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Ticket Stubs, Social Hub:
Capital and Community Programming
at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center

William Fech

It was a sad sight and a stark contrast. Inside the 100-seat film theater sat only two people, another man and me, for a screening of U.S. American indie filmmaker Jon Jost’s Swimming in Nebraska (2010). The film was showing in a retrospective of Jost’s work that I co-curated in November, 2014, at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in Lincoln, Nebraska. Given that it was shot nearby with local talent a few years earlier, Swimming was the best chance to draw crowds to this obscure leftist filmmaker’s career. But there we sat, the other man and me, the sole takers. From our quiet perch we could hear the milling-about of hundreds of others waiting in the lobby for the next screening of Birdman (2014), the latest Alejandro G. Iñárritu picture, in the 250-seat house. Birdman was big business. It was collecting critical praise and Oscar buzz, which for any exhibitor means sold tickets and visits to the concessions stand. Jost hadn’t released a film theatrically for decades and operates entirely off the commercial grid. What were these two movies—an abstract tone-poem set in Nebraskan corn fields and a star-studded awards pony—doing in the same venue?

 

The answer points to the wider history of the Ross (as it is known) as an exhibitor that juggles commercial and community interests among its two screens. Nestled near downtown Lincoln, the Ross has operated in various iterations and locations since the late 1960s. Though run as a self-sufficient commercial enterprise, the Ross is affiliated with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), housed within the Hixon-Lied College of Fine and Performing Arts, and hosts university classes in its two auditoriums. The Center itself, conjoined to the UNL Visitors Center, straddles the campus and Lincoln’s downtown business district, occupying a highly trafficked physical space and a highly prominent cultural one. For decades the Ross was the only designated “art film” exhibitor in the state, bringing a diverse brand of foreign, independent, or obscure cinema to a sparsely populated region of the country,[1] making possible the eclectic combination of Swimming in Nebraska and Birdman on the same evening—a stab at serving the Lincoln community and the Center’s financial bottom line at the same time.

 

As this special issue attests, there is renewed interest among scholars in art house cinemas and their role in shaping film culture. The transition to digital projection, the continual struggle to secure positive licensing terms with distribution companies, and an aging movie-going audience whose younger counterparts have many more (mobile, on-demand) options for entertainment have contributed to a precarious economic environment for indie exhibitors. How does the art house get rearticulated in this new environment? Organizational bodies like the Art House Convergence, covered elsewhere in this issue, have lent institutional clout to new strands of art house exhibition, in part by soliciting case studies of individual theaters’ marketing strategies, brand creation, programming philosophies, and other intricacies of art house business. One of these threads that remains important, especially in the context of theaters associated with larger cultural institutions, is that of curation.

 

Curatorial visions for arts exhibitors run the gamut from inward, canon-making methods based on the predilections of individuals to collaborative curation that opens up terrain for diverse and inclusive programs. In the introduction to their anthology Screening Truth to Power, editors Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton spell out the components that guide their activist-oriented documentary screening network Cinema Politica. One element is the network’s emphasis on community programming “in which [programmers] collaborate with activist or civil society groups to program works that serve the needs of those groups, either for raising awareness around a campaign or as a tool to get more involved in the actions or the organizations in general.”[2] This approach favors the collective energies that a film program can activate among diverse or marginalized people for targeted, issue-driven purposes. Such programming includes exhibitions that were collaboratively executed with local stakeholders and intended to intervene in social or cultural debates. An example cited in their book was a screening of the 1994 documentary Haiti: Harvest of Hope (Kevin Pina), a depiction of the country’s then-ongoing political turmoil. The screening brought together members from Montreal’s Haitian community for a lively post-film discussion about the prospects of democracy in Haiti.[3] Many of Cinema Politica’s events follow this blueprint of targeted partnerships with local groups in the service of fostering dialogue and activating change in behaviors or perceptions.

 

Turnin and Winton contrast community programming to “capital programming, a process of vetting films based on maximum audience potential and the pleasure index.”[4] Mainstream cinema chains, taking orders from corporate analysts trained to predict the highest-profit booking strategies, and many major film festivals that screen Hollywood audience-pleasers at the expense of lesser-known cinemas, suit this bill. Capital programming is more self-explanatory since it represents standard commercial business practice to maximize profits. Adjusting the community and capital programming poles to the commercial art cinema context, scholar Peter Bosma writes of the need for curators to strike “the delicate balance between the opposing values of giving prevalence to an idiosyncratic personal choice or activist intention, versus adapting oneself totally to the taste of the general audience, focused on an optimal customer satisfaction,”[5] a duality he labels “a cinema of disturbance” vs. “a cinema of reassurance.”[6]

 

