The National Performance Network was founded in 1985 to address a national dilemma: artistic isolation and economic restraints that constrict the flow of creative ideas within and among communities, independent artists, and locally-engaged arts organizations in the United States. Founder David R. White, then executive director of New York City’s Dance Theater Workshop (DTW), called together a group of 14 artist-centered, geographically-diverse presenting organizations to imagine together how these challenges might be met, and the group of organizations (known as Partners) became the National Performance Network, a robust network of 19 adventurous and dedicated founding Partners and a centralized source of national funding for the presenting of performing artists.
Over the next dozen years, NPN developed a deeper intention around the composition of its network, prioritizing historically marginalized voices and clarifying its values around equity and justice. The network doubled in size by the late 1990s, engaging more organizations of color, artist-led organizations, and geographically-isolated presenters. During this time, NPN also developed new programs to support commissioning, deeper community engagement, and leadership development for its Partners; and, through DTW’s Suitcase Fund, participated in international exchange programs.
In 1998, NPN separated from Dance Theater Workshop, and under the leadership of San San Wong became an independently incorporated not-for-profit organization. In 2000, MK Wegmann – a founding NPN board member and long-time Partner – was appointed president and CEO, and the national office moved to New Orleans.
The 2000s was a time of expansion, as NPN led new initiatives responsive to the changing world around us and the needs of artists. In 2002, NPN developed its own international program – Performing Americas – designed to promote equitable exchanges between the U.S., Latin America, and the Caribbean; the international program expanded in 2011 to also include the U.S.-Japan Connection. In 2006, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, NPN leveraged its national resources to assist in the recovery of New Orleans community-based organizations and artists. This work established NPN’s Local Network, an intentional learning community engaging in peer-to-peer exchanges and collaboration, offering technical assistance, and educating artists and arts leaders about planning, financial management, and resource development. And in 2007, NPN founded the Visual Artists Network (VAN), welcoming 15 new Partners in 2009 committed to nurturing the creation and exhibition of experimental work by under-recognized visual artists across the U.S.
NPN/VAN launched its largest initiative to-date – Leveraging a Network for Equity (LANE) – in 2014, a multi-year, multi-million-dollar program to address historical inequities and lack of investment in small and mid-sized culturally-specific and geographically-isolated organizations. LANE provides methodology and resources for long-term sustainability to some of NPN/VAN’s most vulnerable Partner organizations, and offers new models and learnings for the field as a whole.
In 2015, NPN/VAN opened a 7,000-square-foot multi-tenant, multi-use arts facility in New Orleans – Arts Estuary 1024. The building not only provides office and meeting space to NPN/VAN, it serves as a resource, gathering place, event space, and community hub for other New Orleans cultural organizations.