Did you MOHU? by Jill Rafferty-Weinisch

I did MOHU (that’s “MOHU” as a verb). I attended a really exciting informal drumming performance by Brian Melick at the Arts Center (this was a warm-up for a more formal concert at the Egg) and I watched a bit of the Ellen Sinopoli Dance Company as they rehearsed for their weekend concert – always thrilling even without lights or costumes (Full disclosure, I was working both events – but enjoyed them absolutely. There are some perks to working in this business!). Then I caught a screening of “Gerhard Richter Painting” at Hudson Valley Community College. I had been disappointed to miss this at the Spectrum so I was pretty excited when I got the opportunity to see it – and for free!

But I must admit, I’m kind of conflicted about MOHU.

What’s a MOHU? Well…that’s part of the problem.

According to the website “MOHU is a 10-day celebration of the vitality of the Arts & Culture in the Capital Region of New York State, the area that borders the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers.”
Got it? Well, maybe sort of. That identity disorder is the crux of the problem. There are a lot of good, creative, dedicated people working on MOHU – without an kind of central administration. That adds to its grassroots charm but it may be a detriment to its message. Certainly there have been some successes and innovations as MOHU has moved into its second year. And yet, for me it continues to feel like it’s missing something essential. Yes, we will MOHU if asked – but why exactly?

And I think part of the quandary is that the “celebration” feels a little like throwing your own birthday party. The guests are dutiful, but have they really invested in your day? As I’ve talked to people both inside and outside the arts community, the sense of bafflement is pretty pervasive – especially among audiences. We’ve asked them to come to our events. But is an audience all we really want? If so, this seems like an awfully complex way of raising one. I’d really like to see us ask more of our communities.

The website tells us that “MoHu is helping to foster collaboration and cooperation between the area’s thriving arts communities”. I’ve seen that in action, and I’d certainly agree that collaboration, in this age, is a tremendously good thing – the old, “your chocolate is in my peanut butter – your peanut butter is on my chocolate – delicious!” construct. But do audiences appreciate the collaboration piece at that level? Or do they just consume the candy bar, lick their fingers and call it good? I’m not sure that MOHU collaboration seems valuable to the general audience member.

Here’s more. “Nearly 150 regional arts and cultural organizations coordinated several hundred events. From performances to exhibitions, gallery openings and lectures, MOHU will offer attendees a wide array of experiences and unique collaborations.” Now the sheer fact that there are 150 regional arts and cultural organization is impressive – and there have certainly been some “unique collaborations”. But the main criticism I hear about MOHU is the perception (perhaps not entirely true) that MOHU is a packaging of all the same stuff the arts community has always had to offer (grand and vast though that may be) and calling it something else. I have this enduring vision of Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap, insisting blankly, “but this one goes to eleven…” And so it does. MOHU may even go to twelve. But how does that translate into an audience’s experience?

This is the part I really like: “The contribution of the arts to the local economy goes beyond the rarely measured financial and economic contribution to communities. Arts and culture activities are economic drivers and are critical to the quality of life in our communities, high on the list for potential businesses and others who may be contemplating relocation.” Yes! Yes! THIS is what I’d like us to be talking about in these times, the absolutely critical role the arts play in making the places we live “live-able”. And this is the message that I think gets lost in the “Get Your MOHU On” patter of marketing. The overall message is that this is a festival that we should participate in – not a call to action. This is the “WHY” that would resonate for me – and I don’t think it’s coming through at all.

Finally, “These nine days will bring expanded audiences into our region and be a celebration of the vibrancy and diversity that makes our area so great. And with your help everyone participating will be counted. Show your support for the arts and for how much our region has to offer. Attend MoHu and be counted.” And in our increasingly statistically driven world, counting matters. The first year, there was some talk about counting (not enough in my opinion). And indeed a count was made and the number reached. That part has seemed fuzzier this year.

Part of my frustration, I think, comes from the fact that I was present the night the idea for MOHU was born. It spent most of its infancy as an idea called the “50K” -meaning that we would somehow quantify that at least 50,000 people in the region supported the arts. That project was birthed during a conversation at the Opalka gallery in 2008 if memory serves, in response to the suggestion that Global Foundries and other high-tech employers who were recruiting lots of hot-shots to the region had concerns that upstate New York might not be attractive enough to prospective employees. The idea spun in circles for a long time before emerging re-branded as MOHU. Establishing the Arts Community as a major factor in recruiting diverse creative talent to the region seemed like a worthy goal. We’d be investing in new audiences as they came to the region and supporting the overall growth of our local economy. For me, the most attractive element in such an effort was the opportunity to mobilize or audiences. People respond best when they’re invested, when they have something to do that they feel they can accomplish. “Stand up and be counted as a supporter of the arts” was a clear command. Even better, it was an opportunity to choose an identity for the region that had arts and culture as a central pillar of our lives here. THAT was exciting to me. THAT was something I believed we could all get behind.

If MOHU is going to be successful (and I’d really like for it to be) – indeed if the Arts Community in the Capital Region…in New York State… or in this country, is going to thrive, I think we have to offer more than entertainment. After all, we all know that the arts are so much more than that. Let’s ask the people of the Capital Region to stand behind us, and stand for us. Let’s arm them with all those economic development and quality of life arguments and let THEM make the pitch. Let’s have a party that talks about why we MOHU, and why we should…and why MOHU really matters.

Note: Inconsistencies in the spelling of MOHU (vs. MoHu) are a result of it being used both ways on the website for the event – the result of the project being done by committee I’m sure.

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