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The way things work (sometimes in ways you don’t anticipate)

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Shortly before my surgery, I had a coffee conversation with Mark Strand about several things, including the Agincourt Project. We discussed many of its components, including “Landscapes & Livestock”, the show-within-the-show lent by the Tennant Memorial Gallery. I hoped (and still do) that there would be a catalogue of the 50+ pieces in the exhibit and that we might find someone to write the introduction, someone other than a character created for and from the moment. Mark suggested Peter Schjeldahl, art critic for The New Yorker, whose name I recognized but whose work I did not know. With a track record in the better-than-acceptable range, I crafted  a letter to Schjeldahl, ferreted out a mailing address for the corporate offices—I continue to hold a position that real mail (words on paper) trumps e-mail every time, a misguided belief I know, but there you have it—and sent the query on its way. Then, my bad health intervened and I temporarily lost track of the project.

For those like myself, not necessarily wedded to a view of American culture as seen from the east bank of the Hudson River, I did some preliminary sleuthing on Schjeldahl to understand why Mark Strand had suggested him. Foremost, I suppose, he was born in Fargo and lived in several smaller towns in the Red River Valley. Schjeldahl’s father Gilmore Tilmen Schjeldahl was himself a native North Dakotan and erstwhile student at the Agricultural College. Having departed the state, however, and made some success in business, the renamed and some might say uppity NDSU awarded G. T. Schjeldahl an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1970, the year prior to my arrival in Fargo. The senior Schjeldahl’s reputation (and presumed wealth, otherwise why would the honorary degree have been offered) was based on inventions in “plastics, adhesives and circuitry.” As a potential question in “Jeopardy” you should know that G. T. Schjeldahl owns the patent for the plastic-lined air-sickness container more popularly called the barf bag. Where I come from that is one hell of an accomplishment.

So, with these few facts in mind, here is what I wrote to lure Peter Schjeldahl into the Agincourt matrix:

07 June 2013 [three days before my surgery]

Dear Mr Schjeldahl,

Meeting Wednesday with my friend and former colleague Mark Strand, your name arose in connection with a current and ongoing project. Professor Strand remarked that your family had an earlier connection with NDSU, so I felt emboldened to write. A little sleuthing revealed that your father received an honorary degree in 1970, the year before I arrived and began my own tenure at what was then still called “the A.C.” by my older neighbors.

During the summer of 2006 I was musing about the late work of Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. I teach (as you can see from this letterhead) in the architecture program at NDSU, but I am a Chicago native and was nurtured there on more Sullivan than currently survives. My thoughts in 2006, however, were of Sullivan’s late work, especially the small-town banks in Ohio, Minnesota and Iowa, which I discovered later. Given his clients and audience for those eight or nine small commissions, I wondered why Sullivan had never been asked to design a Carnegie-era library; he was surely in the right place at the right time. Since my degrees are in architecture (though I never sought a license to practice) and because I teach both architectural history and design studios, my next question about Sullivan was simple: How would he have approached the Carnegie library type—one of our most formulaic. If you have read this far, I hope you will both enjoy and appreciate the answer.

I set myself the task of designing a Carnegie era public library circa 1914-1915 somewhere in the Midwest. Because Sullivan had done five buildings in Iowa and would be recognized there, I settled on an Iowa site but chose to imagine a typical mid-nineteenth century town, rather than an existing one. And that choice has had interesting consequences. “Agincourt” would be its name, and the plan I conceived was drawn from cultural geographic studies as a last gasp of the Enlightenment. One mile square and inspired as much by Philadelphia as by typical nineteenth century railroad towns, Agincourt became the basis for several seminars on town formation and design studios exploring the full range of American architectural history from 1850 to the present. What made these more than academic exercises was the inclusion of narrative: each project—building or landscape—had to tell its own story. Students were encouraged to imagine detailed scenarios surrounding their designs: their clients and users, designers and mechanics; the socio-economic and technological contexts that shaped them. The first fruits of these classes became an exhibit at one of our local art museums.