To what extent a program disturbs or reassures, is capital- or community-oriented, is relative and nebulous, though some exhibitors nonetheless try to pinpoint and accommodate both. Jesse Wente, Director of Film Programmes at the Toronto International Film Festival Bell Lightbox Theater, a five-screen cultural center that regularly programs new releases alongside retrospective series, tries to “make sure the programming is cohesive, expansive, touches all bases, is going to fill some seats, but is also making some ground curatorial in terms of presenting interesting work.”[7] Many of Wente’s programming decisions are informed by the institutional setting of his theater and mandates for turning a profit, yet he distinguishes between commercial theaters that exist solely to sell tickets and those invested in screening what Bosma might call a “disturbing” cinema based on activating artistic or political dialogue. “There’s an expectation I will make money because [the Lightbox is] a multiplex, and multiplexes in the commercial space only exist to make money. But they’re not curatorial spaces at all. Lightbox is different; it is a highly curated cinema, but there is that expectation that I am going to make however-many millions of dollars by running a movie theater. So you have to balance all of that with your curatorial vision.”[8] The Ross, I argue, is a similar case of a highly curated space that also operates commercially, a particularly difficult balancing act on just two screens and in a highly homogenous city of 280,000 where college football rules leisure time. How does the Center realize this delicate negotiation of maintaining a financially viable commercial enterprise while promoting a dynamic, progressive, and socially engaged film program for the Lincoln community? 

 

This essay addresses this question by analyzing select curatorial practices of the Ross as an art film exhibitor. Spiraling out from this focus are considerations of the Center’s foundational origins and values, the political shades of its regular and special event programming, its community engagement, and other details of its operation. In this process I consult primary sources in the form of interviews, Ross archives, audience surveys, and secondary sources that account for a multifaceted programming history of which I can only scratch the surface. I end by suggesting a particular curatorial model—“slow curating”—that the Center could adopt more aggressively to impact its community even more than it does. In full transparency, I worked at the Ross in various positions while an undergraduate student at UNL. I thus have insight into its history and present-day operations. While obviously biased towards the Center, I examine its curatorial practices here with the critical admiration of one who cares about its future and sees possibilities for positive change.

 

 

Origins and Values

The curatorial identity of the Ross is essentially linked to its origins as a platform for film as art. From the beginning, the Center has been tied to the pedagogical mission of UNL, and, originally, to the Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, a museum housing the University’s art collections and several touring exhibits. In 1965, Sheldon Director and cinephile Norman Geske decided to make good on his belief that film was “the twentieth century’s most important art form” and deserving of equal status with other artistic mediums[9] by informally screening films in the museum’s basement. This move was spurred on by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts earmarked for developing film exhibition among art institutions, and soon Geske was able to launch a regular full-time program, the Sheldon Film Program, in 1973 (renamed the Ross Film Theater in 1991, and the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center in 2003).[10] The initial impetus for the Ross, then, had much to do with efforts to legitimize the cinema within an environment (a university art museum) and with assistance (the NEA grant) that valued the educational or artistic benefit of a venue devoted to art films. As such, the Ross is a cultural institution within an interdependent “Artworld,” a socio-economic network that works to “define, validate, maintain, and reproduce the cultural category of art” by creating the conditions and guidelines for what gets to be considered “art.”[11] As I will point out later, this artistic validation—a cultural gatekeeping for meaning—helps structure symbolic value for Ross patrons who enjoy the distinction bestowed by an outing to the theater.

 

After launching the Film Program, Geske ceded programming decisions to Dan Ladely, a UNL student film buff who had helped organize campus screenings for years. As the theater’s only Director to date, Ladely has highly informed the curatorial nature of the Ross and justifies some words here. Known around town for his long hair, cowboy hats, and western attire, Ladely is Lincoln’s closest approximation to what David Balzer dubs a “star-curator”: a figure whose recognizable clout and personality make him or her “a main imparter of value” for cultural goods in a given arena[12] (in this case, non-mainstream film in Lincoln). He is a well-established figure in the city and among the film distributors with whom he regularly works. For decades he was a common fixture at many U.S. festivals, hunting for future program potential or nudging filmmakers to visit Lincoln. Whatever his methods, Ladely’s mission for the Center, extending Geske’s vision of championing film as art, was to “offer an alternative to local commercial cinema and television—media that are not mainstream or Hollywood,” with an emphasis on U.S. American independent cinema. Sources broadly describe Ladely’s early programming choices as favoring independent U.S. filmmakers (Susan Pitt, John Cassavetes), canonized (European) auteurs celebrated in film culture at the time (Jean-Luc Godard, Michelangelo Antonioni), or classic Hollywood retrospectives (Charlie Chaplin, Alfred Hitchcock). These foundational screenings aimed to enrich Lincoln with media deemed artistically or culturally important that would otherwise not show in the area.[13]

 

These seeds were planted at a crucial time for film culture in the United States. Film studies as an academic discipline ascended across universities in the late 1960s, buoyed by the foreign film craze on domestic screens and Andrew Sarris’s import of the auteur theory from European critical circles, lending momentum to cineastes like Geske who wanted to normalize movies as worthy artistic objects. The rising U.S. film avant-garde movement also drove interest among students and film-lovers for alternative venues where cinephiles could gather far from the maddening crowds of mainstream theaters.[14] Discerning audiences wanted more complex or diverse films (usually experimental or canonized white male European fare, with a smattering of Japanese masters) and many exhibitors, arts patrons, or institutional funding schemes were eager to cultivate this passion for an alternative movie culture.

