Volume 75, Number 5 | July 6 - 12, 2005

Festival is a journey through jazz and spaces on the Lower East Side

By Al Orensanz

The tenth edition of the Vision Arts Festival, an event combining jazz, poetry, dance, painting, sculpture, photography and “some other hybrids” and other newly engineered sound and word art formats, took place at the Angel Orensanz Foundation recently. Some 300 artists, mostly from New York, but also from many other states and a few other countries, participated in the festival. Some music critics rank the festival on par with the Newport and the JVC jazz festivals.

Central to the creativity, energy and following of the Vision Arts Festival are Patricia Nicholson Parker, William Parker and a core group of Lower East Siders who fiercely maintain the principle of art, grassroots and community together.

But, like all tent revivals, Patricia’s act is built in the precariousness of faith and on shaky ground. Every year, for the last 10 years, she has moved her caravan of genius, fellowship and rapture from synagogue to church basements to gymnasium to school classrooms.

The Vision Arts Festival has taken place four times at the Orensanz Foundation on Norfolk St., two at St. Nicholas Church by Tompkins Square Park, CUANDO, at Old St. Patrick’s Youth Center, at 23rd St. Mark’s. Nothing shakes the faith of her massive following and the geniuses of jazz, poetry and dance ready to go anywhere with her. This itinerancy keeps her in a state of uncertainty, hope and depression (depression, not desperation, she insists).

Why this yearly pilgrimage into the unknown, the un-air conditioned, the crowded spaces? Most artists and attendees agree the Orensanz Foundation is the ideal place in its sitting capacity, climate control, many rehearsal spaces, visual arts presentation, recording areas and location at the heart of the community. But the Orensanz Foundation has its own problems of handicap accessibility, sound management, schedule commitments and others. The bottom line is that the amount of the Lower East Side’s available art space is shrinking under the brutal pressures of the real estate market, the fragility of the dwindling art spaces and the awesome disregard of government to support the community and art facilities.

Millions are poured Uptown into the already fat facilities, where corporate name recognition, social prestige return and publicity dividends pay off from day one. Downtown is a desolate desert ground where artists pay themselves for their art and strained venues are the philanthropists of their own productions.

What can be done to stop this crisis of the Lower East Side losing all of its art venues? We are losing our culture. The Vision Arts Festival charges and puts up a donation box at the entrance of the hall. Patricia Nicholson Parker some nights passes around a basket in the hope of some trickle-down dollars. It reminds me of the pushka (charity can) that at the maariv (evening) service our shuls used to circulate.

I have heard of old rebbes for who those pushkas made it possible to raise their families in the Depression years and in the ’40s and ’50s.

I have seen people changing their lives under the spell of the horns, strings and timpani. Just a confession: My ears suddenly opened up by listening to Hamid Drake, Fred Anderson, Tatsuya Nakatani and Dennis Gonzalez these past nights.

Orensanz is a sociologist and arts director of the Angel Orensanz Foundation.

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