On October 25th, 2007—happily the 592nd anniversary of the actual Battle of Agincourt, decisive confrontation between the English and French in the Hundred Years War—we celebrated the Agincourt, Iowa Sesqui-Centennial with at least two dozen contributions by students, faculty, recent graduates, artists and friends. No 150th anniversary could be celebrated without music, however, so we reached out to New York composer Daron Aric Hagen and commissioned a sesqui-centennial fanfare for brass, which was premiered that night by members of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony. Daron has become a Facebook friend, and we now honor him as Agincourt’s Composer-not-in-Residence. I’m pleased to report that “Agincourt Fanfare” has gone on to be performed elsewhere and may find its place in the repertoire. What brings me to your door toady is the next phase of the Agincourt Project: a second exhibit at the Rourke Art Museum titled “Homecoming/Coming Home.”

Each component of the next exhibit (now scheduled for January 1915) will explore the much-abused work “home” as a theme. We have much underway, including designs by students, faculty and friends of the project. Daron Hagen has written a new work to premier at the opening: Shakespeare’s speech from the mouth of Henry V on the eve of battle, titled “We Happy Few” and set for baritone and piano. Another important component of the show concerns the role of art in small-town America, especially during the years before World War I, and that, ultimately, is my reason for writing you today.

My design for the Agincourt Public Library incorporates a community art gallery, a memorial by the imaginary local family who were benefactors of the project. During the last eighteen months or more, I have become fascinated with what would have hung on those walls. Who in Agincourt decided what was art, and from whence did it come? From my own modest collection, but primarily from eBay (of all places!), we have accumulated more than fifty pieces—mostly paintings and prints and some of it quite good—that will form the “show-within-the-show”; where each piece in some way interprets the evolving notion of taste in a rural community. Many are anonymous; others are signed but may have been “re-purposed” to fit the narrative. They include, ostensibly:

  • pieces brought to Agincourt by emigrants from Europe and the eastern U.S. (i.e., nostalgia)
  • portraits of judges, the college president and other members of the community (i.e., vanity)
  • art produced by Agincourt doughboys fighting World War I and pieces otherwise acquired during travel (i.e., memory)
  • art as barter (i.e., commodity)
  • as wedding or anniversary gifts (i.e., gratitude and honor)
  • art as a statement of accomplishment or standing in the community (i.e., status)

This show-within-the-show is titled “Landscapes & Livestock” and will probably include fifty works (some by listed artists John Edgar Platt, Susan Knox Ricker and Colin Campbell Cooper), each beautifully framed and matted by our Smithsonian-trained conservator. A catalogue is planned, for which we hope you will consider writing the introduction. My contributions to this project have been many, though not always competent nor well-considered, and I will take on several more, no doubt, before the doors open in January 2015. But this one element—the evolving importance of art during the last one hundred and fifty years of American history—is so far beyond my scope that I genuinely hope you will find some larger purpose in our request and entertain the thought of playing with myself and others in the sandbox of history that Agincourt, Iowa has become.

With humility, audacity and gratitude for your forbearance this far, I am,

Sincerely,

Ronald H.L.M. Ramsay, Associate Professor

When I reached out to Daron Hagen in 2006, it seemed to me that he had three possible responses: 1) hit the delete switch; 2) suggest I seek serious counseling; or 3) say “yes”. His was an enthusiastic #3. In the present case I expect that Peter Schjeldahl has opted for #1. But recent events in an entirely different area have helped me understand the bullet we may have dodged.

On July 24th, Schjeldahl posted an op-ed piece on the New Yorker website regarding Detroit’s bankruptcy and what might become of the city-owned Detroit Institute of Art collections: His informed opinion was that, like other “assets”, the DIA collections—valued conservatively at $2billion—should be put on the auction block to satisfy the city’s massive debt. As you might imagine, reaction from various sources was highly critical, with several calls for his dismissal as art critic for the New Yorker. Schjeldahl has since seen fit to retract his view, but one wonders about ongoing fallout for his reputation.

Since the Tennant Memorial Gallery and its modest collections are a comparable but modestly scaled municipal asset for the City of Agincourt, I wonder if our friend Howard Tabor may have something to say. Stay tuned.

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