 

From this context comes the main curatorial value of the Ross over the years: cultivating distinction. The Ross is where movie-lovers have value-laden experiences beyond the mainstream entertainment complex. The question of value recurs in curatorial and art house studies. One touchstone in this dialogue is cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s contention that individuals seek out (and institutions dispense) “symbolic capital,” an intangible feeling of value or prestige that people collect through behaviors or consumption and use to define themselves against others within the social hierarchy.[15] People exchange money for this symbolic currency, and institutions consciously promote a sense of exclusivity or specialness catered to this value. The Ross is no different. Its lobby offers notes with biographical information on filmmakers, reviews from national critics, or historical-contextual details, fueling a culture of connoisseurship based on sophisticated knowledge of a film’s context or legacy. Specialty candy from local vendors fills the concessions stand. Classic, hard-to-find film posters from the ’60s are exhibited behind glass frames in the Center’s lobby where cineastes congregate during receptions with filmmakers or guest speakers. This is not to say the Ross exists so people can boast about watching foreign-language films while munching on expensive chocolate. But the Center does actively promote experiences (films, discussions, consumer behavior) where symbolic value and distinction nonetheless circulate. Audience survey data from 2016 shows definitively that patrons appreciate the Ross because it brings “diverse,” “artistic,” and “alternative,” or “independent” films to Lincoln and offers an experience different from the city’s megaplex network.[16]

 

The Ross promotes its values as a cultural center and community resource most concretely through its mission statement, which I reproduce in its entirety below. Unlike market-driven exhibition spaces, the Center states a commitment to ideals of representational diversity and cinematic exploration. Also unlike many other commercial art cinemas, it positions itself as a multifaceted resource for the surrounding academic and civil communities:

[The Ross is] committed to screening a wide diversity of high quality cinema: innovative American independent work including
non-narrative, experimental films and video; classic foreign and American cinema illustrative of traditional and historical
perspectives; documentaries which examine a wide variety of issues of concern; and contemporary foreign cinema of substance.
The program is augmented by the invited participation of important media artists and scholars, and is supplemented through the distribution of notes and a research library which serves as a resource for the academic community and interested citizens
throughout the state. The program plays a vital role in the education of the University’s Academic community at large, including
Film Studies students. It also reaches out to the Lincoln community and beyond, offering Nebraskans a stimulating alternative to commercial movie and television fare by presenting works not ordinarily offered in this area.[17]

Note how many bases the statement covers: “diversity,” “quality,” “independent,” “experimental,” “classic,” “foreign,” “documentaries,” “artists,” “scholars,” “research,” “education,” “community,” and “alternative,” to parse out main ones. Clearly the Ross is more than a place to see the latest French-language festival hit. This snapshot of the Center’s origins and proclaimed values in hand, I now can more specifically analyze its balancing act of capital- and community-minded programming strategies. How does the Ross manage or blend its “disturbing” and its “reassuring” cinemas in its particular context? Obviously I cannot offer a substantial account of the Ross’s near-50-year history of programming. The best I can do is highlight some emblematic strategies—corralling concepts like value, distinction, selection, and representation in the process—that build a basic picture.

 

 

Capital Programming Strategies

The market-driven structure of the Ross highly informs its curation. Snagged between what distributors make available for exhibition and the pull of booking films with positive buzz, commercial art cinemas—even those with curation-minded programmers—must grapple with the question between a passive or active curatorial approach. “As a programmer . . . you have to decide what your focus is: in which degree do you want to influence the supply side of your accommodation (actively searching for new films, or just passively react on offers from distribution companies) and in which degree do you want to influence the demand side (influence it actively, or just mirror public taste).”[18] The regular commercial programming at the Ross involves thousands of films, choreographed according to distributor schedules and zoning patterns, and according to Ladely, represents curation in line with the interests of a regular commercial art house theater. One rightfully wonders how much this commercial imperative puts in peril the Center’s proclaimed values to represent diverse or marginalized cinemas. The kinds of films the Ross selects—or rejects—makes readable its politics of representational diversity. Ladely says he does not consciously program (his commercial program) in ways that target niche groups: “I think most of the time I’m not looking for films that would appeal to only certain segments of the population, but when it happens, it’s something I try to cultivate. What I look for—and I rely a lot on critical reviews—is the best examples of whatever is in current release.”[19]

 

A glimpse at a representative month-long period at the Ross may help paint a picture of its regular program. Between September 1st and 29th of 2017, the Ross screened Brigsby Bear (Dave McCary), a quirky ode to adult creativity featuring a man dressed as a cartoon bear; City of Ghosts (Matthew Heineman), a critically lauded documentary about a band of Syrian activists fighting against ISIS; Pop Aye (Kirsten Tan), a slow-paced look at an aging Bangkok architect and his elephant companion; The Little Hours (Jeff Baena), a raunchy retelling of a Decameron tale that played well with college audiences if not literary purists; Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan (Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger), a portrait-doc of a long-time New York City Ballet dancer as she considers retirement; Infinity Baby (Bob Byington), an absurdist dramedy about parenthood and monogamy that quietly played the festival circuit; The Trip to Spain (Michael Winterbottom), the third in a trilogy of guy-guy road movies across Europe featuring funnymen Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon; and Whose Streets? (Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis), an activist documentary about the Ferguson, Missouri, uprising in the wake of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown’s murder by police.

