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Mentorship and Leadership Initiative in Minnesota

Once a year, NPN Partners are invited to submit a proposal to the Mentorship and Leadership Initiative (MLI). During fiscal year 2009, NPN awarded 12 grants for a total of $43,000 to support the personal and professional development of NPN Partner staff. The Walker Art Center proposed a mentorship between Max Wirsing, an emerging arts leader employed as House Manager at the Walker’s McGuire Theatre, and Senior Curator Philip Bither.

Reflections on Community Engagement: an MLI reportMax Wirsing

By Max Wirsing, McGuire Theatre @ The Walker Art Center, Minneapolis

My interest in the Mentorship and Leadership Initiative originally stemmed from a curiosity about the presenting side of performance. The experience tied together two distinct and opposite roles in my life, one as an arts administrator, one as a performer and artist. On one side I’ve been working at the Walker Art Center for about four years, as House Manager for the McGuire Theater. On the other side I had been dancing with Minneapolis choreographer Morgan Thorson—an NPN Creation Fund grantee—in her latest project, Heaven, which is also a Walker commission. In terms of the lifespan of a performance, I was working intimately with the beginning and the end— the building and creation of a dance piece, and its interface with the audience. The gap in my experience was the understanding of the middle. So my mentorship proposal was to investigate how, administratively, a work of art gets to its audience. What kind of insights and planning go into presenting performance? What is ‘performance curation’ and how does it happen? My mentorship began to unpack these questions and started to fill the gap in my presenting experience.

A large part of my mentorship was simply shadowing Philip Bither, Walker’s Senior Curator of Performing Arts. I traveled with Philip to the TBA Festival in Portland, Oregon; the Arts Midwest Conference in Saint Paul, Minnesota; and to Knoxville, Tennessee for the NPN Annual Meeting. I tried to participate as much as possible at these gatherings—seeing and talking about performance, trying to visualize them on our stage and with our audience, attending meetings with Philip, and meeting fellow curators, presenters and colleagues as well as artists, managers and agents.

At the NPN Annual Meeting Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of Urban Bush Women led a workshop for artists in community. It was geared towards artists working in residencies and addressed the issues surrounding entering, creating art in, and exiting communities. At one point we formed groups designated by art form (that alone was a challenge as everyone seemed to be so multidisciplinary), and together in our groups spent ten minutes creating something to share—to bring our disparate vocabularies together to create unity. While this simple activity was meant as a tool for artists in residence to think about creating with people from varied experiences, it really began to act as a lens for my understanding of this mentorship. The idea of community became a frame of reference.

I was beginning to realize that as an arts organization the Walker Art Center is not an island, but part of a huge network of institutions that are interrelated and collaborating—sometimes merely sharing curatorial ideas, but at other times sharing financial, logistical and legal burdens. The more of these meetings and festivals that I witnessed, the more I saw the Walker as part of a community—one of several presenters, each fulfilling a specific niche in a national blanket of performing arts—some with goals of propelling the avant-garde and pushing boundaries, others supporting local community, others that celebrate cultural specificity. The community is large; its parts are many and varied, but somehow we are all connected.

As my mentorship continued, I began to think more about the impact that the project was having on me. How do I bring this all back to my everyday job as a house manager? How does this connect to audiences and patrons?

While serving the front of house at the McGuire Theater, I’ve learned that people come to shows with all sorts of backgrounds—from the greenest uninitiated patron to the performance veteran who has been seeing challenging work for years. Our community is comprised of all ranges in that spectrum. Those who’ve been around a lot of challenging work tend to know how to watch it. Learning how to watch contemporary performance is a learned skill, and these veterans have built a vocabulary. For the newcomers who don’t necessarily speak the language of contemporary performance, watching experimental work can be difficult, alienating, frustrating, confusing. In this way, many venues that present challenging work, the work that pushes boundaries and keeps the art of performance alive and moving forward, often risk alienating new audiences who might feel like they “didn’t GET it,” because they don’t necessarily have the experience to frame new aesthetics. It’s hard enough to get new people into the theater, but it’s even harder to get them to come back if they felt like they didn’t understand or connect to the work. In many ways engagement is the key to building new audiences. It’s one thing to provide audiences a chance to engage, it’s another to actually get them to do so. The more I talked to other presenters at conferences, the more I realized that most venues are using similar engagement tactics and most are encountering the same problems.

As a final project for my MLI grant, I helped Walker Program Manager Michèle Steinwald pilot a new audience engagement program that we’re calling a SpeakEasy..It’s basically an informal audience conversation that happens in the theater’s bar after the show. A SpeakEasy creates an incredibly open and informal environment that gives permission for those who may be confused to come out and say so. Because the artists themselves aren’t present during the discussion, there’s no risk of insulting them. The resulting conversation is open for both performance novices and veterans to voice their thoughts, learn from each other’s perspective, and build a common vocabulary that will shape them as audience members.

The SpeakEasy is facilitated by two people from different perspectives.  We’ve generally tried one artist from the community whose work is along the same vein as the performance and a Walker tour guide who has training and knowledge about the visual art in the permanent collection, as well as some training in creating dialogue around art and “touring techniques.” Steinwald and I drafted some guidelines for these facilitators so that they can moderate the dialogue in a way that opens the participants’ perspectives and leads them to ask more questions. It is meant to be very informal, so that everyone feels really comfortable voicing their opinions, and it has worked out really well like that.

There have been some amazing conversations. At the SpeakEasy after the Bruno Beltrao show we dove into the origins and ‘codes’ of hip-hop in ways that were really enlightening to participants who were new to hip-hop. SpeakEasy also allows our staff a chance to gauge where the audience is in their process of connecting to the performance. In a certain way, i

t works as a feedback system. One of the first things that Philip told me during my mentorship was the importance of knowing your audience. Listening to 30 people speak informally about a show they just saw is the perfect opportunity to understand the audience’s perspective, where they are coming from, and through their eyes, whether the work was effective or not. It’s a great way of getting to know your audience better.

To best summarize my experience during the Mentorship and Leadership Initiative, I would whittle it down to this: community is our best resource. We learn from each other. We learn from talking to each other and understanding the perspectives of others. Sharing perspectives allows us to grow, as it does for everyone who participates in a SpeakEasy or other audience engagement activity. Personally, sharing perspectives has been the very crux of my mentorship. Seeing the viewpoint of a curator and programmer has radically changed my perspective of my job, my institution, community, and the field of performing arts, and I am incredibly grateful for that.

Max Wirsing lives in Minneapolis where he is the Visitor Services Performing Arts Specialist at the Walker Art Center. Having studied printmaking at Carleton College, his background is in visual art, though his primary interests have shifted to performance and performance administration. He currently works as a freelance dancer, recently performing with Morgan Thorson, Justin Jones, and Karen Sherman.

The Community Fund is made possible by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts (a federal agency), the MetLife Foundation, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

March 2010




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