Above and beyond isn’t enough to describe these grantees. Each month, we’ll be featuring a new interview with an organization from our NEA Big Read community. This month, the Executive Director of Odessa Arts, Randy Ham, shares some reflections on the city of Odessa’s first NEA Big Read program.
Tell us a little bit about your organization!
First organized in 1978 by a group of dedicated volunteers using a grant from the Texas Commission on the Arts, Odessa Arts celebrated our 40th anniversary this year. As the arts organization for the city of Odessa, we are allocated a certain amount of money from the city’s occupancy tax to grant out to art museums and other arts organizations. In addition to grants, we are involved in community-wide endeavors to support the visual, performing and literary arts and humanities in Odessa.
Who is your community and how do you connect with them?
We tend to think about Odessa as an isolated community. We’re probably not quite as isolated as we think we are, but because of growing up in this part of the state, we tend to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and do things on our own, because that’s just the way that we’ve had to do it for so long.
But in the last five years, we’ve seen a big swing in the ways we connect to our community: and our partners are a huge part of establishing those connections. Our mission every morning is combating the self-fulfilling prophecy that there’s nothing to do in Odessa. With our programs, we want to show our community how much art and culture is already right here in the Permian Basin.
Screenprinting at the NEA Big Read: ArtPocalypse kickoff. Photo courtesy of Odessa Arts.
What makes/made your Big Read unique?
I think the opportunity that we have to make this a true cultural collaboration means that we not only get to talk about literature, but we get to connect that to other local arts organizations: museums, theaters, the symphony, art in the broadest sense. Through Station Eleven, we’ve created a cultural tour of Odessa, encouraging our community to connect to all of the cultural institutions in our region.
Bouquet from florist and partner organization, Black Tulip Design. Photo courtesy of Odessa Arts.
Why did you select this particular book and how have you seen your community engage with your selection?
Set 20 years after a devastating flu pandemic has destroyed civilization, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven tells the story of a small band of actors and musicians moving between the settlements of the altered world—until they encounter a violent prophet who threatens the tiny band’s existence. Mandel describes a world of hope, of people coping with nostalgia and loss, both in the present and the future: of the power of art and relationships to fulfill us, sustain us, and nurture us back to our best selves.
We did a One Book Odessa community read last year, with Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus. Through that programming, we got to create a little slice of the Night Circus here; people still talk about it as one of their favorite event series in Odessa. We’d always wanted to become an NEA Big Read city; and then last year, someone sent in a copy of Station Eleven and we were just transfixed. I kind of had it in mind as a programming title: and then shortly after that, 5 million dollars was cut out of the Texas Commission on the Arts (TCA), so we saw our allocation cut in half. That got us thinking about how to engage our community in the importance of the arts, and Station Eleven was perfect for that.
It was just this confluence of events that allowed us to use this book to help our community talk about why it’s important to have art in improving quality of life. And our community was absolutely willing to start that conversation. We expected maybe 50-70 people at our kickoff and we had 150 people show up. We had a wonderful cellist, the university had screenprinted t-shirts, and we’ve been getting additional media requests above and beyond what we normally get, both for our NEA Big Read, and for our organization and our partner organizations.
An NEA Big Read event feature in the October 4, 2018 issue of Odessa American. Photo courtesy of Odessa Arts.
Large screenprints for the NEA Big Read: ArtPocalypse kickoff. Photo courtesy of Odessa Arts.
What aspect (event, discussion questions, audience outreach, etc.) of your programming do you feel has been, or will be, the most impactful?
There’s a couple! Being able to interview Emily St. John Mandel in Odessa’s Globe Theater is going to be amazing. And we’re hosting the annual Shakespeare festival in conjunction with the NEA Big Read a couple of weeks after that; a lot of students from rural areas of the state, many who will be seeing live theater for the first time, will be able to see a production of Macbeth in a full Globe Theatre replica. That’s one of the things that we’re most excited about: this theater troupe that comes in is phenomenal, and when they found out they were going to be able to be a part of a Big Read they were so excited. The Traveling Symphony is going to perform in the Globe Courtyard before the show; we’re literally going to see the book coming alive.
Jeremiah Richards (Jonas) during a dress rehearsal for the Permian Playhouse production of The Giver for the NEA Big Read: ArtPocalypse. Photo courtesy of Odessa Arts.
More generally, what do you think makes a program impactful or successful? Why?
Reading can be such a self-serving endeavor: but when you are able to find a book that you can bring alive for your community and they can see the tangible scenes that they’ve held in their head, that’s the spark that can ignite the conversation. It’s giving people that tangible opportunity to engage with and in the world that they’re reading. And I think that’s what makes a Big Read successful.
Odessa residents with their copies of Station Eleven at a book discussion and dinner. Photo courtesy of Odessa Arts.
Could you talk about some of the events that you felt were more creative or participatory? What was the background or process behind those events?
The kickoff. The participants were able to screenprint their own t-shirts: and you could go and actually pick out the t-shirt and go up to the screenprinting and you could actually make art. There’s another event: community art day, and we’re going to have hundreds of people who will be coming into the museum, not just to see art but to create art: and that’s the thing that I love about this, is these events that make people realize that they can be creative too. They can be artists. And there is no bad art! Too often, I feel like people are intimidated by art with a capital A, and it helps make art accessible to provide these opportunities for people to engage in a tangible and everyday way.
A page from the Cultural Passport, Odessa Arts’ NEA Big Read program guide. Photo courtesy of Odessa Arts.
Could you share any favorite anecdotes or stories from your community, about the book and the program?
I gotta tell you, the two things that I hear the most about right now are people raving about the cultural passport and the Museum of Civilization. We have 3000 passports and people can go to events and have their passport stamped: at different partner organizations, different programs. And people love that—they think it’s amazing to have that guide to different organizations and events across the city!
For the Museum of Civilization the city allowed us to take over a storefront downtown in an abandoned building. I can look outside our office and see it. It’s got tape decks and TVs and hair dryers and record players, things that wouldn’t be available after a pandemic, and I can see people walk by during lunch and they’ll just stop and look at the display, or take pictures of it. It’s incredible to watch.
NEA Big Read: ArtPocalypse cultural passports. Photo courtesy of Odessa Arts.
The Museum of Civilization in downtown Odessa. Photo courtesy of Odessa Arts.
Lastly: what is your favorite line from your reading selection?
You know, I think everybody would say “Survival is insufficient.” But honestly, I don’t have a favorite line; I just love the way that she writes. In my mind, the entire book is our favorite line: the otherworldly, dreamlike quality to her prose. And I’ve read it three times and I’ve listened to it on audio, and still there were times where I’d close the book and I’d savor the language I just read. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to the end, and it was amazing. It’s so rare when books can do that.