There is an age-old adage used to warn the young about the dangers of being overly inquisitive or experimental. The earliest known printed reference to the saying appeared in 1873, in James Allan Mair's A Handbook of Proverbs: English, Scottish, Irish, American, Shakespearean, and Scriptural; and Family Mottoes. It was listed as an Irish proverb and believed to have developed from words written by British playwright Ben Jonson in 1598. That saying is, "curiosity killed the cat."
Keith Marks doesn't believe that curiosity is a dirty word. In fact, he believes that it is a character trait that should be both celebrated and nurtured. This is what led him to co-found Avant Arts, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that explores the arts outside of genre and expectation in an attempt to create a more adventurous community of art appreciators. Fostering curiosity and rewarding it when found is woven into the culture of Avant Arts and serves as a guiding principle for Marks and his co-founding partners.
Marks and audio engineer Moe Ricks recently launched Avant Radio, with the tagline "Curious Music for Curious Minds." The weekly radio program is featured on the airwaves of WJCT 89.9 FM and airs on Thursday nights at 11:00 PM. Shows are themed, curated, sequenced, and then contextualized with the aim of educating and exposing people to new music, cultures, and ways of thinking as it relates to musical tastes. Recaps of the program and selected playlists can be found on Avant's blog.
Marks has a history of thinking outside of the box and applying his tenacity to benefiting residents of Greater Jacksonville. Over the years he has led a number of initiatives intended to build community and expose Jacksonville to experimental and non-normative forms of art. To say he is dedicated to expanding the minds and perceptions of this region is an understatement.
Marks and his team also facilitate the Avant Music Series, which developed after Marks made a donation to the Jacksonville Public Library Main Branch in the form of hundreds of CDs and DVDS from the catalog of Tzadik Records, a New York-based record label that specializes in avant-garde and experimental music. The label was founded by musician and experimental composer John Zorn, whom Marks worked closely with to facilitate the gift. Following that donation, Marks and his partners organized several events to celebrate the library's acquisition. This then expanded into a music series that imports global artists to Jacksonville for special performances. The artists selected to be included in the series perform culturally diverse material from across the musical spectrum.
Marks has an interest in cultivating an individual's full being, both mind and body. He and his wife, Tehila, own and operate a Pilates studio and wellness center in Jacksonville's Riverside neighborhood. There, Tehila and a small group of instructors lead classes seven days a week. Marks, a certified massage therapist, also offers private massage sessions.
10 Questions with Keith Marks
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
If my creative process were an action, it would be fireworks exploding – it tends to pop in a non-linear fashion. In the beginning, I have one rule: no editing. Many times, we get stuck on the perceived limitations of a project; that rational mind kicking in telling you what you can’t do.
I try to begin by imaging the project without borders, think without limitations, and picturing the desired outcomes from the audience, to the artist, to sponsors, then to myself. As the project develops, I make free associations between seemingly unrelated things. After all of the ideas have come through me (like a mystic channeling a force), is when I begin the process of connecting those “pie-in-the-sky” ideas with resources: time, talent, and money.
From there, it’s a chess game of problem solving, working to the best of my abilities to pull something off that’s as close to flawless as possible and as imaginative as my restraints will allow.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic endeavors?
That I’m a work horse. I’ll sacrifice sleep, food, and even my personal relationships to make sure I’ve done everything in my power to do something to the best degree possible. I learned a long time ago that I never want to get to the day of an event thinking I could have or should have done something more. When I hit the day of the show, I want to sit back and enjoy. I can’t do that unless I know that I did everything within my power to make the show successful. Enjoying the fruits of my labor is my goal.
The other thing I’ve learned is that I love working with a talented team of creatives. I’m an extrovert and my brain really comes alive when I’m able to work collaboratively. Having Kedgar Volta, Peter Bailet, Moe Ricks, and Tina Ramey by my side with Avant has been so much more enjoyable than doing this solo. I like to lead teams, especially if the goal isn’t an easy one. The challenge of working creatively towards something that nobody thought could be done is exhilarating.
