Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The End. For Me, Not the Educational Opportunities!

My work on Currier & Ives: Perspectives on America comes to an end this week with a final report to our generous funders, Partnership for a Nation of Learners, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasters. In that documentation, I am proud to report that we have fulfilled our objectives and even surpassed some goals. In particular, securing national distribution was a real boon for the exposure of Springfield's efforts to make a local treasure a broader educational resource. The nationwide broadcast of the series goes beyond the requirements of the grant and importantly, it ensures that more people know about the importance of Currier & Ives and how their lithographs may be used effectively and easily as a vivid window to 19th century America. The focus of this project was always about education, not promoting one particular collection, and the national broadcast is our "cherry on the sundae"!

As I think my blogs reveal, this project has been a joy and a wondrous journey. I'm grateful to WGBY and the Springfield Museums for the opportunity to manage the educational partnership and to serve as Executive Producer of the documentary series. I am especially privileged to have worked with the Currier & Ives collector and expert, John Zak, and Kay Simpson, Director of Education and Institutional Advancement at the Springfield Museums. They have been invaluable partners and unflagging supporters. When I reviewed the documentaries recently, I was astounded by the depth and breadth of images and information that owe directly to the efforts of John Zak. Kay was my closest partner at the Museums and I can never apologize enough for forgetting to acknowledge her work at our biggest screening! I still cringe over that. Kay Simpson is the main force behind the success of our educational efforts and she also served as my teacher, educating me about the partners and the Project when I came on board back in April of 2007. She has always made time in her extremely busy schedule to answer my questions, share information, anticipate challenges, and share a chuckle. What an honor to work with her!

As I've mentioned before, I'm also especially indebted to videographer Mark Langevin and Senior Editor Ray Laferrier for their way-above-and-beyond efforts! I am fortunate to take away several wonderful friendships from my time in Springfield, Massachusetts. I'd like to take this opportunity to also thank Lynn Page and Keith Clark of WGBY for the energy and time they devoted to this effort. Their patience, diligence and talents are simply astounding.

Please keep an eye on our dynamic website for new features. We've wrapped up the edits on the podcasts and they'll be added to the site soon. Teachers will find the podcast Lesson Plans and Learning Activities an easily replicable resource in the classrooms. Students can enjoy the interactive features "What Is A Print?" and "Look Closer!", as well as "My Currier & Ives Gallery". The Museums will continue to train teachers to use the lithographs as a way to teach Visual Literacy and more. The Museums will also make sure DVDs of the documentary series get into the hands of librarians, curators and educators throughout the region and beyond.

As a result of this project, I understand so much more about 19th Century America and I hope you do, too. I've also developed a deep fondness for the work of the two gentlemen who have been my constant companions for 14 months: Nathaniel Currier & James Merritt Ives. I hope we have given the "Printmakers to the American People" the tribute they so richly deserve. And don't say I didn't warn you: you'll find that once you start appreciating these prints and seeking them out, it becomes a bit of an obsession! I have 4 now. As John Zak told me from the start, the collecting bug bites deeply.

I am convinced the grantmakers will agree their money was well spent. I know my time was. It is with a tinge of regret that I end this blog. It's been great fun sharing this producer's journey with you!

- Mary Steele

Friday, May 16, 2008

Documentary Goes National

The title of this blog is the headline for a recent article in The Republican, the newspaper here in Springfield, Massachusetts. WGBY was thrilled to learn that about 90 PBS stations nationwide voted to pick up the program from the distributor, American Public Television (APT). That actually translates into the possibility that our series will be seen on 195 PBS stations across the country and in Puerto Rico! We needed just 25 votes to secure national distribution by APT, so these are great numbers. Furthermore, we were picked up by 6 of the top 10 markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Boston, and Philadelphia. That's good stuff.

The name of the game during May has been wrapping up loose ends. I recently completed a graduate-level online course in Evaluating Outcomes that was invaluable and will inform my final reporting to our grantmakers, A Partnership for a Nation of Learners/IMLS/CPB. I'm also busy getting the tapes ready for their national distribution because the technical standards are different. Over the next 2 weeks, the regional version of the series will be put on DVD and beautifully packaged, thanks to our graphics designer, Joel Heaton. They will not be sold but they will be given as gifts to local educational institutions, museums, and supporters of the project. It's important to me that regional institutions have access to this resource! The educational component of this partnership project is its cornerstone and can remain so well into the future. That will be the legacy of this grant and the efforts of WGBY, the Springfield Museums, Baypath College and the Cooperating Colleges of Greater Springfield and The Republican's Newspaper in Education.

