Xaviera Simmons sits on a stage, fully dressed. She places a pair of scissors on the ground and invites the audience to come up, cut off pieces of her clothing, and take them.
Simmons is performing “Cut Piece,” a conceptual art piece created by Yoko Ono, almost 50 years after its original 1964 performance. The occasion is “Performing the Precarious: Day Into Night,” a two-evening series organized by the Danspace Project in New York City. This series hit the stage last December.
Before it could happen, though, someone had to clear it with Ono. That someone was Lydia Bell ’07 M ’12, who approached the famous Fluxus artist with a pitch planned: a thesis around the meaning of Simmons’ “reperformance.” Ono, of course, said yes, but with one caveat: She couldn’t use the word “reperformance.”
That threw a wrench into Bell’s vision for the event, but no matter. As a performance curator, her job is to work with artists not just in the theoretical but in the practical realm, turning ideas into realities. They just take a little finagling sometimes.
For that ability, she has Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance to thank. After three years and more than 30 students (Bell included), the one-of-a-kind program is transitioning to become a fully formed Masters degree, aiming to train the next generation of dance, theater, and performing arts curators.
Presenting the Ephemeral
The Institute first launched in 2011 as a 9-month certificate program, spearheaded by Center for the Arts Director Pamela Tatge and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council president Sam Miller ’75. Born as a collaboration between the CFA, arts faculty, and outside practitioners, the Institute was designed to combine intensive study and fieldwork in a previously unexplored manner.
“There are many places to go in the United States to study curating in the visual arts, but there’s no place to go to study how to organize performance,” Tatge said.
After graduating Wesleyan with a degree in theater, Miller spent years in the arts world organizing conferences and workshops and working with artists and presenters at places like the Jacob’s Pillow dance center and the New England Foundation for the Arts. He helped found the Center for Creative Research, which paired established choreographers with universities to create original projects.
Wesleyan and the Center for the Arts, under Tatge’s direction, were enthusiastic pioneers of Miller’s program. But Miller soon began asking about the future of such collaborations: Who would lead the way in supporting contemporary performance? And how would they gain the knowledge and tools to do so?
If any place could provide that education, Miller decided, it would be Wesleyan.
“Wesleyan has a historic commitment to interdisciplinary work, to contemporary artists, to different traditions and aesthetics,” Miller said. “It’s the right ground for this to grow in.”
Other curation programs only dedicate a course or two at most to curating dance, theater, or performance art, but Tatge said Wesleyan is in a unique position to offer a deeper discussion.
“We have always studied the arts in their social, cultural, [and] historical contexts. And in terms of making good curators, they are people who have…the multiple lenses through which to see a performative event, to be able to reach back and look at the influences of that artist, to that artist’s interaction with the current contemporary world,” Tatge said. “That’s how we think at Wesleyan.”
Performance curation is an odd beast: Like visual art, performance art can be situated in cultural and historical movements, and within the larger portfolio and background of an artist. Yet performance art also comes with a unique set of challenges foreign to visual art.
“Performance work is ephemeral; it exists in a moment and then doesn’t exist anymore,” Tatge said.
Bell suggests another way of thinking about performers: “Their bodies are the artwork.”
With that definition, a large part of performance curation understandably revolves around the curator developing a long-term relationship with an artist.
“There’s a whole set of responsibilities when that’s a live, living person,” Bell said. “To me, it means really putting the art and the artist first.”
Curators, Tatge said, take on the role of advocate: They maintain connections to artists even after a single show wraps up.
When Miller began at Jacob’s Pillow, he started working one-on-one with artist-choreographer Bill T. Jones over the course of a number of years. Phil Bither, Senior Curator of Performing Arts at Minneapolis’s Walker Arts Center and ICPP instructor, has commissioned choreographer Ralph Lemon to the Walker time and time again. And Tatge, through the CFA, not only commissioned playwright Leigh Fondakowski to write the play “SPILL” in the aftermath of the Gulf Coast oil disaster, but she also worked with presenters and theaters to bring that performance to venues across Louisiana.
Curator-artist relationships are mutually beneficial, both allowing the artist to grow and providing the institution with quality art.