How do you define success in what you do?
I tend to be hyper-aware. I can’t help but sit in my car, alone, after an event and have running through my head all the things that could have be improved. I notice the weak spots, the things that nobody notices. I’ve gotten better about it over the years, but it’s still there.
Success is an all-inclusive goal for me. Ideally, everyone will walk out of the room glowing, launching praises, and telling their friends. Success is a show where the audience and the artist are interconnected. It's knowing that I’ve done a good job of curating the event, promoting so there’s enough people to witness it, the production quality is top tier, and that there’s a bit of electricity in the room. Success is a momentum that carries the audience to ask, “What’s next?”
Why do you think it is important that individuals are exposed to diverse forms of art and how can this exposure lead to better understanding cultures and lifestyles that are different from our own?
In explaining Avant, I often repeat that music can function as a passport. You can expose someone to a piece of music that seems foreign, exotic, and “odd.” By them gaining some context around that artistic piece, they have a richer connection with that sense of “other.” It can open a new world of intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and even physical exploration.
Music is the gateway to communion. Music has power. Where else do thousands of people connect to have a shared aesthetic experience? African-American-rooted music, from jazz, gospel, blues, funk, and hip hop, has done more than anything else to normalize relations between different cultures in this country. It wasn't at churches or soda fountains that whites and blacks were integrating during the 30s and 40s, it was juke joints where they were going to dance.
What are some channels or methods that you recommend employing to be exposed to, and gain a deeper appreciation for, new or different forms of art?
I’m finding more and more power in the old school methods of exposure: friendship and taking chances on live music. As in most things in our lives, algorithms are telling us what to like, what to listen to, and what to watch. And they might do a decent job of it, actually. But, the thing we’re losing is that sense of community.
When I was growing up, I used to go to record stores in Daytona. The guy behind the counter would get to know us and our taste in music. He’d show us new records, play new bands, and expose us to new types of music. Friends would sit together and pass around tapes, CDs, and then MP3s. The human element is disappearing. The community is disappearing. Avant is an effort to bring back some of that community to Jacksonville.
The other point is that people need to go and take risks. Take some friends and go out and listen to live music. Go hear a band that you don’t know. We used to go to The Milk Bar and the Moto Lounge just to be out, meet people, have a few drinks/laughs, and dive deep into the bands that were playing – even the bad ones were cause for us to connect and talk. It helped shape our tastes.
What role has travel played in your personal development and testing assumptions that you may have had about the world?
I had the opportunity to not just visit countries around the world; I had the opportunity to live abroad for years. What that does to your consciousness is profound – it allows you to look at the “other” culture you’re living in and normalizes it. After awhile, you begin to look back at where you come from, what you consider your baseline normal, and it frees you up to ask deep questions about your cultural and personal assumptions. You realize that you were given a number of your personality characteristics before you were born. You were given a language, a country, a religious bent, a political one, an accent, and a sense of history. These were all there waiting for you.
While abroad, I began to deprogram a lot of those building block characteristics. I was able to rebuild as an adult and synthesize elements of that “other” into who I am. It makes me “strange” for Jacksonville, but I relish it. Even though it may put me on the outside of the cocktail party, I know that my ideas are coming from a genuine place in my heart and head.
My travels have allowed me the opportunity to strip away labels and associations that were once there and reboot those in my own, unique way. Everyone should live outside of their comfort zone for awhile to find out what’s the real you and what’s a useless layer over top.
What can listeners expect when they tune in to Avant Radio and what are some of your objectives when curating and producing the weekly radio program?