The partners will meet one last time next week so that I can bring everyone up to date and have the opportunity to offer updates, congratulations and thanks. It seems like just a couple of weeks ago that I met many of these people for the first time!

You can now view all clips from the shows by going to our website and clicking on "Documentaries". Soon you'll also find a very cool interactive feature for students under "Education & Outreach" as well as podcost versions of lesson plans for teachers who would like to use Springfield's Currier & Ives collection as a primary source in their lessons on art, art history, American history, or visual literacy.

We are still showing the docs in the community. Next week I'll speak at the Agawam Public Library and offer the audience the chance to view all 3 episodes. This is especially gratifying near the conclusion of our project because Agawam happens to be my hometown! It has been very sweet, indeed, to be back with friends and family during the last 14 months as I managed "Currier & Ives: Perspectives on America".

I'll keep you posted!

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Big Ratings!

The Currier & Ives series may have aired regionally already, but the show just goes on! Currier & Ives: Perspectives on America began rebroadcasting on WGBY over the weekend and will enjoy a long life on the air. We just finished editing national versions of the shows, which meant shortening the length and changing some local content. Part 3, in particular, looks a bit different and benefits from some content changes.

How does national distribution work? Well, a distributor (in this case, American Public Television/APT) offers shows to PBS programmers at stations nationwide by previewing clips or entire shows so that they can pick and choose what they think their audience will like. At least 25 stations must accept a program in order for that show or series to be distributed. A representative from APT told me the distributors were impressed with our series, pleased by its national content, and thought it would do well. In addition, Program Directors are hungry for content in high definition and our series is in HD. So we are hoping for good things and even prepared the shows for distribution in advance of the green light. Let's hope that's confidence and not cockiness!

Not long ago, we got a good sense of audience response to the documentary series. It seems all the promotion and community outreach paid off: the broadcast premiere of Currier & Ives: Perspectives on America in late February was a great success! The series received the highest ratings of any local program in station memory. Here's how the ratings went:
Part 1: 3/5
Part 2: 3/5
Part 3: 3/7
Historically, WGBY's local programs pull in ratings of 1/1-1/2, if they get any ratings at all. Currier & Ives: Perspectives on America was the fourth most watched show (this includes both national PBS and local programming) on WGBY during the month of February, coming in above shows like NOVA and Antiques Road Show. Our biggest audience was women and men over fifty.

Now I'm working on developing packaging for the DVD (national & local versions)so that it can be given to those who supported the project or took part in the series. We will also give the DVDs to area museums, libraries, and schools.
Also, we're shooting video for podcasts that will help teachers create lesson plans using the Currier & Ives prints to teach a variety of subjects. It is fascinating and gratifying to see the results of those Teacher Workshops in action! The website is being updated - we'll soon add an interactive feature for kids and you'll be able to watch clips from all three broadcasts. I'm also taking a month-long online course recommended by our grantmakers in order to effectively report to them. At the same time, I'm keeping an eagle-eye on that shrinking bottom line, making sure that I don't go over-budget as I near the end of my terrific tenure with
Currier & Ives: Perspectives on America. I don't want it to end. It's been an education and a joy.

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, March 7, 2008

What's Next?

This is the question that I'm hearing now that Currier & Ives: Perspectives on America has debuted on WGBY. That's television for you! You work for months on something, it's over in a blur, and it can be a memory before the next morning. I'm ecstatic to report that this project is different. The series has "legs" - that is, it will have life long after the initial broadcast on February 25, 2008. First, it will be rebroadcast on WGBY several times. It is also intended to be a longtime community resource made available to schools, libraries, and museums. Finally, it is likely to be distributed nationally for broadcast on PBS stations across the country in the Fall/Winter of 2008! I am in that process now and it is top priority.

But let me back up for a moment and talk about the broadcast premiere. I watched the premiere on a large HD television with the videographer of the series, Mark Langevin, along with his fabulous wife, Chris Cronin. Mark has always gone above and beyond the call of duty for this project and he has become a friend as well as a great professional partner. It was both exciting and gratifying to see all 3 parts on the air rather than watching it piecemeal in an edit booth! Unfortunately, new technology is not without its glitches and on a high definition television, there was pixilation during some black and white photo images. We're working to eliminate the problem before the rebroadcasts. Most folks who watched it in standard definition tell me they did not notice the problem. The feedback on the series has been terrific. Viewers tell me they simply had no idea the name meant more than Christmas cards and calendars!

