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This Revolution will be CrowdSourced

by Michèle SteinwaldMichèle Steinwald

Last year I received an NPN Mentorship and Leadership Initiative award to support my participation at the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University, or “curator camp” as my classmates and I called it.

It is rare to write a grant proposal for yourself as an administrator. Artists however do it all the time. They defend themselves, their work, and upcoming projects and partnerships, considering the values in their proposed outcomes, in order to find funds and move their work forward. Putting down on paper why I deserved five thousand dollars to pay tuition and travel to better myself, build new skills, contribute to the field, etc. was a watershed moment for me. The act of asking makes you accountable to others. In the granting systems that make our work possible, I recognize we ask a lot of artists. Now, having been through it personally, on top of a master’s level course load, the process gave me more that I could have imagined a year ago.

By describing my opportunities at work and my desire to study in Connecticut to further those, I put an arbitrary milestone in the continuum of my thinking process and career. I wanted to expand my abilities and reflect on what is to come, what is my position in it all, and what do I want to focus on in the future? My day-to-day at that point was busy doing administrative tasks, producing events, and making the most of the museum environment on behalf of performing artists and their works. I noted that as my curatorial elders, the baby boomers in performing arts, plan to leave their posts for retirement, the world of presenting contemporary performance will be a very different place from when they started decades ago. Will their jobs even exist after their departures? I had to prepare myself and consider a field in flux.

In 2004, before ICPP existed, I lived in Seattle and made a trip to New York City to interview the pioneering managers from the Dance Co-op. The Dance Co-op, which no longer exists, was a pick-up group of freelance agents and independent choreographers who got together during Arts Presenters to make visible the work of experimental dance artists during the January conference. I had just worked on a pilot program for the National Dance Project called the Regional Dance Development Initiative, contributing to its curriculum for emerging choreographers to identify their artistic strengths and define their unique career opportunities. There hadn’t been the equivalent for me as a young curator even though I had the same questions and confusions as an independent dance artist trying to make her way in this field. What I learned from Dance Co-op founders, Tricia Pierson, Barbara Bryan, Janet Stapleton, and Carla Peterson, is that you do what you are good at, what comes naturally. Since there is too much work to be done by any one person, it is best to start with the aspects and artists that you align with through your own working methods and artistic tendencies.

I have tried over the years to become a true renaissance woman, with multiple hats and abilities in all areas of arts administration, but I always come back to rest on the fact that one person can’t be all things to all people and my talents are different from others’ talents and that we all complement each other, so the more the merrier, working together, amen.

While at ICPP in 2013, it became impossible for me to create a curatorial rationale around a proposed live event (our final assignment), because the more I thought about my priorities, I no longer felt comfortable with moving a performance idea forward without first reconsidering the conditions on which we continue to rely to make it all happen. Ticketing, marketing, scheduling, all within a template – these are in need of investigation in order to identify their corollary attributes and stretch them for relevant variations and alternatives, in order to better suit a specific artistic experience and desired outcome. Every possible presentation combination (8 p.m. show on a Friday after a work week versus 2 p.m. matinee on a Sunday) has values built into it. I needed time to slow down and consider how they are ingrained in our work before subjecting these to an artistic perspective or specific production. The artists I admire most already intuitively re-position these constraints in ways to create inclusiveness within the proscenium hierarchy, so I wanted to follow their lead and find where I can be more flexible and aware of the means and innate behaviors for myself.

As a result, my final project for ICPP was more manifesto in the form of a thesis than a potential programming plan. This document is now a handbook for my artistic practice as an administrator and reminder to do what comes naturally.  It is also an offering to those who are questioning and considering alternatives within their practice. Since ICPP, I know that I enjoy writing and want to get better at it, want to make a difference in how we present experimental dance, and promise to start every initiative with artists as the prioritizing voices at the table.

In April 2014, I presented this perspective at Envisioning the Practice: Montréal International Symposium on Curating the Performing Arts, the first of its kind in North America. We don’t always have time to get perspective in our job situations. School forced it on me at the right time.  I am careful of what I wish for but am glad that I did.

Since retiring as a dancer and choreographer, Steinwald has managed performing arts projects and professional development programs for On the Boards (Seattle), New England Foundation for the Arts/National Dance Project (Boston), DanceUSA (DC), and the Deborah Hay Dance Company (Austin). She joined the Walker Art Center (Minneapolis) in October of 2006 as Assistant Curator for the Performing Arts and remained in that role until summer of 2013. She recently graduated from the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at Wesleyan University (thanks to MLI) and is currently an independent curator and dance producer.

May 2014




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