 

With the possible exception of The Little Hours, none of these films would have much chance of being widely programmed at multiplex theaters. They are further emblematic of the Ross’s baseline devotion to cinemas of variety: the sample includes straight-up comedies (Brigsby Bear, The Trip to Spain, The Little Hours); portraits of culturally important figures (Wendy Whelan); foreign-language films emphasizing character subjectivity over action-based plot (Pop Aye); and on-the-ground documentaries about pressing social issues (Whose Streets?). Ladely is acutely aware of the nuances demanded of programmers trying to exhibit important or interesting stories in a cultural economy that demands servitude to bottom-line realities. “I have worked hard to strike a balance between more mainstream movies and those movies that I know won’t attract huge audiences but are important to include in a well-balanced program. We have to get butts in the seats, so when we get the chance to book something that we know will be popular, we do it.”[20] A predictable case in point is Ladely’s efforts to book each year’s presumptive Academy Award favorites or recent winners, films which also play at the downtown multiplex just a few blocks away. Films like Birdman or The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017) may not represent the zenith of hard-to-find filmmaking one expects of independent art cinemas, but both Best Picture Oscar-winners generated significant returns for the Center.

 

The Ross’s commercial identity leans a great deal on how it caters to consumer demands in our “experience economy” in which the value of an event is measured “in experiences, not property,”[21] that is, not on possessing something tangible but in living something imaginary. In the cinema world, experiences are generated both at the level of the film and also the world constructed around the film: the added value that patrons acquire by virtue of being part of a screening.[22] This is an age-old concept for exhibitors, of course; given the options for stay-at-home media-viewing these days, “why come to the theater?” becomes the refrain that measures an event’s potential. Many of the Ross’s most popular commercial events represent hybrid or alternative content that turn the traditional theater experience into a multi-dimensional venue. Live orchestra accompaniments to classic films do good business at the Ross, often programmed in sync with nearby music professors who encourage their students to attend. Other times Ladely adds value to films by creating events around screenings that tie in to outside organizations’ interests. A May 2011 run of the indie documentary Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? (Taggart Siegel, 2010) brought together local beekeepers, farmers, environmental activists, and university entomologists for a post-show honey festival that also featured lectures on the decreasing global honeybee population and its environmental fallout.[23]

 

Programming in line with the “experience economy” sometimes means not programming films at all. Two examples here include the Ross’s live-cast screenings of college football games and the MET Opera performances. The former represents a targeted strategy to accommodate local taste culture. I mentioned earlier than college football was serious business in Lincoln, so much so that on Game Day Saturdays only a smattering of people venture to the Ross for a movie. During the 2005-2006 season, Ladely thought of closing the theater on Saturdays to save on operational costs, but then considered the adage “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” and opened the large auditorium to a live stream of Nebraska games for an admission fee. Hotdogs and nachos were stocked in concessions, but without a liquor license (it is still a university campus), the Game Day screenings didn’t draw many fans.[24] In contrast to this attempt at joining the populist ranks, the Ross has capitalized on its “high art” status in ways that give it an edge over nearby chain theaters. The Center’s broadcasts of MET Opera performances proved so popular over the years that Marcus Theaters, the national chain that otherwise holds a monopoly on movie screens in Lincoln, tried to mimic these screenings, but “fell flat because people didn’t feel right watching opera in a huge multiplex” and preferred the cultural atmosphere of the Ross more.[25] One sees in these programming strategies attempts to satisfy commercial mandates precisely by drawing together community authorities, rallying around local issues, or leaning on the Center’s distinctive position in Lincoln’s cultural landscape. And yet how much the Center actively tries to disrupt conventional programming by involving the community remains vague. This next section addresses some of these strategies. 

 

 

Community Programming Strategies

 

Turnin and Winton conceive of community programming as collaborations with local groups to program films that facilitate dialogue about social issues. But communities and their interests differ wildly across contexts. The Ross occupies a particular intersection between artistic, academic, and activist avenues since it operates independently as a commercial cinema that is affiliated with a major research university and engages with cultural groups in Lincoln. Thus I want to split “community programming” further into three corresponding (though porous, overlapping) strands: the fostering of communal cinephilia through interaction with films; the facilitation of scholastic dialogue that bridges academia to the audience; and service to civil society in partnership with local groups.

