pippin” dazzled on a much smaller stage at the American Repertory Theater, across the river from Boston in Cambridge, Mass. When the musical eventually moved to West 45th St. in New York City, its elaborate, circus-inspired set made way for a cherished collection of glass figurines in a simple, dimly lit flat, as Zachary Quinto and Cherry Jones took the stage in “The Glass Menagerie.” After two months at the A.R.T., “The Glass Menagerie” set up shop on the same New York block as “Pippin,” following in its predecessor’s path from the cobblestoned streets of Boston to the illuminated lanes of Broadway.

This trend of theatrical productions traveling from Boston to New York may seem an unlikely occurrence given the distinctive strain of competitive spirit that exists between the two cities. Whether they are debating the merits of the beaches on Cape Cod versus the Hamptons or feuding in the stadium at a Red Sox-Yankees game, Bostonians and New Yorkers have placed their hometown pride on the line in many a passionate battle.

Yet a tradition of partnership has evolved alongside the storied rivalry. The arts offer a unique example of a flowering cultural exchange and promising potential for collaboration across state lines. With both cities serving as intellectual and cultural hubs on the East Coast, it seems only natural that gifted artists and savvy innovators look to both cosmopolitan centers. In doing so, they are able to expand their audience reach and take advantage of the permanent collections of sister institutions and the fresh talent flourishing just a few hours away. From a New York producer investing in a Boston musical to a Boston curator joining forces with her New York counterpart to enhance an exhibit, both the dramatic and fine arts industries of the two cities have recently benefited from a particularized balance of individual and joint successes.

The cast of Finding Neverland
The cast of "Finding Neverland," A. R. T. The musical originated in Boston and went to Broadway.

A TALE OF TWO MARKETS

Just shy of a century ago, the New York Yankees announced the team’s purchase of Babe Ruth’s contract after his six seasons in a Red Sox uniform. Following the controversial trade, Boston spent more than eight decades waiting to win the World Series, caught in the snare of the so-called “Curse of the Bambino.” Fortunately for members of the two cities’ arts industries, the transfer of shows between Boston and New York has become more of a lucky charm than a dogged jinx.

The thriving theater districts in both cities boast a rich legacy of interdependence, yet key elements distinguish the performing arts industries in Boston and New York. Since 1984, Broadway in Boston has presented more than 250 Broadway productions in local theaters like the Boston Opera House. The company hosts 20 to 30 weeks of programming each year, often featuring four or five touring productions. The theaters in New York typically stay lit through all 12 months, and each show vies with nearly 40 other Broadway stages, not to mention off- and off-off-Broadway, in an effort to fill its seats. “As far as competition for shows, the New York media and marketplace is definitely a tougher place than Boston,” says Ken Mahoney, a New York-based financial adviser and active Broadway investor.

Under the chandelier of a New York theater, amid the buzz before the overture sounds, a myriad of foreign languages and regional accents intertwine among the audience. The proportion of native New Yorkers in the crowd may be less than half on any given day. The Boston theater industry, on the other hand, caters to a vast majority of local theatergoers. Richard Jaffe, president of Broadway in Boston, adds that while Boston theaters may draw patrons from neighboring states like Vermont or New Hampshire, the city’s productions are not as significant a tourist attraction as New York’s theater market. According to the Broadway League’s annual demographics report, domestic and international visitors purchased 70 percent of Broadway tickets in New York’s 2013-’14 season.

Yet Jaffe perceives the Boston theater audience as a widespread representation of the region despite the city’s smaller population. “I’ve worked in many cities, and typically you see education and wealth as the primary categories of where your audience is coming from, and in Boston, we have a very egalitarian audience,” he says. “[The audience pulls] from everywhere, which I think speaks to the Boston community in that everyone is willing to come out and take in a Broadway show.”

Advertisement

A NEW DIRECTION

In spite of demographic and market variances, the two cities resemble each other in an important way: A strong appetite for theater prevails in both, including an eagerness to experiment with more challenging and less conventional pieces. “I think in both cities there is an audience for virtually everything,” says Steven Showalter, general manager at the A.R.T. in Cambridge. This common enthusiasm for the dramatic arts has led to an abiding, fruitful exchange between Boston and New York. Yet the curtain appears to have opened on a new relationship between the cities that departs from the traditional model.

“Boston’s pre-Broadway history has gone in various directions,” Jaffe says. In previous decades, Boston laid claim as the preeminent city where productions would host a trial run before descending upon New York. But Jaffe notes that Boston has not seen a commercial pre-Broadway show since 2006. According to Jaffe, this shift stems largely from a spike in national competition. States such as Illinois and Rhode Island have introduced theater tax credits to encourage pre-Broadway tryouts in their major cities, drawing producers away from Boston as a result. Jaffe is among the supporters of a proposed bill that would aim to restore the once dominant Boston-to-Broadway trend by introducing similar tax credits for shows that play in Massachusetts venues before settling in New York.

