Passionate About Conversation – Artist Dialogue

In this issue, our Conversation participants are Todd Behrens and Ryan Haskins. Ryan is the Music Director for the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra, and Todd is the Director of the Sioux City Art Center. As artists, these two gentlemen have an interesting perspective on Expression.

SM: People are dealing with a lot of uncertainty and anxiety in general. How does the ability to express oneself via fine arts help with this?

Behrens: In the best of times, the fine arts show us new ways of thinking about the realities of life and provide sensory reminders of the more significant meanings that lie just above or below the surface of our daily experiences. In the worst of times, they provide hope. Since the pandemic, we have been reminded of how precious and short life is. The pain, uncertainty, and isolation of the last year have been so challenging. We effectively have had two options: ignore the problems and proceed with our usual patterns of life; or use this moment to explore the countless things that each of us usually has no time or reason to consider. At their heart, the fine arts are about exploration and innovation on the creative side, discovering new ideas, and considering the viewpoints of others on the appreciative side. All of these things can provide both the intellectual and emotional stimulation that not only get us through these tough times but can genuinely make our lives better.

Haskins: Since the beginning, the arts have provided civilization with a means of comfort and a vehicle to express our innermost worries, concerns, and anxieties. One of the reasons this works is because you have to learn to let go and be willing to be vulnerable to create art. You have to be willing to put everything on the line and say – “this is me” – it’s not easy – especially in a society that is so quick to pass judgments. This unguarded letting-go is powerful – and where art can express the inexpressible. When we find it difficult to express ourselves, but we have a desire for emotional release – the arts can help us. It’s one of the main reasons why the arts can have a lasting effect on the overall health of our body and mind. The arts can help us manage our quality of life and wellbeing. 

An experience in a concert hall, theatre, or gallery can all provide us with the opportunity to disappear and travel to a distant time or place. We can be transported away from our world that is so filled with constant uncertainty and upheaval. 

SM:  We find a lot of division and polarization in current society. In what ways is artistic expression connected to unity?

Haskins: The arts heal – they provide us with the opportunity to accept the challenge, then manage it, and finally heal and recover from it.

Art brings us together – and if we are willing to leave our “stuff” behind – and allow ourselves to be open – we can then enjoy some unbelievable experiences – moving us beyond the unimaginable.

Arts are reflective of what is happening around us, past and present. This is why a live concert can transport us in just a few notes to a new land, a new time, or a new experience. This is what drives us to continue creating a new sculpture, designing a contemporary dance, or composing a musical composition – they preserve time so that future generations can look back and experience where we were at that very moment. It is pretty magical.

Our culture and society need to be built not wholly of like-minded people but of a diverse and rich collection of individuals who come together to live, gather in celebration and mourning, discuss, change, and evolve. This bringing together through culture is what should unify us – even during these times of division. 

Behrens: Artistic creation is one of the many things that connects all communities, nations, cultures, and time periods. The impulse and the need to make artistic interpretations of our lives, whether verbal, visual, musical or performing, unites all of us. But it is important to remember that these generalities refer to the entirety of artistic production. No individual artist or artwork can fully contain a unified expression of our contemporary society. If we look at American art over the last century, we find a non-stop effort on the part of younger generations of artists to redefine what art’s appearance, purpose, and subjects should be. And that has only accelerated over time as—finally—women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ artists have had their voices more fully considered. Increased participation has brought new ideas into the conversation, and asking questions and stimulating conversation is a vital part of what the arts can do.

SM: In addition to visual arts, how do you express your individuality? 

Behrens: Actually, I have no special skills to express myself within the visual arts. Give me lots of time and I can probably draw something fairly competently. You wouldn’t want me on your team for a game of Pictionary. My studies and career in the arts have provided me with the confidence to see the significance within things that might be overlooked or explain why broad concepts that might be accepted as givens are based on shaky foundations. Though there can be a great amount of subjectivity within the fine arts, at the core of meaningful artworks lie clear purposes, logic, and vision. 

I enjoy working with others to achieve goals as much as I do working on my solitary ideas. The fun is in shaping a new vision for the Art Center that allows it to expand whom it partners with and whom it serves. Basically, working to make participating in the arts as inclusive as possible for everyone in the community.

SM:  In addition to music, how do you express your individuality? 

Haskins: This is a tricky question for me – there isn’t a day that goes by that I am truly without music – whether I am preparing for a concert, rehearsing with other musicians, or just listening to something that I have yet to discover. I will say, though, I do enjoy cooking. I have fun experimenting with different ingredients and spices and usually create as I go. My husband always tells me he thinks I should be on the Food Network show “Chopped”. I’m not convinced I am at that level – but I suppose I love putting my special touch on dishes I serve up at home.

SM: What would a first timer be surprised to experience at the Sioux City Art Center?

Behrens: First and foremost, a first timer—particularly a Sioux Citian—would be surprised to learn that our city has been exceptionally artistic for virtually its entire existence. The Art Center’s collection is small by many museum standards, with only about 1,200 artworks. But the Art Center has more than 100 past and present Sioux City artists represented in its collection, with a minimum of 25 on display at any one time—the first gallery a first-timer will discover in the Art Center is filled with more than a century’s worth of art produced by artists who have lived in Sioux City. Though we work to bring the best artworks of the region to Sioux City, quite honestly there is always a lot of great art being made right here.

The second thing is that we are free and a lot of our special activities are free, as well. While we’re still being a bit cautious on the size of crowds in the buildings, when we get back up to full speed, everything from receptions and artist talks to concerts and other performances are almost always free. The brochures we create to describe exhibitions are free. And we always offer several free children’s workshops during the year, and other classes and workshops are as affordable as possible. We want to make sure there are no obstacles between Siouxlanders and access to great art.

SM: What would a first-timer be surprised to experience at a Sioux City Symphony performance?

Haskins: UNEXPECTEDLY AWESOME – For a first-time concert goer – the Symphony is not what you might think. I have had more conversations with people who have lived in Sioux City all their entire life; they walk through those doors for the first time, sit down, and are blown away with what comes out of this Symphony. It truly is one of the greatest around – not just because of its ridiculously talented musicians, some who travel hundreds of miles to play at the Orpheum, but also for the cutting edge, experimental, unusually cool concerts that we produce. From Beethoven to Queen, from Mozart to Star Wars, there is something for everyone. It’s not what you expect – and that’s OK – we want you to come through those doors and discover one of the most exhilarating live concert experiences around!

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