 

First, the Ross serves the community by fostering communal cinephilia, nourishing the need to come together and enjoy movies as a cultural pastime. This strand of programming is less a regular commitment than a hodgepodge interest in special events, sometimes catered to specific groups and at the mercy of resources. Long ago the Center stopped holding retrospectives of classic Hollywood cinema or celebrated auteur filmmakers owing to poor ticket sales and the deteriorating quality of celluloid prints in the Ross archive. More recently the Center had to suspend its popular Movies on the Green outdoor cinema series—classic films screened free of charge on UNL green space—due to the costs of maintaining antiquated 16mm technology. A local man did help organize one-time screenings of popular Bollywood films for Lincoln’s large Indian diaspora for some years, and UNL students sometimes rent theater space to screen their work, but such efforts constitute only sporadic happenings and not an underlying guideline to Ross programming.

 

Second, as a university affiliate, the Ross often hosts special events spearheaded by university faculty to showcase their research and build contact with community members. An example of this occurred in March and April, 2007, when UNL Film Studies assistant professor Marco Abel developed “The Berliner Schule: A Retrospective of Contemporary German Cinema.” Featuring works from the so-called “Berlin School” of German filmmakers, the retrospective was the first of its kind in the United States and included Q&A sessions with visiting filmmakers. Ladely and Abel designed the retrospective to “immerse audiences in the production of a national cinema” and to challenge preconceptions about German cinema culture, which during the 2000s was inundated with popular narratives about the country’s totalitarian past(s).[26] Conversations such as these generally take place in the ongoing Movie Talk series curated by the Friends of the Ross, a membership-based community group that helps raise money and spread enthusiasm for the Center. The series invites local and university experts to weigh in on films screened at the Ross about social justice, environmental, or political issues. Two examples here include discussions on the climate science documentary Thin Ice (David Sington, Simon Lamb, 2013) in which climate change researchers from UNL debated the merits of the film’s claims,[27] and a talk about Dear White People (Justin Simian, 2014), a satire on contemporary  race relations. For this latter discussion, local black church leaders and university professors steered a candid discussion about race in the United States.[28] Similar examples have taken place for years at the Ross; it bridges academic research to the general population in the name of critical conversation, a connection that is not always easy.

 

The final strand of Ross community programming concerns its civil service and outreach, and here arises the pressing question of curatorial agency: if the theater values diverse cinemas and politicized voices, does that also include diverse curators with activist intentions? Advisory committees or guest curators are common strategies to provide agency to marginalized groups whose experiences are not served by the dominant media culture. Ladely admits that he likes to dissuade outside organizations from showing movies at the Ross owing to losses incurred from canceling regular screenings. “I used to do that for free,” he clarifies, “but the demand has gotten so high that it’s hard to keep our own movies scheduled.” Most collaborative curating occurs in the aforementioned Movie Talks organized by the Friends of the Ross, where curatorial agency remains in the hands of Ladely or a select strata of supporters. But he does point to two regular series that he remains committed to: The Vision Maker Film Festival and the Chinese Film Festival, both organized and programmed by outside cultural organizations. The Vision Maker Film Festival results from a partnership with Vision Maker Media, a Lincoln-based media company devoted to stories “that represent the cultures, experiences, and values of American Indians and Alaska Natives.,”[29] and it carves out space for conversations with community members and Native figures from many tribal nations. The Chinese Film Festival, offering free screenings of contemporary Chinese cinema, is programmed by the UNL Confucius Institute dedicated to promoting Chinese language and culture, and operates more as a cinephiliac event based around identity-building.[30]

 

I want to turn to one regular series that makes readable all three strands—cinephilic, academic, and civic—of the Ross’s community program, the Norman A. Geske Cinema Showcase, the most consistently curated event at the Ross. The Showcase began as Ladely’s attempt “to include local community members as much as possible”[31] in filmmaking by bringing independent media artists to Nebraska to “discuss their work with our audiences…attend University of Nebraska-Lincoln classes, and [interact] with other organizations in our community.”[32] Programming the Showcase has admittedly been “somewhat serendipitous” for Ladely, who “[doesn’t try] terribly hard to bring in celebrities or famous movie directors” but instead focuses on independent filmmakers whose work he likes or thinks is important.[33] Many recipients of the Showcase are documentary, experimental, short, or animation filmmakers—and many make political or social-issue films—though there are fiction filmmaker, too.  Recipients of the Showcase invitation since 1973 include Jon Jost (1975, 2005, 2008), Frederick Wiseman (1974, 1985), Chris Spotted Eagle (1987, 1992), Jennifer Fox (2007), and Arthur Dong (2008).

 

Since the Showcase represents Ladely’s most prominent chance to realize his curatorial vision, and because the Showcase values community interaction with marginal or marginalized filmmakers, it stands to reason that the series could achieve a diverse and inclusive representation of filmmakers. A statistical diversity scan can reveal to some extent whether this is the case. The following graphs break down Showcase recipients based on gender and ethnicity—a painfully reductive schemata for diversity but the most manageable for my purposes to get a sense of the Showcase’s politics of representation. According to Ross archives, from 1973-2012 (the last year data was available), the Showcase has hosted 184 figures, though there are repeat appearances in that number.[34]

The data scan suggests that the Showcase, while providing important cinephiliac, academic, and civil service functions, could include a more balanced proportion of female or transgendered guests to male, and certainly of non-white to white guests. The curatorial nature of the series fixes more squarely on Ladely’s aesthetic predilections than the representational intervention he can foster through a more actively plural exhibition.

