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


BS: Let me give you a recent example. I was working on a collaborative project with another institution. I wish I could say this was twenty years ago, but it was only last year. This major institution developed a budget in which the African artists were getting paid less than the American artists. I called the institution and said, "I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt, but what's happening here?" They replied, "Well, these artists aren't used to making this kind of money. If they receive the same amount of money as the American dancers, won't that have a negative impact on their community because they'll be taking back home all this money that will create an imbalance?" I couldn't believe it. I said, "If we are not paying all the artists the same amount, I'm out of the project." I believe in cultural and international equity. Anything else is exploitation.

PB: Going back to how we can be "nodes of information," we talk at the Walker about "sculpting a season." Part of the curatorial role is to determine what your community is ready for, to shape your programming in a way that builds a base of knowledge, to create--as much as possible within the uncontrollable aspects of touring and availability--a logical sequence for the season that can be almost like a curriculum, that can build upon what you've done in the past and be intelligible for the audience. In addition, at the Walker we have the rather rare opportunity to establish links between the disciplines, to place artists' work in an artistic continuum that stretches far beyond the specific performance form and into visual arts, literature, film and video, new media.

BS: I have to go back to the Houston International Festival, which taught me so much. One of the things we were trying to do was to give our audiences in Houston a more in-depth framework for looking at culture. It wasn't meaningful to just bring artists to perform on a stage. That's what I try to do wherever I go, which is why I present both contemporary and traditional art forms. I'm, once again, using the term traditional in the very generalized, superficial way that we use it.

PB: You feel that the traditional provides a base for people to understand the contemporary?

BS: Absolutely. I want people to know that the performing arts of Africa are not just one thing. It's not just people beating on drums. It's so much more rich and complex. When I brought six different dance companies from Taiwan in one season, I wanted people to see the many variations of form and style. I wanted to convey the range and depth of work.

PB: All the different threads of artistic directions. Do you also concentrate on a certain part of the world in a given season?

BS: I have been doing that. I'm doing less of that now. I'm actually focusing more on form and discipline and bringing folks together from different parts of the world who are connected to a form. For instance, I am producing an international festival on hip-hop culture for November 2002. We started off by having a large meeting. I just put out the word via e-mail, whatever networks I could find, asking young people in our community to come and talk about their ideas of what this conference should be. One of the first issues that came up was globalization.

PB: In what respect?

BS: They feel like we're talking about globalization as a negative thing, especially from an economic point of view--how the multinational corporations are taking over the world, how McDonald's is in every country, every nook and cranny of every continent.

PB: And cultural specificity is being lost.

BS: Cultural specificity is being lost, but they have a different take on this phenomenon. This is the first time they have had their own cultural phenomenon, hip hop, which is being exported all over the world, and they can point to it and say, "We created that. It started in our community. Now the world has caught on to it and wants it." It has empowered them. They have their own record producers. They have their own recording studios. They are making money. Young people are developing into entrepreneurs and creating multinational corporations that export American pop culture. Now we are saying that this is a bad thing.