Each show is radically different form the last. I feel like the radio show is a portal; we’re bridging time periods, geographic locations, and ways of thought. The only thread is one of exploration. People may not LOVE every single show, but every show is going to explore a new topic and play the most eclectic programming Jacksonville has seen on any media in a long while, perhaps ever. The show will evolve and we’ll find a groove. But for the moment, the show is meant to do what the tagline for Avant says: “Curious Music for Curious Minds.”
Avant recently announced a collaborative program with Sun-Ray Cinema. How do you think collaborative programs can help serve Avant's mission and what characteristics do you look for in collaborators?
Artistic collaborations are critical to a thriving arts scene. Venues, promoters, artists, and audience members – it’s one large ecosystem. Avant is a baby; we lack resources that big arts nonprofits have. For me, right now, those weaknesses are strengthened through collaboration.
Even the radio show is an example of that. I wanted to put Avant out there as a weekly arts entity. WJCT was looking for local programming at night. It was a win-win.
One day, I’d love to have the resources to call the shots and to strategize with purpose, instead of being at the mercy of opportunities and chance. Even then, I’d want to collaborate and cross-pollinate. If we could collectively work together as an arts community, what a noise we’d make regionally and nationally!
In addition to being involved in the arts, you have a background in health and wellness. Do you see an overlap between the two sectors and if yes how do you describe their cross section?
Bodywork keeps me grounded. It’s an opportunity for two people to turn off their devices, be still, and focus on breath and body for an hour. It’s the most unique human dynamic I have access to. Tehila and I love having a Pilates/massage studio. It’s another aspect of our extended community in Jacksonville.
I’m sure I could find some direct relationships to health and wellness, but the one I think that makes the most sense is that the wellness community around the studio allows me access to people I wouldn’t normally get to connect with. We share ideas and they get to know about things like Avant and other projects we're associated with (and turn me onto new things, too). We tend to silo our personal relationships. and the studio allows us to break out of our immediate silos.
To be more literal with the connections, I think that my spiritual background of learning how to listen, how to be present, and how to quiet my judging mind makes me more open to new music, new art, and new ways of thinking. It forces me to be a bit more adventurous.
People think the goal of practices like yoga and Pilates are to be flexible and/or strong. Those are merely bonuses of a deliberate practice. The real goal of those practices are to gain mastery over the fluctuations of the mind, not to jump at every single urge that pops in. The mind is so quick to judge, “I like….” “I don’t like…” My spiritual practice has given me some tools, bringing it back to music, to be able to listen to really weird things and let it wash over me aesthetically. That bathing of sound allows for the potential of appreciation.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow the city's creative economy?
More than anything, I want us to realize that the cultural capital of a city is not in one arts institution – not even a few. It’s an ecosystem. We love New York because of the underground theater performances in the Bowery, the underground music venues in the Lower East Side, the off-Broadway productions, and the hole-in-the-wall ethnic places. The arts scene is a thousand small arts initiatives.
It’s great when someone gives $5 million to a battleship arts museum in town, but what would that money do if you cut it into 20 pieces and gave start-up capital to 20 different arts organizations? Avant, Jacksonville Dance Theater, Phase Eight, The 5 & Dime, Jax by Jax, Jax Makerspace, Sleeping Giant, PorchFest, Long Road Projects, Renaissance Jax, Civic Orchestra, etc. Can you imagine what a quarter of a million dollars would do for budding arts organization? The impact would change the landscape of the arts and cultural scene overnight.
We need to value cultural entrepreneurs. We need to nurture them, support them, and help them grow into the anchors of culture. MOCA, Cummer, and MOSH can’t be the only cultural outlets for a million people. I understand that the big fish want to see their names on buildings, on wings of museums, etc., but if we don’t value our creative class, those spending 60-80 hours a week, losing sleep, not seeing their families, putting their own money on the line, how long do we expect them to keep going if nobody throws them a line?
I’ve seen so much Jacksonville talent leave for larger markets. We need more risk takers and more people being advocates of the entrepreneurial arts organizations. I can rant on this one for awhile, but I think I’ve shared enough.