Walker Art Center
Content, Context, and Cultural Commitment: Curating the Performing Arts

and part Chinese-American. She had researched her own family history and family tree and found out that there was a time when Newark, New Jersey, had a larger Chinatown than New York City. We decided to create a humanities project around her discovery. We gave her financial support to do research, work with the library, dig in archives, do oral histories. Then when we finally did the formal presentation of it at the Newark Public Library, approximately two hundred people came. Half of that audience consisted of former residents of that Chinatown which had been destroyed. The other half were white people and African Americans who were just curious about the project. So these communities came together and connected.

PB: Let's talk a little bit about the different traditions that exist in visual art and performing art curating, about the appropriateness of the very concept of curating the performing arts. The title of "curator" stems from a need to move away from the concept that one is merely booking artists, a need to understand programming with the same level of seriousness and historical context that has defined curatorial practice in the visual arts. What our field hasn't caught up with is the depth of academic experience. There are only a handful of master's programs in arts administration, and those tend to be focused primarily on logistical and financial aspects. They're often part of MBA programs. There certainly are performance study concentrations and there are postgraduate programs in theater, music, dance, but there is little academic focus on multidisciplinary practice. People in our field have tended to come from a variety of backgrounds and they've learned as they've gone along. Perhaps another thing that, in some way, differentiates our practice from the visual arts is that all the performing art curators I have ever known are also producers. What this means is that you have to be knowledgeable about and adept at budgeting, fundraising, marketing, working the press, handling audiences, and constantly working directly with living artists to support and nurture their work, even sometimes producing the work by bringing the right forces together. There is little time to ponder the historical underpinnings that inform your practice.

BS: Not only is our field lacking in the very areas that you described but, at some point, we are going to have to--and this always scares people--start doing some codifying, create some sort of academic discipline to deal with this vacuum. Booking, presenting, programming, and curating are now four totally distinct areas of our field, and I continue to wear all four hats.

PB: As much as we both can rightfully critique our field, there is something honest about having to face your own audience night in and night out. It's not to say that you mold your programming to follow your audiences' interests. But perhaps a danger of functioning strictly as a curator is the possibility of becoming disengaged from the living population in your own community. One might end up curating more for the scholars or for fellow curators. When you position yourself as the fulcrum between artist and audience, you move beyond theory and focus on connecting the work back to the living, breathing audience members, the local communities, and the local artists who are essential to the relevancy of our institutions.

I sometimes joke that the badge of "curator" comes from a certain amount of agonizing over the choices. That's partly why I lie awake at night before I announce a season or a program. You are in the position, especially when you're working globally, of choosing one out of thousands. How do you define those choices? How do you set the criteria? How can you defend them? How do you understand the work well enough to be able to engage with it beyond personal, subjective taste?

BS: That's actually something I wanted to ask you.

PB: I think it requires understanding as much as we possibly can the traditions that have led to an artist's work, certainly taking into account a broad critical perspective, but not being driven exclusively by it. I look at a variety of criteria: the work having some connection to tradition, even the avant-garde traditions, or working against those traditions in an interesting way; artists who are able to articulate where they stand with their work and why they're doing what they're doing, even if it's provocative and sometimes outrageous; a personal passion about what they're doing. Some people will say to us, "You can't just program what you like, you have a responsibility to your whole community, for taking all the other interests into account," but I don't fully buy that. If I'm not excited about an artist, if the work doesn't move me or make me think differently or wake me up to