Wednesday, November 8, 2017

"Confusing times" call for clarity: Discuss!

Judy Hussie-Taylor
Exective Director and Chief Curator
Danspace Project
(photo: Michael Kirby)

In these confusing times, why and how do performing arts presenters and curators decide what work to present in their season? What is the interplay of determining factors – sociopolitical climate, curatorial vision, audience trends, diversity, the bottom line?
--publicity text for "Commissioning and Presenting in Confusing Times," an Open Spectrum Community Dialogue presented by New York Live Arts and co-curated with Brian Tate of The Tate Group

"For some reason, I kept calling this panel Presenting in A Crisis," said moderator Judy Hussie-Taylor, introducing Commissioning and Presenting in Confusing Times, hosted by New York Live Arts last week. Her alternate title made more sense, really, since most of us in the arts are not at all confused. We're clearheaded enough to be damned angry.

That sense of specific, political outrage seemed elusive at this gathering of five of New York's most powerful curators and presenters--Lili Chopra (French Institute Alliance Française), Tim Griffin (The Kitchen), Kamilah Forbes (Apollo Theater), Jay Wegman (NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts) and Hussie-Taylor herself, an innovator who has made space for award-winning "Platform" programming at historic Danspace Project.

Referring to our current American moment as "a crisis, the turning point in a disease," Hussie-Taylor suggested that her panelists might tackle four questions:

  • What needs to be explored?
  • What or who needs to be honored?
  • What or who needs to be challenged?
  • What needs to be jettisoned?

Relatively new to their positions, Forbes and Wegman are both clearly still researching, experimenting and seeking their best path at institutions with, respectively, formidable cultural legacy (the Apollo) and conventional, somewhat muddled programming (NYU Skirball). Wegman--formerly, and famously, artistic director of Abrons Arts Center--was forthcoming about challenges he faces in replacing stodgy Skirball fare with something actually attractive to NYU students. To do so, he has let go of familiar acts that, as he put it, tend to do little but recycle their material. The 2016 election re-energized his focus, inspiring him to produce more adventurous events such as an appearance by author Ta-Nehisi Coates and the U.S. premiere of a controversial Palestinian play, The Siege.

All the panelists expressed, to one degree or another, dedication to supporting artists and putting artists' needs and concerns at the center of operations--with all the practical complications that can entail. Forbes argued that the job of the institution is to be the locus of transformation and a vehicle for creating the "21st Century canon." But, for the most part, I must say I walked away still questioning how this might be achieved, not just at the Apollo, but elsewhere in what is arguably the arts capital and most progressive city of our nation.

Even in New York's dance and performance community, we are still looking at citadels of power in need of the knowledge, skill, insight and visionary courage of more women and more people of color. The expertise and talent, which I witness regularly, are out here in abundance....and not in the least in a state of confusion. 

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