 

 

“Slow Curating” and Future Interventions

Studies of curatorial practices have spiked recently. These range from surveys of how curation defines everyday life in small ways (YouTube or Spotify playlists) to larger curatorial models for precise contexts.[35] One refrain that sustains across studies is the need to rethink curators not as sources of authority but as facilitators of conversations and value-makers. In this spirit I want to conclude by suggesting ways the Ross could grow as an inclusive, community-driven art cinema by more consciously adopting what museum curator and scholar Megan Johnston calls “slow curating.” Simply put, slow curating makes space for dialogue and discourse in an often high-speed, exclusive programming world. It is a socially engaged curatorial framework and process that

includes a meaningful and deep understanding of one’s immediate context, working with local experts to learn the cultural
politics, the poetics of place, and to investigate issues (conscious and unconscious) that affect everyday lives. The notion of
taking time is important, as is working in collaboration with a sense of place and alongside working artists and the community.
It means promoting reciprocal relationships, open-ended proposals, and outcomes that can be decided by different people and
at different times in the process.[36]

Johnston curates a history museum in Northern Ireland that hosts touring exhibits along with permanent collections. Museum curation in this context is obviously different from programming an art cinema, but the principles are worth thinking through in relation to the Ross. For instance, one example of slow curation that Johnston details involved commissioning a project headed by performance artist Andre Stitt. Stitt set out to document the decline and subsequent rapid gentrification of Craigavon, a village once envisoned as “a nearly utopian place.”[37] Instead of developing a stand-alone art piece borne of his individual perspective, Stitt explored the territory on foot, interviewed local residents, and consulted public records about the town. The result was an exhibition and catalog that had “[deep and relevant] connections—sometimes literal in relation to a fact, a person, or a place, and sometimes conceptual as traces of human relations or memory.”[38] Johnston describes this approach as a break from the “object as art” model of curation and a turn towards process, collaboration, consultation, and the blurring of authorship in service of expressing local concerns with local voices. This is akin to the approach taken by Cinema Politica described at the beginning of this article, though perhaps without the explicit activist intention.

 

As I mentioned, the practical and essential differences between a museum in Northern Ireland and an art film theater in Nebraska are numerous, but it is possible to apply the philosophical underpinnings of slow curation to the Ross. At the end of the day, the Ross  could transition away from an inward, curator-centered institution to a more outward, community-curated resource that maintained its commercial core. Slow curating is well-suited to creating “a politics of presence”[39] that cultivates stakeholders who come together around social issues that otherwise may not be discussed, and the Ross would benefit from these collaborations. The Center already does this in small ways via their Movie Talks, community partnerships, and special event programming. The Ross is also fortunate that after-screening conversations can travel to the adjoining UNL Visitors Center with its ample meeting room space, making possible an interactive dialogue that most art cinemas cannot achieve owing to the “fast curating” impetus to reload a new audience. The theater’s affiliation with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln also casts an aura of critical engagement with screened films that many commercial art houses do not enjoy as a backdrop. In these ways and more, the Ross is well-suited to carry out a “slow” curatorial approach.

 

That said, most interactions with local taste-makers or voices occur in response to films screened at the Ross, not particularly in their creation or curation. The Ross could do more to normalize collaborative curation into the bloodstream of its identity. Ladely adopts a rather reactive stance to collaborative community programming; he cedes certain curation duties for special events but otherwise retains programming agency. A more proactive form of slow curation might involve the formation of advisory committees outside of the Friends of the Ross (a group that typically represents Lincoln’s white and wealthy community). Lincoln has a sizeable immigrant demographic, not to mention dozens of cultural organizations at UNL, and niche or identity-based interests swirl around town. Drafting a plan for regular consultations with these groups, who would weigh in on choices even for the commercial program, would go some way to addressing the topics important to marginalized voices. These efforts already exist in the Ross’s engagement with local Indigenous populations for the Vision Maker Film Festival, as I detailed earlier. Ideally, such collaborations could edge closer to the rule and less the exception. A further step would be to initiate a monthly guest-curated series that allows community experts or groups to program their own screening(s), working with the Ross to draft program notes and steer after-screening discussions. Finally, the Ross could make better on its claim to serve the Lincoln community by being more accessible to its poorest people. The dollars and cents of running a commercial cinema likely dissuade this sort of thing, but initiating a “pay-what-you-can” screening or two each week, along with responsible outreach to community shelters or charities, would make Ross films available to demographics that are often excluded from questions of audience involvement or agency.