Let me take this time to acknowledge the great work of WGBY's Senior Editor, Ray Laferriere. Ray gave 110% to the series, really caring about content and the look. It can be challenging to work in one dark room with one person for close to 3 months on one topic. It can be even more challenging for one editor to work with hundreds of still images, as opposed to video. Without assistance, Mr. Laferriere created all of the time-consuming moves that made the Currier & Ives prints come to life. Throughout, he was a joy to work with and I think we became an even better team as time passed. Two weeks out of the dark editing cave, I find I miss it--and Ray!

I'll be back there briefly next month because the series will have to be substantially trimmed for its potential national broadcast. We'll also pull some short clips from all three episodes to add to the website. The website, attention-starved during the edit, is getting scrutinized and I'm making updates and revisions, as well as adding new features geared toward children and educators. It's www.currierandives.org, by the way. Check out the new animation of the prints on the home page!

We continue making presentations of the documentaries in the community. I spoke to audiences in Amherst and Easthampton this week and I really enjoyed the questions. It's interesting to talk about the shows after they've been viewed on WGBY, rather than talking about what's coming up. The questions seem to center more on the research and interviews I did leading up to the editing. Also, now folks often want to learn finer details of subjects just touched upon during the television programs.

So while it has been a wonderful project, the broadcast doesn't mean it's over, not by a long shot! Don't forget that this is an expansive educational partnership and the documentary is just its centerpiece. The partners (WGBY, Springfield Museums, The Republican's Newspaper in Education, the Community Colleges of GreaterSpringfield, and the Springfield Public Schools) have a Teacher Workshop coming up, a conference with local colleges, and Currier & Ives-themed contests for students at the Springfield Public Schools.

Oh, and cross your fingers for national distribution. After all, this is an American story and should be seen throughout the country! I'll keep you posted.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Down to the Wire!

Episode 2 of Currier & Ives: Perspectives on America is in the can! It's a lovely episode with a more leisurely pace than Part 1 and a long-overdue tip of the hat to some of the artists who put Currier & Ives on the map. What makes this episode especially beautiful to watch is that we are showing the best of the best that the firm produced. That's because of an emphasis on the "Best Fifty" lists, original and new, that put the spotlight on public favorites in the Currier & Ives inventory. It's great fun to see how America's tastes have changed in 50 years--fewer history prints make the favorites now, for instance, and more of those peaceful winter scenes make the hit list.

We started editing Part 3 this week, so we're in the home stretch! We'll be working some weekend hours to make sure we make our air date of February 25 (9pm-10:30pm). Episode 3 is called "The Surprise of Currier & Ives" and includes some of the firm's controversial, risque, and curious prints. This was without a doubt the toughest episode to write because there was so much left to say! There were many anecdotes and sidebars that simply had to go. I am still waking up thinking, "Oh - but I wanted to include this! I wanted to include that! And I forgot to include this! How could I leave him out?!" But time is short and I had to slice and dice, and slice some more, to get the show down to 27 minutes. The tightrope the editor and I walk is to include fresh information but also to review key points covered in past episodes. These episodes will air separately after the initial broadcast, and the audience may not see more than one part. Each episode has to stand alone and yet tie together with the others.

I want to send out a belated thanks to my new buddy, Ken Wales of Santa Monica, California. Ken is a remarkable man and a veteran Hollywood producer. Most recently he produced the film "Amazing Grace" with Albert Finney. He was also partners with Blake Edwards and helped make the famous "Pink Panther" films. You might know him as the producer of the television series "Christy". Ken called me a few days before screening at the Academy of Music to say he had long considered producing a film or holiday special centered around Currier & Ives and decided it might be time to do so. In his research, he found our website and my blog. At first he thought "Oh, darn! Somebody's beat me to it!" but he quickly realized our project was quite different and might actually help inform his. At the spur of the moment, Ken flew out to join us for all 3 screenings and some wonderful dinners. Mr. Wales says he's interested in some sort of collaboration down the road--it will be fun to see what comes of it! In the meantime, he enhanced an already-fabulous weekend with his graciousness and his story-telling. Ken has worked with many of film's legends and has some amazing tales to tell. He kept a table of about 15 people enthralled after the screening. And most importantly, he charmed my mother. We're grateful to Ken for sharing in our celebration and for his keen interest in our project. To show him, we sent him out with a good, old-fashioned New England snowstorm. He called me before he left to tell me he had made 2 snowmen, was working on a snowwoman, and gearing up for snow angels! He seemed absolutely delighted by the snow, although it delayed his flight considerably. Ken Wales is a gem.