“Maybe that work has only reached one level and could reach another level, and so maybe it’s bringing that artist back, or finding another place for that artist to take the next phase of that work,” Tatge said.
Being able to understand, organize, and support an artist’s work requires a wide variety of skills, from research to management and entrepreneurship.
“What are the resources that artist needs to realize their vision? Do they need a dramaturg? Do they need a technical person to come in?” Tatge said. “And then, how do I position this work for and offer it to a community, so I can maximize the engagement and participation of the community in that work?”
Considering the Community
ICPP walks its students through everything they see necessary to navigate the contemporary performance art world.
Students in the Institute come for an intensive two-week summer session, and for two additional weekends in the fall and spring. The classes they take include Social and Cultural Context, looking at the major art movements of the 20th and 21st centuries; Perspectives In Performance as Culture, considering the effect of personal biases and experiences on art and curation; Entrepreneurial Strategies; and Considering Site, taught by Associate Professor of Art Elijah Huge, about how architecture and design factor into performances.
Tatge’s question of community involvement plays a huge part in the thinking going on at ICPP. For Jaamil Kosoko M ’12, Assistant Curator in Humanities and Engagement at New York Live Arts, performances were one way to bring together a community.
“Early on, it was really just a sincere need for me to present work and to fulfill what I saw to be some serious cultural malfunctioning,” Kosoko said.
Performance events provide venues to inform and challenge viewers and participants about the ideas and issues fueling the art, which Kosoko must also take into consideration for the structures—the scheduling, the marketing, even the time and place—surrounding the performance itself.
“We use words like ‘feminism,’ ‘African American studies,’ ‘queer theory,’ and ‘afro-futurity,’ but these are pretty unstable signifiers,” Kosoko said. “They mean a lot of different things and have a particular connotation to various people and various communities. Something that I am really interested in is creating opportunities to situate interviews, conversations, panels, various dialogues, and opportunities for education into institutions that otherwise, because of various reasons, may not be able to put as much focus on that practice as probably they should.”
Practice is the constant companion to theory in the ICPP. Much of the program focuses on walking students through the process of curation, whether for a single event or project, an artist’s catalog, or even an arts festival. That’s also where distance learning, built into both the certificate and the Masters program, comes in.
All students undertake a field practicum—or two, for Masters students—where they spend time going deep into an original project, either with an artist or placed at an institution: the Danspace project, New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Minneapolis’s Walker Arts Center, and the University of California, Los Angeles [UCLA] are all partners.
“They’ve done interesting projects in Stanford, Ohio State, Montreal, San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia,” Miller said. “There’s already a body of work that we’re proud of.”
And because many students come to the Institute already with a position at an arts organization, those projects can go right back to the institutions where the students work and be realized. Megan Brian M ’13, Education and Public Programs Coordinator at SFMOMA, spent her practicum on a series on the relationship of humor to performance that SFMOMA then presented.
Masters students, appropriately, will have one more hurdle to clear: a thesis, which will be the major written work that many undergraduates are familiar with, and a creative output, like a festival or catalog. For professionals looking to advance in their careers, the Masters program is a much-needed credential, and the thesis is the capstone to tie together their learning.
The program, it’s interesting to note, is budget-neutral. ICPP takes no money from Wesleyan and instead self-funds entirely from tuition—around $8,000 for the certificate and $28,000 for the Masters, not including room and board—and grants.
One of ICPP’s aspirations, Miller said, is to construct a unified vision of best practice in the performance world, establishing performance curation as an independent academic field. Discussion and community play a role in this, as well: on July 25, the ICPP brought in curators from across the country for a public unveiling of the Masters program, live-streaming panels online and hosting viewing parties in Boston and San Francisco.
Kristy Edmunds, director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, said in her keynote address that art institutions have a responsibility to invest in creativity, not simply for a profit, but as an end in itself. If curators are the gatekeepers of art, as Miller described it, it is leadership’s responsibility to help them make better, educated decisions about how artists are supported and presented to the community.
“Curate, in Latin, means the protector of the soul of something,” Edmunds said. “That to me is the fundamental job description, in our case, the ephemeral and extraordinary life of what artists make and do as a singular gift into our heritage.”