Five movers and shakers on the Capital Region arts landscape look back on a very big year
Tammis K. Groft, Albany Institute of History & Art
After decades of work at the Institute and six months as its interim executive director, Groft was tapped to fill the position permanently in June. A few months later, the 222-year-old museum opened one of its boldest exhibitions ever: “G.E. Presents: The Mystery of the Albany Mummies,” an exploration of the institute’s two most famous occupants that boasts more than 200 pieces — including 140 major loans. Touching on Egyptomania, the world of 21st Dynasty Egypt and the ancient art and science of mummification, it also launched wide-ranging educational programs that reached into schools and brought kids in.
This fall, school tours rose 428 percent over last fall. Paid admission was up 106 percent, total audience by 82 percent. “The numbers are really quite staggering,” Groft says. Yup.
The mummies weren’t everything. Other exhibits showcased Hudson River School paintings, contemporary photography and the contributions of former director Norman Rice. Meanwhile, the institute completed renovations and alterations on all of its galleries. “And somewhere in the middle, I became the executive director,” Groft says. “But to tell you the truth, we were so busy with all the things we were doing that it didn’t hit (me) right away. Because the show must go on — and the exhibition must go up.”
Prince Sprauve, Revolution Studios
Sprauve is a multimedia specialist and dynamic mentor at Schenectady High School, where he oversees an after-school club called Revolution Studios. With his guidance (and a lot of his free time and money) the kids wrote, acted in, shot and scored a gritty feature-length drama, “Fast Life,” about teens making tough choices and facing tough times. In the process, they engaged the help and enthusiasm of the broader community. The movie premiered at Proctors in April and screened at WILLiFEST, a film and music festival in Brooklyn, in September.
“Yeah, it’s been a good year,” Sprauve says, but he doesn’t dwell on the past for long. His thoughts and words sprint forward. Right now he’s “collecting all the paperwork” to turn Revolution Studios into a nonprofit, so the organization can expand beyond the confines of the high school.
“I really feel like it’s had a great effect on youth and the people of Schenectady, and I can actually do a whole lot more — a youth program where kids can come and focus on social issues through film and music. And hopefully we can franchise it all around the world. I think every place should have a program for kids that basically gives them a voice and a platform to speak out through creativity.”
And if that sounds ambitious, well, so did “Fast Life” when Sprauve and his charges first started rolling on it. “The effect that ‘Fast Life’ had on this community,” he says, “means we can actually do greater things than that alone.”
Brown, like Groft, assumed her current post as executive director after a stint on an interim basis. She arrived from Florida in 2011 as general manager and immediately set to work on boosting the old deco theater’s revenues, programming and profile. “I love this building,” she says. “It’s a fantastic place, and the goal has been really to put the Palace in a position where it can realize its full potential. And right now, that starts with bringing more product through the building, more shows, because everything starts from that. That’s where you get your members and your donors and your corporate sponsors.”
Her aim, she says, is “to increase the number of people coming through our doors, which then increases the number of people who are visiting our hotels and restaurants downtown. (The idea is) to give a good shot in the arm at this place by putting more stuff on the stage.”
This past year, “more stuff” included one-night Broadway shows, a mind-body health fair and a free screening of “Muhammad Ali‘s Greatest Fight,” an HBO film partly shot in Albany and Schenectady. That pulled some 400 people through the doors. And getting more bodies in is always a good idea, she says.
Palace attendance was up about 20 percent this year over last. The number of events ticked up, too — from around 65 in 2011 to 110 or 120 this year. And money? For the fiscal year of 2012, the venue drew an $18,000 surplus. For fiscal 2013, “We’re showing well over a $50,000 surplus,” she says. “Which is great news, given that the Palace has been in the red for about four years prior to that.”
She describes her work for the Palace as a balance between smart finances and opening up its doors to different types of programming. “I think it’s about getting creative,” she says, “and saying ‘yes’ to things rather than ‘no.'”
Oatman, a collagist and multimedia installation artist based in Troy, had “literally a dozen” shows this year — including “An Armory Show,” his backward-looking, forward-tilting Opalka Gallery exhibit that he curated and contributed to alongside fellow artist Ken Ragsdale.
He also continued to work with his students at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute School of Architecture and, just to shake things up a bit, debuted as a children’s author with “Tiny Pie,” published in May by Running Press. Co-authored with Mark Bailey and illustrated by Mark Hemingway, the book was translated for release in Holland and Taiwan. “My parents were really impressed by that one. And my nieces and nephews,” he says. On top of that, Oatman received the inaugural Established Artist Award (and $7,5000 cash) from the Arts Center of the Capital Region.
In other words, a busy year. How does he feel? “Tired.” But pushing ahead, always. “When I was younger, when I made some piece that was significant for me, or broke new ground, I’d think, ‘Wow, I’ll never make anything better than that.’ And then you make something better than that, and you think, ‘Huh. How is that possible?’ And then a lot of time goes by, and better becomes a need of redefining — like going off your usual subject matter, or trying to deepen your own enjoyment of it.”
Now 49, he calls himself “officially old. I’m now officially a submerging artist, not an emerging artist. So I think the submerging has to be really interesting.”
“It’s been a great year. What did the 2,000-year-old man say? ‘It’s been a great 2,000 years, thank you, everybody’? What do I say?” David Alan Miller asks, but that’s a rhetorical question. In his 20 years as conductor and music director, the man has rarely been at a loss for words. “It’s been such a treat for us to be able to have such great experiences, and to be able to work at such a high level.”
By “high level” he means the highest: a triumphal return engagement at Carnegie Hall; performances with the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Cho Liang-Lin, Yefim Bronfman; fresh accolades from ASCAP, which awarded the group its 30th and most significant award; and, just this month, a first-ever Grammy nomination for the ASO’s recording (with renowned percussionist Evelyn Glennie) of John Corigliano’s “Conjurer — Concerto For Percussionist & String Orchestra.”
“The beautiful thing for us, with all these opportunities, is that it’s really enabled us as a group to elevate our game,” Miller says. “Of all the things I’m proud of, I’m proudest, most of all, of the way the Albany Symphony is playing. It’s magnificent.”
Other points of pride are the ASO’s “diminutive stature” and its top-flight performances and recordings on a budget of around $2.5 million — that’s a little more than a 20th of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s. But money remains a paramount concern (“we’re always struggling for that last $200,000”), and he hopes the group’s artistic successes will yield new support.
“We’re the little engine that could,” Miller says, “and there’s something so lovely about that.”
This article was originally published at Times Union.