I'll keep you posted.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Academy Reward

What a joy to stand in a theatre you've loved since college, to look out into the audience and spot family and friends, to share your work with an engaged, enthusiastic local audience! What an absolute thrill was January 12 at the Academy of Music in Northampton. And what a turnout! I'm told some 350 showed up for WGBY's screening of Episode 1 of the 3-part series Currier & Ives: Perspectives on America, which will air on Channel 57 throughout western New England on February 25 at 9pm. As someone who grew up in this area but who was been away from the region for about 20 years, the day was the ultimate homecoming. Plus I got to say "Hi, Mom!" to Mrs. Dorothy Steele.

The Academy screening was the largest of three screenings that took place over the weekend. On Sunday, a private event was held at the Springfield Museums to celebrate supporters of WGBY and the Springfield Museums. Part 1 was screened here, as well, and Chris Lane of the Philadelphia Print Shop and PBS' 'Antiques Road Show' gave a fabulously informative presentation with even more background on The Printmakers to the People. Lane is a wonderful speaker and renders complicated concepts entirely digestible. On Friday, a couple of dozen folks braved a pea-soup fog and nasty rain to join us for an intimate screening at Hancock Shaker Village in Hancock, Massachusetts. The small size of the group helped make it feel like a gathering of friends enjoying a lively conversation after the screening - great fun! Again, I enjoyed the engaged, inquisitive, and enthusiastic audience.

The response to the show hints to me that our timing is good -- that New Englanders, and probably all Americans, are interested in learning more about this subject at this time. Why is that important? Because without reminders like this programming, interest inevitably will wane and these images may cease to resonate with younger generations. Their relevance will lessen. I care less that dollar values will drop than I care about the priceless history that will be lost.

This entry must be short because the editing continues! We are working on Part 2, which is shaping up to have a slower pace than Part 1, a nice change. The first episode was rather quickly paced out of necessity because it serves as an overview and is extremely comprehensive. In Episode 2, we honor the artists behind the iconic images and follow the passion of Currier & Ives collectors like John Zak and Sid Alpert, both instrumental to the success of this educational partnerhip. Both men are also victims of the "magnificent obsession" of collecting, as an audience member called it over the weekend!

I'll keep you posted. Thanks to the Academy of Music and everyone who attended the screenings!!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Part One is Done. Almost.

Editing, recording narration, hosting concerts, giving speeches, and enjoying the holidays: it has been one busy month! A rough cut of Part 1 was completed before Christmas and after a little spit 'n polish next week, it will be ready for its screening at Northampton's Academy of Music on January 12, 2008 at 3pm. Part 1 is called "Printmakers to the People" and focuses on Currier & Ives' early years, turning points for the firm and personal insights into the fascinating business partners.

We learned a few things about time management from editing the short because creating movement on these static images takes a big chunk of editing time. You can 'move the eye' around the screen and create a dynamic composition without special moves by going closer into the images and revealing the details that aren't apparent at first glance. These details - dress, machinery, interaction, etc. are the magic of Currier & Ives. Once you start zooming in on them, it is impossible to view the prints the same way. The images provide a more vibrant, dynamic history lesson than any textbook.

Believe it or not, some shooting is still underway! Today, the crew videotaped re-enactments at Old Sturbridge Village, with two staffers acting as Mr. Currier & Mr. Ives working together in a business setting. These will be used minimally, but they will help fill out 3 half-hours largely reliant upon only 7 images of the men, and only 2 of Ives! It was a frigid but beautiful, wintry day and cameraman Mark Langevin captured some stunning winter-in-New-England images that will remind you of...you guessed it: a picture print by Currier & Ives!

Next week, we will see how teachers are using the collection in their actual lesson plans, when we visit a classroom at the High School of Commerce in Springfield, Massachusetts. One teacher is looking at women and styles of dress in Currier & Ives prints to spark a discussion about clothing in relation to health and gender roles. Should be interesting! This is the partnership at work: expanding the impact of the collection among students and beyond.

I've enjoyed several speaking engagements over the past month and it seems I never run out of things to talk about! Some crowds are more interested in the history, others in the art, others in the business side of the New York City firm. Today I got a question that stumped me: where was the lithographic paper made? Any takers? I'm looking into it.

The Currier & Ives Holiday Pops concert last month was just a joy from beginning to end. The audience was able to view the short video before entering the concert and so they sat down a little more informed about what they were about to see. Wintry and holiday images and details of prints were shown on a large screen as the chorus sang and the Springfield Symphony Orchestra worked its magic. I attended both weekend performances in order to hand out literature and answer questions about the upcoming series and it was just as good the second time around!

Scott Simon recorded his narration by phone from Washington, D.C. because that worked out better for all parties involved. His voice, as I suspected, is just perfect for the project and it vastly enhances the docs.

I'll keep you posted.