Thursday, July 31, 2014

The world cannot support that many ballerinas

Today's NYT Home section features what I can only describe as the schadenfreudelicious story of an "academic of independent means" whose attempts to turn her Connecticut home into an arts retreat have run into trouble. Many of the problems are practical ones--the neighbors are protesting that her institute is a bad fit for a residential area; she hasn't yet come up with a way of marketing her program--but though there's a real story here, the "delusional dilettante" aspects are the juiciest.

Who is Michelle Slater, the thirty-nine-year-old founder of The Mayapple Center for the Arts and Humanitites? So glad you asked!

Home-schooled until the age of 14, when her mother, Euphemia Brock Slater, a Mayflower descendant, died of complications of rheumatic fever, Ms. Slater has been on the move ever since, accruing degrees and experiences in the manner of a Henry James heroine: boarding school at Interlochen, the fine arts academy in Michigan. . . undergraduate work at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and the University of Colorado. . . graduate work at Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins and the Sorbonne; and various grand tours through Europe, India, and the United States.

Slater has real academic credentials, though nothing grander than you'd find on the average vita for the average job applicant these days. In addition to playing the cello, she "has a doctorate in German and Romance languages, as well as two master's degrees, has written articles on Derrida, run study-abroad programs, been a Woodrow Wilson fellow and taught French."

More notable is the passion she's put into her home. A self-described "recovering perfectionist,"

[Slater] chose each stone in the multicolored slate roof [by] traveling to a quarry in Vermont to find just the right mix of yellow, purple, blue and black Welsh slate. For her front and back doors, she looked at French and Italian Renaissance motifs. . . Inspired by the interiors of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, her dining room has been hand-painted in "a quasi-Fabergé look," as she put it, with colors drawn from her Versace Russian Dream china pattern. . . . [On the grounds] she laid in a vegetable garden, an Amish chicken coop and a clutch of bee hives. She thought hard about the Transcendentalists: What would Emerson do?

Um, maybe not paint his dining room in a way that evoked either the Hermitage or Versace? I'm also pretty sure that Emerson would not have designed a logo for his institute "inspired. . . by the color of [his] favorite Hermès scarf."

Though the article is most interested in Slater's biography and the work she's done on the estate, buried in the middle are a few more substantive paragraphs about how competitive and diverse the "artists' retreats" market is these days; some of Slater's problems come down to not doing enough research or hiring the right people to help her navigate her options. For instance, she lined up faculty to give seminars on various topics but gave less attention to participants. Slater imagines her program as appealing to scholars and artists, but it's hard to see what would be in it for them; from the way the program is described, it seems better geared toward artsy laypeople. In the end that's who she wound up with: unable to find enough artists willing to pay $1,200/week, she resorted to inviting friends and friends-of-friends in order to have some bodies populating the classes.

That, I think, is the real story: Slater is trying to build something for which there's no pre-existing market. Artists and scholars could surely use Slater's money and her enthusiasm (as could plenty of struggling humanities organizations), but they can't use it on her terms. She seems to want to run a salon or be an artistic impresario, and there's nothing wrong with that goal; bringing the right mix of people together to spark collaboration or conversation is a gift, and one that plenty of artists themselves lack. However, it isn't clear that Slater has that gift, or, more crucially, that she has those friends. Having the right network is more important than having money. With the right network, Slater could probably get something off the ground that would actually be useful to artists and scholars.

Running a salon doesn't take a lot of money. But it does require knowing people. No one comes to a dinner party where they don't know the host, at least by reputation--and that applies a hundred times over if you're expecting them to come for a week and to pay for the pleasure.

*Title courtesy of Mad Men's Marie Calvert: "not every little girl gets to do what she wants. The world could not support that many ballerinas."


Anonymous said...

I suspect if she were giving $1200/week to prospective students instead of asking for it, they would come.

Flavia said...


Right? I suspect that, too!

I even think that charging a certain amount would be fine, if she were providing a sufficiently attractive retreat-like environment, where artists could work in solitude all day (and perhaps socialize/network at night). Though again, we have the problem of needing a sufficient draw, whether locational or reputational.

Susan said...

