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The Nantucket Project 2011

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Where would you find Julie Taymor, Casey Neistat, Rahm Emanuel, Eric Schmidt, Larry Summers, Eddy Lampert  and Craig Venter gathered together under the same tent – literally and figuratively speaking? How about on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts, during a lovely Autumn weekend?

All photos courtesy Meghan Brosnan


Irish-born poet, and a long-time resident of Nantucket, Frank J. Cunningham, shares his experiences of attending the first gathering of The Nantucket Project. The event has been conceived by Kate Brosnan and Tom Scott of Plum Television, the lifestyle network with stations in ‘hard-to-reach’ markets, including: The Hamptons, Telluride, Aspen, Miami Beach and Nantucket to name but a few.

The Nantucket Project - Eric Schatzker (Bloomberg Television) with Tom Scott and Kate Brosnan

The Nantucket Project - Eric Schatzker (Bloomberg Television) with Tom Scott and Kate Brosnan

I had the good fortune to attend the inaugural of The Nantucket Project held at the White Elephant Hotel on Nantucket Island, 30 miles off the coast of Massachusetts. The Project’s primary mission is to investigate “ideas that have made us re-think through the exploration of change.” The program commenced on the afternoon of Friday September 30th, ran all day Saturday, and concluded with a packed lineup before noon on Sunday October 2nd.

Ethan Philbrick

Ethan Philbrick

I was selected by Nantucket’s 190-year old newspaper, The Inquirer and Mirror, to represent the island’s arts community at The Nantucket Project. Needless to say that as a poet, I was delighted to see a pair of fellow island artists, soprano Greta Feeney and the young cellist Ethan Philbrick, present world-class performances throughout the weekend.

Eric Schmidt with Craig Venter

Eric Schmidt with Craig Venter

Beginning with the last session, Sunday morning’s presentations included a panel discussion on 21st Century Storytelling and two Conversations. The first of these conversations brought us Eric Schmidt of Google fame and Craig Venter the first man to map the human genome. Schmidt and Venter talked about acceleration of developments in computing power and the mapping of genomes. Knowing that Venter had recently created a new life form – a synthetic genome that was constructed from chemicals in the laboratory – made one pay acute attention to his every word. Both Venter and Schmidt agreed that weakness in math and science education was America’s primary national challenge in facing the future.

Rahm Emanuel

Rahm Emanuel and Larry Summers

The second conversation hosted Rahm Emanuel, formerly White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama and now Mayor of Chicago, and Larry Summers, more recently the Director of the United States National Economic Council and now the Charles W. Eliot University Professor at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Emanuel and Summers – whose dialogue was off the record – talked about their days working in Washington D.C.

Mellody Hobson

Mellody Hobson

The business side of issues gave us a strident defense of total commitment to profit with the least amount of government oversight. One presenter went on to praise notable rewards for entrepreneurial discoveries as a way to inspire the engagement of great minds. These views were counter-balanced by Stephen DeBerry, the San Francisco-based venture capitalist, and Mellody Hobson, the president of a Chicago-based investment company, who gently but firmly defended their belief in a society where businesses align strong financial returns with positive social impact. This, they expressed in the midst of a panel discussion on Building an Economic Foundation for the Future which also featured Eddie Lampert (whom some call the next Warren Buffet), Schmidt and Summers.

These business men and women’s discussions were juxtaposed in relation to those by brilliant scientists who expressed their desire to further the common good and happiness of humanity without destroying our planet.

Though I must say that, at some point, I was left with a feeling of unease while listening to Venter who calmly and convincingly spoke about his plans for the future of genetic engineering. Being fairly aware of the slowness of governments to legislate for these types of discoveries and lack of major debate concerning copyright issues of such inventions were the reasons for my mixed feelings.

On the other hand, I was fairly excited to learn about Dean Kamen’s (inventor of the Segway) purifying system that delivers clean drinking water to villages around the globe, and the accompanying machine that can supply it with energy to run. Both roughly half the size of a Coca Cola dispensing machine. Mark Hyman of the Institute of Functional Medicine informed his audience that, contrary to popular opinion, non-contagious diseases are the primary cause of death; lack of clean drinking water being the worst offender. Jay Parkinson and his description of how he set up his online general practice cutting cost of overheads down to 10% rather than the typical 70% of revenue was particularly informative and inspiring.

Julie Taymor

Julie Taymor

Sitting in a tent listening to these and many more thought-provoking ideas delivered by great minds in less than forty-eight hours was nothing short of exhilarating.

In the arts, New York City filmmaker, Casey Neistat’s witty explanation of how he chooses his topics and his methods of production gave hope to every potential filmmaker, at any income level. Neisat’s short film, iPod’s Dirty Secret became nationally recognized for its criticism of Apple’s battery replacement program for the iPod, in 2003. Academy-Award nominated director, Julie Taymor, expressed her views on the function of an artist as one who sees reality from other perspectives. Jim Lasko, Artistic Director of Chicago’s Redmoon Theater, elaborated on his public events that appear as spectacles, parades, site-specific performances, interactive exhibits, as well as traditional theatre productions. A young slam poet, Sarah Kay was delightful in her frank delivery of her message. Kay was a featured speaker at the 2011 TED conference in Long Beach, California. Also, stand up comedian Maureen Langan cracked a few grins from the majority with her brilliant wit, satire and timing.

Sarah Kay with Casey Neistat

Sarah Kay with Casey Neistat

Frank J Cunningham

Frank J Cunningham

As a poet and a genealogist with life-long interests in history and economics – one who holds a Commerce Degree from University College Galway, Ireland – I felt that I was running on all cylinders for the entire weekend. Attending the inaugural Nantucket Project was thoroughly enjoyable.

As a footnote: while everyone was looking to the future, very little emphasis was made on our past. Of course, the Great Depression was mentioned on one or two occasions. However, there were no talks of the late fifteen to sixteen centuries cultural foundations of industrial civilisations, nor references to the many lessons learnt and ones not-heeded from monumental shifts in behaviour over the last few centuries. Historically humans who have explored change were experts themselves in many fields of enquiry and their novel ideas were gleamed from this broad foundation of knowledge.

This lack of historical perspective, left me even more alienated from the (as of October 27th) 7 billion people who populate this planet, 4 billion of whom live without water or electricity (1.6 billion with no electricity). Facts stated over the weekend.

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Bare bones

The fundamental
health of nations
is just
their education.

One sculpts a shape
of what we’ll pass
to future generations.

Skeletally the rest is flab
So if the bones are poorly knitted
Disjointed form
will silhouette
a nation’s state
on canvas white -
For all Mankind to screen.

Elected leaders chiseled whole
Reverberates long past the hammer.
It’s essence shown -
In nature of our young.

Then one learns which way to turn -
within the womb.

Frank J. Cunningham 2003

All photos (except Frank J Cunningham’s) courtesy Meghan Brosnan

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