About Robert Kirschner

Robert Kirschner is Skirball Museum Director.

I Remember Bill

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970. Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

Bill Graham onstage before the final concert at Fillmore East. Fillmore East, New York, January 1, 1970.
Chromogenic print. The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images.

I never met Bill Graham (1931–1991), but I remember him. If you lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, you remember Bill. In the exploding rock & roll universe of that era, he loomed as large as anyone. Bill was no mere concert promoter; he was a visionary, a celebrity, a force of nature. His productions were not just music but a revolutionary form of theater and audience communion. Whatever the venue—the legendary Fillmore and Winterland ballrooms, Golden Gate Park, the Berkeley Community Theater, the Oakland Coliseum—if the marquee said Bill Graham Presents, you knew the music would be amazing. More than that: it would be an experience. It would be like…well… the Jimi Hendrix Experience, if you can imagine it. Earthshaking. Mesmerizing. Titanic. Unforgettable.

Bill Graham sons, David and Alex, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition, seen here with their mothers Bonnie MacLean and Marcia Godinez. It was an exciting night, full of anticipation as we looked forward to sharing Bill's legacy with the public.

Bill Graham’s sons, Alex (far left) and David, joined us to celebrate the opening of the exhibition.
They are pictured here with their mothers, Marcia Godinez and Bonnie MacLean (far right).

Yet Bill wasn’t only about the music. He was about the message. He believed that music could be a force for social change, and he led the way to the mass phenomenon that came to be called the benefit concert. Bill had protean powers of energy, persuasion, and will. When it came to something he believed in, he could not be stopped. In 1985, President Reagan announced that he would visit the Bitburg Cemetery. When Bill learned that fifty Nazi SS officers were interred there, he launched a national campaign of protest. As a child he had barely escaped Nazi Europe; his mother and one of his sisters perished in the camps. Despite enormous pressure to cease and desist, Bill would not. Bill was not one to cease and desist. The president went ahead with the visit. But history will remember Bill’s courage and conviction.

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Moshe Safdie: Rain or Shine

Designed by Moshe Safdie, the National Gallery of Canada was the first venue for Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie. Updated to include some of Safdie’s many recent projects, the exhibition makes its U.S. debut at the Skirball today. Image by Timothy Hursley.

Designed by Moshe Safdie, the National Gallery of Canada was the first venue for Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie. Updated to include some of Safdie’s many recent projects, the exhibition makes its U.S. debut at the Skirball today. Image by Timothy Hursley.

About three years ago I woke up in Ottawa, Canada, to a driving rainstorm. It was the morning after the gala opening of the exhibition Global Citizen: The Architecture of Moshe Safdie at the National Gallery of Canada. I was there to represent the Skirball, where the exhibition would be traveling next, and I had plenty of company—not only museum colleagues, but donors, press, media, and government leaders and dignitaries from throughout Canada. The gala was a major event, and today’s lecture by Moshe Safdie seemed like an afterthought. It was scheduled for Friday midday, not a great time for a public program in any case, and certainly not when the rain was lashing the streets and sidewalks. I lamented the poor planning and the unlucky weather. It would be embarrassing, after such a triumphant opening, for Safdie to address an empty hall.

The wind was whipping the rain sideways. By the time I turned the corner, my umbrella was inside out and I was drenched. So were the people I suddenly noticed queued up in front of me, standing patiently, if wetly, in a line stretching for blocks. I couldn’t believe it. There must have been 500 people standing in the rain, an hour before the lecture, waiting to hear Moshe Safdie. The hall wasn’t empty; it was sold out. These people were waiting to get in. Not all of them did. They watched the lecture instead on a video screen outside. In the rain.

No rain here! Lucky ticketholders for Moshe Safdie’s sold-out lecture at the Skirball this past Sunday queued up in the sunshine with a view of autumn leaves.

No rain here! Lucky ticket holders for Moshe Safdie’s sold-out lecture at the Skirball this past Sunday queued up in the sunshine with a view of autumn leaves.

By the way, it was worth it. Moshe Safdie is a gifted, dynamic speaker with a rare combination of humility, humor, and grace. But I knew that. What I had failed to appreciate, Continue reading

Rough Draft

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Thomas Jefferson. Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence, June–July 1776 (detail). Manuscript. Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Visiting Mount Vernon, Virginia, recently, I had a good look at George Washington. His original terra-cotta likeness, by the French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, is on display there. Washington was looking down at me. (He was six foot three.)

Our usual image of the father of our country is conjured from the dollar bill or the stiffly posed portraits of his day. But this likeness is different. It dates from 1785, when Houdon followed Washington around for weeks, waiting for the moment that would capture the great man’s character. It came when Washington was negotiating the price of a horse. The seller apparently asked too much. Washington’s expression, as captured by Houdon, is priceless: imperious, dubious, somewhere between high and mighty—and so lifelike that, standing there beneath his gaze, I was glad I wasn’t the one selling the horse. Not even the King of England could stand up to George Washington.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co.The British Surrendering Their Arms to Gen. Washington After Their Defeat at York Town in Virginia October 1781 (detail). Philadelphia: Tanner, Vallance, Kearny & Co., January 28, 1819. Engraving. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

To capture the living person before he became an icon—this is just what the Library of Congress exhibition now at the Skirball, Creating the United States, sets out to do. Visitors are invited to witness the founding of the nation as it happened, before it was set in stone. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were once rough drafts, with cross-outs and add-ons you can still see. Before they were ratified, they had to be debated;  before they were proposed, they had to be composed. Continue reading

Sleepers, Awake!

Last month the Skirball opened Women Hold Up Half the Sky, inspired by the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (Knopf, 2009), by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn.

The idea for the exhibition started with this issue of The New York Times Magazine:

Women Hold Up Half the Sky

My well-worn copy of The New York Times Magazine, “Saving the World’s Women” special issue, August 23, 2009, pictured here inside the gallery. Photo by Thomas Schirtz.

Both the cover photograph and the caption arrested my attention: a portrait of a woman named Goretti Nyabenda of Burundi, who “transformed her life with a $2 microloan.”

Two dollars? That tiny amount can transform a life? Now I read the headline: “Why Women’s Rights Are the Cause of Our Time.” That stopped me, too. Despite a dim awareness that the abuse and neglect of women are still prevalent in many parts of the world, I wasn’t in the habit of thinking that could change. For as little as $2?  Hmmm. Continue reading