 

I did not recount the representational politics of the Ross’s regular commercial programming since that would require a marathon of data-building. Still, if the most curated series of the Ross’s community-minded program, the Geske Showcase, is wanting for more equal representation of filmmakers and artists, then one surmises the commercial program could improve in this regard. The Ross could more closely chart this data, making a concerted, self-reflective effort to gauge the diversity and progressive causes of its program—commercial or otherwise—and even what kinds of films it screens (fiction, documentary, animation, experimental, etc.) so that it can self-monitor how balanced its program is. A small first step would be to amend the Center’s mission statement to reflect a commitment to wider diversity of representational content and filmmakers alongside community partners for the sake of an entertaining yet socially responsible and politically activated cinema. One strategy for committing to diverse cinemas, of course, is to feature them through special series or festivals, a niche-market style of programming that sometimes get criticized for essentializing or ghettoizing particular groups. Jesse Wente takes a nuanced approach to curating Indigenous cinema at TIFF Lightbox by trying “to canonize indigenous cinema in a casual way by [inserting it into our general programming]” in order to normalize inclusions of marginalized groups alongside established (often white, male) filmmakers. Though he also questions if such a strategy works for cinemas that so rarely are screened or appreciated; perhaps these most undervalued films and filmmakers “need that invitation to the table.”[40]

 

Whatever the curatorial strategies, the Ross fills a specific and valuable community need, and it must guard against the impulse to chase too many rabbits down market-driven holes. An anonymous comment on an audience survey conducted in 2016 says it best: “The Ross should continue its community-building activities: festivals, Q&As with producers/directors, second-run showings. It is not in competition with Marcus [Theaters]—it is so much more than that.”[41] Hopefully this survey of the programming history of the Ross Media Arts Center has revealed as much and pointed to approaches and precise practices it  can undertake to better balance its capital and community programming. Jon Jost did not turn his nose up at Birdman playing across the lobby from his own film. He knew why Ladely had programmed it—it garnered huge returns and helped the Ross swallow the costs of staging his own poorly attended retrospective. He even sat next to me the following night to watch Iñárritu’s film and enjoyed it enormously. But he was annoyed at how few people turned up to see his own film, a film, albeit a challenging, experimental one, about Nebraska itself. It is clear there are few easy formulas for working out the “disturbing” vs “reassuring” strains that a highly curated commercial art cinema encounters. But by activating one’s community more, by involving diverse groups and interests in the making of a communal exhibition space, programmers like Ladely can create added value not only for the films at the Ross but the social environment as a whole.

 

 

 

End Notes

 

[1] In 2005, an art cinema named Film Streams opened in nearby Omaha, Nebraska.

 

[2] Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton, “Introduction: Encounters with Documentary Activism,” in Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism, eds. Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton. (Montreal: Cinema Politica, 2014): 25.

 

[3] Turnin and Winton, "Introductory Encounters," 25.

 

[4] Turnin and Winton, "Introductory Encounters," 25.

 

[5] Peter Bosma, “Some Considerations on the Diversity of Cinema Programs in the Digital Age: Notes and Topics for Discussion,” http://www.edcf.net/edcf_docs/Diversity%20of%20Cinema%20Programs%20in%20the%20Digital%20Age.pdf.

 

[6] Peter Bosma, Film Programming: Curating for Cinemas, Festivals, Archives. (New York: Wallflower Press, 2015): 63.

 

[7] Jesse Wente, “Curators in Conversation: Jesse Wente Discusses Indigenous Programming with Ezra Winton,” Cinema Politica, 22 March, 2016.

 

[8] Wente, “Curators in Conversation.”

 

[9] Kent Wolgamott, “Danny Lee Ladely: 40 Years Running the Ross.” The Lincoln Journal-Star (Lincoln, NE): March 23, 2013.

 

[10] Mary Riepma Ross, a long-time supporter of arts in Lincoln and a wealthy attorney who once attended UNL, committed $3.5 million for the building of a state-of-the-art media arts center. Ross announced her donation in 1991 after which the Sheldon Film Program became the Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater. In 2003, with the new building’s groundbreaking, the program officially became the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center.

 

[11] Martin Irvine, “The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld,” http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/visualarts/Institutional-theory-artworld.html

 

[12] David Balzer, Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else. (Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014): 57.

 

[13] Wolgamott, “40 Years Running the Ross.” The Lincoln Journal-Star (Lincoln, NE): March 23, 2013

 

[14] For more on the rise of the U.S. American art house during this time, see Barbara Wilinsky, Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

 

[15] Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction : A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, Richard Nice (translation), (Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1985.)

 

[16] The  2016 Ross Audience Survey was available to Ross patrons online and in the theater lobby from Jan. 7, 2016 to February 1, 2016. It tallied 316 total responses. Ross Media Arts Center, 2016.

 

[17] “The Ross Theater: Mission,” Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center. https://theross.org/about/#mission.

 

[18] Bosma, “Diversity of Cinema,” 5.

 

[19] Ladely Interview. April 11, 2017.

 

[20] Ladely Interview. April 11, 2017.

 

[21] Bosma, Film Programming, 31.

 

[22] Bosma, Film Programming, 61.

 

[23] Micah Mertes, “Events surrounding bee movie buzzing into Ross on Friday,” Lincoln Journal-Star (Lincoln, NE): May 11, 2011.

 

[24] Ladely Interview. April 11, 2017.

 

[25] Ladely Interview. April 11, 2017.

 

[26] McKewon, Samuel. “Ross hosts German cinema festival, directors.” The Daily Nebraskan (Linoln, NE): March 22, 2007.  

