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11 Great Art and Culture Podcast Episodes of 2017

The compelling cultural storytelling of 2017 podcasts includes the value of hoarding, the gentrification of art districts, and one mysterious skeleton.

Panel from the ballroom at Gadsby’s Tavern, Alexandria, Virginia (1917) (via Metropolitan Museum of Art/Wikimedia)

Some of the great cultural storytelling of 2017 has been on podcasts, whether the character-driven hedge maze of S-T0wn or Every Little Thing that will change the way you look at both houseplants and flamingos. As an avid listener myself (shout out to the buoyant bad film podcast How Did This Get Made? for easing my post-election stress), I’ve selected eleven stand-out episodes on art and culture from the year thus far. And don’t forget to tune in to Hyperallergic’s own podcast for more dialogue on art in the contemporary world.

The Memory Palace: “If You Have to Be a Floor

Nate DiMeo of The Memory Palace was a 2016-17 artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, creating a series of episodes meant to be listened to in the American Wing. While “If You Have to Be a Floor” is most affecting when standing in the center of the museum’s reconstruction of the 18th-century ballroom at Gadsby’s Tavern, it’s a transporting experience from anywhere. “People used to dance in this room, back when this room used to be in a different room,” DiMeo says, and asks you to remember that this quiet corner of the museum had a life before its static installation. And, you, too, can dance there.

Raw Material: “The Land

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art kicked off the second season of its Raw Material podcast with host Geraldine Ah-Sue talking to three artists whose art is an act of journeying. Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik investigates the trade and globalization of curry powder — coating the walls of galleries with it and making it into a perfume — while John Akomfrah of the Black Audio Film Collective retrieves lost stories from the African diaspora, and Flo Oy Wong used her 2000 Angel Island installation to exhume the “paper” names taken on by Chinese immigrants during the Chinese Exclusion Act. Each individual interviewed for “The Land” episode is probing art as an experience of leaving the familiar, and how our arrivals and departures are not always by choice.

Illustration of architect Paul Williams by Charles Alston (1943) (via NARA/Wikimedia)

99% Invisible: “The Architect of Hollywood

As described in this 99% Invisible podcast episode, Paul Revere Williams helped define “the multi-style style of Los Angeles” in the early decades of the 20th century through his embrace of diverse aesthetics, from opulent Hollywood homes to the futuristic Theme Building at the Los Angeles airport. He was also the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). At a time when he often wasn’t welcome in the neighborhoods where he was designing, he had to be better than all the rest. “The Architect of Hollywood” is an excellent half-hour of storytelling that captures the incredible legacy of his career, which involved thousands of projects both public and private, and considers how his name has been overlooked, especially after the loss of his archives in a fire.

BackStory: “American Hoarders

This year the BackStory podcast from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities added two new hosts — Joanne Freeman and Nathan Connolly — and is continuing to take deep dives into American history from the perspective of the present. “American Hoarders” is a good listen for anyone in the museum world, or who visits them, as it discusses unsung heroes who collect things that aren’t seen as important by others, and can guide how we reconstruct the past. They include 19th-century antiquarians who went door-to-door asking for 18th-century letters, Zora Neale Hurston’s papers that were rescued from being burned following her death — their edges are still charred — and an interview with digital archivist Jason Scott of the Internet Archive.

Sound Matters: “New Tunes from Old Bones

Sound Matters, a podcast by Tim Hinman from B&O Play, explores in “New Tunes from Old Bones” how archaeologists approach, and sometimes play, musical instruments. Musician Barnaby Brown explains how he recreates sounds from ancient instruments, dating back to the Stone Age, like a 27,000-year-old vulture bone flute. Peter Holmes describes his process of rebuilding metal instruments, such as those discovered in the tomb of King Tut. The podcast has sonorous samples of these sounds, including what some of the oldest instruments may have sounded like in Stone Age caves. It’s easy to forget how scarce music was centuries ago, sometimes only heard in religious ceremonies or as an otherworldly sound intended to strike fear in enemies on the battlefield.

J. M. W. Turner, “The Slave Ship” (1840), oil on canvas (via Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Wikimedia)

The Lonely Palette: “JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship

Tamar Avishai’s The Lonely Palette selects a single artwork for each episode, and then dissects its visual and historical context in an approachable way. In “J. M. W. Turner’s The Slave Ship,” Avishai gets some visitor feedback at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston on the 1840 painting, before examining how what appears like an abstract blast of light and blurred color has a deeper meaning within art history, balanced between Romanticism and Neoclassicism, and the unease of nature’s fury and the terror of human nature. For you might not notice them at first, as the blinding sun hovers over the waves, but human hands are reaching up from the water, representing the 133 people thrown from the Zong slave ship in 1781.

Theory of Everything: “Art Districts

What is the responsibility of the artist in “urban revitalization,” a term closely linked with the art district? On this episode of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything, the host asks this question in art districts of New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Detroit. In LA’s Boyle Heights, new galleries taking advantage of cheap rents sometimes disregard existing art communities, while in Detroit, artist Maya Stovall, whose work was featured in this year’s Whitney Biennial, dances outside liquor stores to engage locals in dialogues on art. On each stop, Walker highlights how art districts sometimes play into the myth of the urban frontier.

Maria Sibylla Merian, illuminated copper engraving from Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705) (via Wikimedia)

Stuff You Missed in History Class: “Maria Sibylla Merian

After her work fell out of favor thanks to poor reproductions in the 19th century, and some Victorian sexism, the star of scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian is again on the rise. The 17th-century artist’ career is explored in this episode from the Stuff You Missed in History Class duo Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey. Merian’s work gained distinction as she illustrated insects from life, in an era when many naturalists studied them as dead specimens, and painted them in their whole life cycle and habitats, including those she witnessed on an intrepid voyage to the Dutch colony of Surinam.

Sidedoor: “If These Bones Could Talk

The Smithsonian Institution’s podcast Sidedoor is now in its second season, giving behind-the-scenes insights into its collections. “If These Bones Could Talk” asks of a skeleton now on view in the National Museum of Natural History: “Who is this dead man who is on public display at the Smithsonian?” His name is Robert Kennicott, and the 19th-century Smithsonian scientist was not only prolific as a collector, having contributed objects to every museum department, he died mysteriously, with Smithsonian researchers only recently unraveling his final days.

Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Urbanist: “Out of the Box

Hosted by Monocle editor Andrew Tuck, “Out of the Box” from The Urbanist podcast asks what you may have pondered when gaping at a peculiar public art project or brutalist behemoth: “How did that get built?” In four chapters, listeners hear about the impossibility of architectural congruity in Belgrade, the strange appearance of giant mushrooms in the streets of Alicante, Spain, and the audacity of ugly buildings. The last stop is Paris, where the Centre Pompidou has been a divisive building since its 1977 opening, and what this means ahead of its upcoming renovation.

The Organist: “Baptism of Solitude

Paul Bowles is most famous for his 1949 novel The Sheltering Sky, centered on an ill-fated tourist trip to Morocco, Niger, and Algeria; less known are his 1950s music recordings he created through a grant from the Library of Congress while living in Tangier. On the “Baptism of Solitude” episode of The Organist, a podcast presented by McSweeney’s and KCRW, writer Brian Edwards takes a listen to these recently released tapes. Sampling the sonic relics, there’s an audible portal into the past, yet one that demands acknowledging what it means to be an outsider documenting a culture, and how Bowles, traveling around in his VW bug, changed the music he so loved in this act of “preservation.”

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