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

ON JANUARY 26, 2002, Philip Bither, curator of performing arts at the Walker Art Center, and Baraka Sele, curator and producer of NJPAC World Festival, New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, sat down to discuss current issues and trends of global performing arts presenting. Following is an edited version of that conversation.

Philip Bither: During the last century, in the United States, you might say that our field witnessed an evolution from "international" to "global" programming. International programming goes back at least to the great impresarios of the early twentieth century, including Sergey Diaghilev and Sol Hurok. In addition to the presentation of large ballet companies and European classical orchestras, there was also a trickle of academic and ethnomusicological importations of culture. In the 1980s the interest in performing arts from around the world greatly expanded and the importation of music, dance, and theater became "complex and multilayered, responding to all of the interrelations of worldwide cultural, economic, trade, development and social forces."[1] There were many reasons why American festivals and art centers, large and small, broadened their interests. One was that institutions began to acknowledge that their communities had become very diverse and that the audience for the arts was not exclusively white and upper middle-class. There was a recognition of how significantly the United States was changing in terms of its demographics and how our responsibilities as presenters involve not just bringing in something other but bringing in artists and art forms from afar that relate to the communities in which we live. This also tied in to supporting residencies--a commitment, beyond merely staging work, to host global artists in our communities for longer periods of time, allowing deeper relationships and understanding to develop between artists and communities.

Today, the concept of global arts presenting continues to shift. An interest in investigating these issues and the potential for constructing new models was a primary motivation for our establishing a global advisory committee. What are your current thoughts about where our field is heading on these issues, and what impact has your participation on the committee had on your work?

Baraka Sele: Participating on the Walker's global advisory committee caused me to start thinking about what globalism means. Obviously, that's been at the core of so many of our conversations. How do I define global? What does global programming mean? No one I know has effectively defined globalism as it relates to aesthetics, culture, and artistic practice. So I said, "I'm going to have to define it for myself. What does global mean for me?" I've been working almost twenty-one years in this profession. From the beginning, I've been bringing in artists from around the world. In my opinion, that is international programming.

So then, what does global programming mean? I decided that, for me, it means not only impacting my own communities and the artists who are active where I live, but impacting the communities of the artists I am presenting.

1 "International Presenting in the United States: A Field Assessment Report," prepared for Pew Charitable Trusts by Gerald D. Yoshitomi, Japanese American Cultural and Community Center, Los Angeles, California, and William Keens and Laura Lewis Mandeles, Strategic Grantmaker Services, Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 30, 1995.