 

[27] “’Thin Ice’ documentary opens at the Ross; movie talk is Oct. 13.” UNL Today. The University of Nebraska-Lincolnhttps://news.unl.edu/newsrooms/unltoday/article/thin-ice-documentary-opens-at-the-ross-movie-talk-is-oct-13/

 

[28] Forey, Jack. “‘Dear White People’ discussion dives into issues of race in US.” The Daily Nebraskan (Lincoln, NE): November 3, 2014. 

 

[29] Vision Maker Media Website. http://www.visionmakermedia.org/.

[30] “Chinese Film Festival 2015,” Ross Media Arts Center website. https://theross.org/event/961/.

 

[31] Newspaper article title not legible online. The Lincoln Star (Lincoln, NE): March 8, 1974.

[32] Ladely Interview. April 11, 2017.

 

[33] Ladely Interview. April 11, 2017.

 

[34] “The Norman A. Geske Cinema Showcase,” Excel database. Ross Media Arts Center. Accessed 10 April, 2017.

 

[35] Balzer, “Introduction,” in Curationism.

 

[36] Megan Johnston, “Slow Curating: Re-thinking and Extending Socially Engaged Art in the Context of Northern Ireland,” On Curating 24, December 2014.

 

[37] Johnston, 26.

 

[38] Johnston, 26.

 

[39] Turnin and Winton, 25.

 

[40] Wente, “Curators in Conversation.”

 

[41] Anonymous comment on “2016 Ross Audience Survey.”

 

 

 

Bibliography

“2016 Ross Audience Survey.” Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center, 2016. PDF file.

 

Balzer, David. Curationism: How Curating Took Over the Art World and Everything Else. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2014. 

 

Bosma, Peter. Film Programming: Curating for Cinemas, Festivals, Archives. New York: Wallflower Press, 2015. Print.

 

Bosma, Peter. “Some Considerations on the Diversity of Cinema Programs in the Digital Age:Notes and Topics for Discussion.” 

http://www.edcf.net/edcf_docs/Diversity%20of%20Cinema%20Programs%20in%20the%20Digital%20Age.pdf.

 

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Richard Nice (translation), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985. 

“Chinese Film Festival 2015,” Ross Media Arts Center. Web. April 10, 2017. https://theross.org/event/961/.

 

Irvine, Martin. “The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld,” http://faculty.georgetown.edu/irvinem/visualarts/Institutional-theory-artworld.html.

 

Johnston, Megan. “Slow Curating: Re-thinking and Extending Socially Engaged Art in the Context of Northern Ireland.” On Curating 24 (Dec. 2014): 23-33. file:///C:/Users/w_fech/Downloads/OnCurating_Issue24_A4_MeganJohnston%20(1).pdf.

 

Ladely, Dan. Personal Skype Interview. April 10, 2016.

 

Mertes, Micah. “Events surrounding bee movie buzzing into Ross on Friday,” Lincoln Journal-Star May 11, 2011.

http://journalstar.com/entertainment/movies/events-surround-bee-movie-buzzing-into-ross-on-friday/article_318d96be-aaa4-5bd8-a23c-9193e9794f17.html

 

McKewon, Samuel. “Ross hosts German cinema festival, directors.” The Daily Nebraskan March 22, 2007. http://www.dailynebraskan.com/ross-hosts-german-cinema-festival-directors/article_69812c61-361d-5d1d-9c70-11c8733eec14.html.

 

 “The Norman A. Geske Cinema Showcase,” Excel database. Ross Media Arts Center. Accessed April 10, 2017.

 

Newspaper article title not legible online. The Lincoln Star, March 8, 1974.

 

“The Ross Theater: Mission,” Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center. https://theross.org/about/#mission.

 

“’Thin Ice’ documentary opens at the Ross; movie talk is Oct. 13.” UNL Today. The University of Nebraska-Lincolnhttps://news.unl.edu/newsrooms/unltoday/article/thin-ice-documentary-opens-at-the-ross-movie-talk-is-oct-13/

 

Turnin, Svetla and Ezra Winton. “Introduction: Encounters with Documentary Activism.” Screening Truth to Power: A Reader on Documentary Activism. Eds. Svetla Turnin and Ezra Winton. Montreal: Cinema Politica, 2014. 

 

Vision Maker Media Website. http://www.visionmakermedia.org/.

 

Wente, Jesse, “Curators in Conversation: Jesse Wente Discusses Indigenous Programming with Ezra Winton.” Cinema Politica. March 22, 2016.

http://www.cinemapolitica.org/blog/network/curators-conversation-jesse-wente-

 

Wilinsky, Barbara. Sure Seaters: The Emergence of Art House Cinema. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.

 

Wolgamott, Kent. “Danny Lee Ladely: 40 Years Running the Ross.” The Lincoln Journal-Star March 23, 2013http://journalstar.com/entertainment/movies/danny-lee-ladely-years-running-the-ross/article_60a2b2be-c255-5954-bd6b-90097fbcbe09.html.