In the Age of the Overamplified, a Resurgence for the Humble Lecture
By DINITIA SMITH New York Times: March 17, 2006
"My purpose is not only to make the lions roar," he cries. Bounce. "But to trigger people's imagination." Bounce. Bounce. "It's not only sex that's exciting," Mr. Holdengräber says, "but the life of the mind. When you come into contact with a great idea, it can change your life." Mr. Holdengräber is riding the crest of a renewed interest in spoken-word events, lectures, debates, readings and panel discussions, in many corners of the city, from university auditoriums to the 92nd Street Y and bookstores and bars.
A spokesman for the library said that attendance at public events had doubled since Mr. Holdengräber, the founder and former director of the Institute for Arts and Culture at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, arrived a year and a half ago. Dr. Paul LeClerc, the library's president, added that since Mr. Holdengräber, 45, began making his imprint on public programming, the audiences had "a different energy." "They tend to be much younger," he noted.
In January, Mr. Holdengräber said, when the French writer and philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy was interviewed at the library by Tina Brown, "900 people showed up." "Diane Von Furstenberg and Lauren Bacall were there," he continued. "There was a line 150 meters long of people who couldn't get in. It went around the corridors of the library." In October, similar numbers lined up to see Bill Clinton interview the historian John Hope Franklin about race relations and to see the song-cycle version of "The Elements of Style," by Maira Kalman and Nico Muhly. "Several hundred non-ticket holders had to be turned away from all the events," Mr. Holdengräber said. To be sure, some of the increase in attendance can be attributed to Mr. Holdengräber's efforts to liven up the programming. One of the first things he did when he arrived was to change the name from the Public Education Program to Live From the N.Y.P.L. It also helped that he changed the time most lectures began, to 7 p.m. or later, from 6 or 6:30, to make it easier for people with jobs to attend. And he increased the library's e-mail database of potential attendees to 7,000 from about 500. He says he relies on e-mail messages now to publicize events rather than brochures, a change that enables him to program more spontaneously.But the library is not the only place that has seen an increase in attendance at spoken-word events. Uptown at the 92nd Street Y, Helaine Geismar Katz, the associate executive director who is in charge of public programs, said she had seen "a big change" in the size of audiences at the Y's lectures and panels. Like the library, the Y has increased the number of its lectures, debates and forums to feed the public appetite. "We have had poetry for over 60 years, every Monday night," Ms. Geismar Katz pointed out. "Now we have programs almost every single day and night." The Metropolitan Museum of Art has always had good crowds at its panels and lectures, said Hilde Limondjian, general manager of concerts and lectures. Its musical performances are often accompanied by talks as well. Smaller outlets have seen a steady increase in attendance. Denis Woychuk, the principal owner of KGB Bar at 85 East Fourth Street, which is a center for readings by authors, said: "We set up our first in 1994 on Sundays because Sundays were slow. Things were dead. I said, 'Let's do something that's going to be fun.' The business was secondary, but there was certainly that." Every eager young writer attending a reading means, of course, that at least one drink is bought at the bar.