The frequency of official pre-Broadway trials hosted in Boston may have declined as of late, but New York still owes several of its most significant successes to the creative minds up north. Boston continues to generate novel productions, and many have found their names ultimately emblazoned upon a Broadway marquee. The A.R.T., in particular, has debuted a series of high-profile shows that have since started a second act in Manhattan, such as A. R. T. artistic director Diane Paulus’s “Finding Neverland.” “We all very much want to see our productions have as wide an audience as possible, so if a show ends its scheduled run here and can have a future life, then that benefits everybody involved, most notably the author of the play,” Showalter says.

"A large percentage, I think, is about whether or not an audience feels passionate about a piece and whether they encourage others to see it. That is really where I see success for us locally," says Anna Fitzloff, A. R. T. spokesperson

PREDICTING ACT TWO

Both Bostonians and New Yorkers interviewed credit the vision of Paulus, the 2013 recipient of the Tony Award for Best Director of a Musical, with inspiring shows that simply demand to be seen. Indeed, numerous productions have succeeded in both Cambridge and New York with Paulus at the helm, though other shows at the A.R.T., such as John Tiffany’s staging of “The Glass Menagerie” and Bill Rauch’s direction of “All the Way,” have also successfully traveled the Boston-to-Broadway trajectory.

Mahoney worked as a producer for “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” and “Pippin,” two of Paulus’s musicals that began at the A.R.T. and went on to capture Tony Awards as Broadway revivals in 2012 and 2013. Mahoney suggests that commercial and critical success in Cambridge and Boston frequently serves as an auspicious precursor to a future in New York. “If something really runs well in Boston and gets good reviews, it has a really good chance of making it on Broadway,” he says. “The transfers that came from Boston to New York seem to have a higher success rate than others, at least from what I have seen in the last few years.”

Situated a little more than 200 miles apart, the proximity between the two cities increases the chance that both patrons and press will travel from New York to see a show in Boston. Mahoney added that the relative ease with which New York media can review a Boston production is particularly vital, as a show that initially garners encouraging reviews from critics will likely see similarly positive reviews after its transition to Broadway. According to A.R. T. spokesperson Anna Fitzloff, success has grown increasingly challenging to predict within the theater industry, and critics’ praise is no guarantee of a Broadway embrace. “[Success] is very largely word of mouth driven now,” says Fitzloff. “A large percentage, I think, is about whether or not an audience feels passionate about a piece and whether they encourage others to see it. That is really where I see success for us locally,” she adds, positing that this newer word of mouth model expands significantly in as large a market as New York.

Showalter is quick to point out that Broadway is by no means the sole destination for A.R.T. productions after closing shop in Cambridge. After spending multiple years writing and developing shows, he admits that commercial success on Broadway is a welcome finale, but the difficulty of predicting such an outcome means that the possibility does not often influence the decision-making process at the A.R.T. “If we all could be so lucky as to have the Broadway piece, that’s great,” he says. “[But] a lot of times shows will leave here and they’ll go and be regional, or play in high schools or play off-Broadway or elsewhere, and all of that is beneficial to the industry as a whole.”

Advertisement

"Goya: Order and Disorder"
MFA Curator Stephanie Stepanek at a press review for "Goya: Order and Disorder. The Met loaned a couple of paintings for this exhibition.

A DIFFERENT DYNAMIC

This frequent interlacing of the two cities’ theater scenes represents an intimate affiliation that is not always replicable in other artistic domains. The link between the fine arts industries in Boston and New York is much less defined and one in which such explicit creative exchanges are more the exception than the rule. Yet the artistic history of the cities has followed a rather parallel path. According to Teresa Carbone, the curator of American Art and managing curator of arts of the Americas and Europe at the Brooklyn Museum, the two cities came of age artistically around the same era, with much of their thriving art scenes sharing similar origins in the Gilded Age. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art opened its doors in 1870, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts was unveiled in 1876. Additionally, both cities have benefited of late from the burgeoning popularity of the visual arts and history. Shawna Cooper, associate director at the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery in New York, says Boston and New York have each seen growing museum attendance and an increased focus on audience experience since 2000.

Greek and Roman statues peer down from behind glass enclosures on the floors above, silently observing the mix of students, academics, and artists scattered throughout the indoor courtyard of the newly renovated Harvard Art Museums in Cambridge. Sitting at one of the café tables in the courtyard, Elizabeth Rudy, assistant curator of European Art at the Museums, says that the relationship between the arts in Boston and New York can be rather complicated to discuss.

“We do collaborate a lot through loans,” says Rudy, who spent three years as a curatorial fellow at the Met. “We lend to the Met quite regularly, and they make frequent requests of us, as do other institutions in New York.” Such temporary loans strengthen the ties between Boston and New York institutions, as certain pieces of artwork commonly grace the galleries of museums in both cities. The MFA’s celebrated Paul Cézanne piece, “Madame Cézanne in a Red Armchair,” currently occupies a prime position in the Met’s “Madame Cézanne” exhibition, while the MFA’s recent exhibit “Goya: Order and Disorder” included multiple works from the Met and the Hispanic Society of America in New York.