I thought her goals were at odds with what she has set up - which is indeed great workshops for artsy rich people. But most artists and scholars can't afford them, and in any case, we mostly need time and space, not workshops. My thought reading this was that she has never really had to deal with an institution. Which is great, except it also means that she is not well prepared to create one. And I'm sure the people she consulted didn't want to rain on her parade.

And Emerson, indeed. Not.

Flavia said...


I thought her goals were at odds with what she has set up.

Yes, exactly. What she wants to provide isn't what her target audience desires. As I suggested, I think this says something about the limitations of her network or how marginal a scholarly/artistic figure she is.

I don't mean that cruelly, just descriptively: she's not able to imagine that the people she wants to surround herself with might need things other than the things that appeal to her--yoga, vegan meals, workshops. I have no reason to doubt her commitment to the humanities, and there are certainly plenty of much more vainglorious Lady Bountiful types who have (nevertheless) succeeded in making real contributions to the lives of artists. But at the moment she's not on the right track.

PhysioProffe said...

This is just another of vast numbers of stories in which the NYTimes chronicles the absurd foibles of the idle rich. It is "pitchforks and torches" pornography.

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

Lol physioproffe!

I was thinking that this will be her perfect opportunity to fail after all that lovely privilege she's had. Then she can write a book about how failure taught her more than all her degrees and come up with a foolproof formula for making your life meaningful blah blah blah. This is a tender memoir in the making!

Anonymous said...

Well, it seems the neighbors have managed to be even more insufferable than Ms Slater.

Flavia said...


Sure. But when the idle rich want to help the humanities, I wish they actually would. (I can tolerate the absurdity or the self-delusion or the self-aggrandizement in those circumstances--it's part of how the patronage model has always worked.)


Fer shure.


Well, it's Connecticut. There's steep competition in the Insufferability Olympics.

Anonymous said...

"died of complications of rheumatic fever" & "grand tours through Europe and india" -- what is this, Victorian England?

PhysioProffe said...

"But when the idle rich want to help the humanities, I wish they actually would."

I know *you* would. My point is that rank-and-file NY Times writers are intentionally writing these subversive articles, affirmatively seeking out the most infuriatingly clueless easy-to-vilify idle rich to profile. It gives the business douches at the Times what they think they need to appeal to their idle rich (or idle rich wannabe) readers, but is really pitchforks and torches porn for everyone else.

Contingent Cassandra said...

I suspect that part of the problem she's running into is that it's currently more culturally acceptable to be a "social entrepreneur" than to be a straight-out philanthropist (partially due to the building class resentments to which CPP alludes). That may be a problem created solely by her own desired self-image, or, if she's done a bit more homework, it may be one created by her need to attract additional investors (who are likely to be entrepreneurial types themselves) if she wants to expand. As those of us in the traditional academy know all too well, the powers that be in many sectors favor enterprises that can relatively quickly be made self-supporting (or at least those that have a plan that claims such a trajectory, realistic or not).

Or maybe she's just suffering from the built-in dangers of not having to do market research, and woo investors, *before* beginning work on the (very fancy) physical plant.

Andrew Stevens said...

My favorite bit was "Euphemia Brock Slater, a Mayflower descendant" as if that was important information. About 5-10% of U.S. citizens are Mayflower descendants so this pretty much just means her mother was from New England.

It could be worse - I suppose they could have said "descended from [insert King of England here]." That too would almost surely be true, but even less significant since every person in the world is descended from some sort of royalty.

Flavia said...


Well, I wouldn't want my pitchfork to get rusty from disuse, or my torch to go out. And I'm grateful to the NYT for never letting that happen.


But are 5-10% of them named Euphemia?

Andrew Stevens said...

Actually, Euphemia is a name I'd expect from a Catholic family (St. Euphemia was an early Christian martyr) rather than an old guard WASP family. I've never found a Euphemia in my family tree - Submit, Remember, Freedom, Thankful, Experience, Hope, Patience, Mercy, and an astonishing number of women named Abigail, but not a single Euphemia.

undine said...

This reminds me a little of Huguette Clark, the heiress who died recently at 104 and gave money only to individuals whose stories interested her personally. Mostly, though, she shopped and shopped and shopped for dolls. Part of me says, "well, it's her money," but the bigger part says, "you could do so much more good if you would exercise a little imagination about the needs that there are in the world."