Yet more extensive collaboration remains uncommon. While geographic proximity facilitates artistic exchange within the theater industry, curators in New York and Boston look to avoid repetitions of similar content, as both cities aim to attract a broad audience from throughout the Northeast. “Even though the cities are about three hours apart, there is a sense that you wouldn’t want to draw on one another’s audience for a major exhibition,” Carbone says.

"When Brooklyn bought our body of watercolors, Boston had been thinking of doing it but didn't move quickly enough, which is why Sargent then prepared a second body of watercolors for Boston to purchase," says Teresa Carbone, the curator of American Art and managing curator of arts of the Americas and Europe at the Brooklyn Museum

CO-CURATING SUCCESS

When they do occur, however, larger-scale artistic partnerships have proven highly rewarding for establishments in both cities. The MFA and the Brooklyn Museum house the two largest collections of John Singer Sargent’s watercolors, and the 2013 exhibit “John Singer Sargent Watercolors”—co-curated by Erica Hirshler of the MFA and Carbone at the Brooklyn Museum—resulted in the grand display of more than 90 watercolors tracing Sargent’s journeys through the Mediterranean and Middle East. “If it is a good story, then [a co-organized exhibit] is worth doing,” says Carbone.

The Sargent exhibit was indeed a good story in Carbone’s view, in that it not only presented a fuller portrait of Sargent’s artistry but also embodied the history of both collaboration and competition between Boston and New York. At the time of Sargent’s original watercolor showings, the MFA and the Brooklyn Museum were both fledgling institutions with ambitious plans to bolster their collections at the turn of the 20th century, but it was the Brooklyn Museum that succeeded in purchasing the entirety of Sargent’s 1909 watercolor exhibition in New York and Boston. “There was also a sense of competition at the time,” Carbone continues. “When Brooklyn bought our body of watercolors, Boston had been thinking of doing it but didn’t move quickly enough, which is why Sargent then prepared a second body of watercolors for Boston to purchase.” Having been shut out three years earlier, the MFA quickly claimed the complete contents of Sargent’s second show, securing its acquisition in advance of the exhibit’s formal opening in 1912. The co-curated exhibit in 2013, which ran in New York and Boston, witnessed the first unified display of the two watercolor collections in history.

Advertisement

Alternative modes of collaboration bridge the separate art industries, as well. Tony Sigel, conservator of Objects and Sculpture at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museums, notes that new techniques in conservation and restoration developed at the Straus Center are frequently shared with establishments in other cities. “Our mission in education is not simply to our own students and faculty and people who attend the museum,” he says, explaining that the Cambridge institute participates in a global dialogue on the role of conservation in the contemporary art world.

Cooper adds that the Tanya Bonakdar Gallery represents more than 35 artists and assists in arranging their exhibits at institutions in New York, Boston, and beyond. While New York has long been heralded as an international arts capital, Cooper lauds the increasingly global perspective adopted by Boston museums, including the Institute of Contemporary Art. “They are looking at the contemporary world outside of Boston, and they’re drawing talent on the curatorial side, in addition to looking at artists who communicate subject matter that people in Boston would be interested in and who are also very strong contemporary artists internationally,” she says.

The Met loaned this Manet painting to MFA, Boston
Édouard Manet, "The Monet Family in Their Garden at Argenteuil." The Met in New York loaned this painting to the MFA, Boston, after the Boston Bombing.

CULTURAL KINSHIP

The relationship between museums in Boston and New York extends beyond the pages of a curator’s catalogue. “It’s a very collegial and friendly relationship we have with our partners down there [in New York],” Rudy says. Like all friendships, this sense of institutional comradery assumes added significance in challenging times. Following the bombings at the Boston Marathon of April 2013, art emerged as an emblem of hope and the solidarity that exists not only between the cities of New York and Boston but also among their respective art institutes.

According to MFA spokesperson Karen Frascona, the Metropolitan Museum of Art expressed support for its kindred institution and for the city of Boston within hours of the attack when the Met’s director and Chief Executive Officer Thomas Campbell offered to lend three paintings to the MFA. “The Met wanted to show support for its sister institution during this challenging moment for the people of Boston,” Campbell said in the MFA press release. “I hope the works of art we have lent will help the city’s recovery in some small way.”

When the pieces by Homer, Leighton, and Manet ultimately debuted at the MFA Memorial Day weekend, they became part of the greater history enveloping these two great cities. It is a history that encompasses centuries of competition and collaboration between the artistic epicenters–one that often changes in nature, yet remains rooted in a tradition of mutual respect.

—Staff writer Nikki D. Erlick can be reached at nikki.erlick@thecrimson.com.

Tags

Theater Museums Arts Covers Arts Front Feature