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

BS: Yes. But, it took us five years to get to the final products. After three years, I sat down with David Abilio Mondlane [artistic director of the Mozambique company] and Jawole Jo Zollar [artistic director of the Urban Bush Women] and asked, "Where do you want to go from here?" One of the things that David said was, "We need technical support and expertise." I was surprised. I said, "Do you know what? For the next two seasons, I'm not going to present you." I felt this would diffuse the pressure to create a "final product" and allow them to focus on deepening the entire creative process. We wanted Global Exchange to include not only artists and artistic directors but also technical personnel. The idea was that if Jawole has a lighting designer, a tech designer, a costume designer with whom she's working, they too could go to Mozambique to work with colleagues there, to train people there, so that the development process occurs on all levels.

PB: It seems like a next step in the evolution is the very issue that you're tackling with the Global Exchange program, which is about reinvesting in communities afar. How do you respond to board or community resistance in the form of people saying, "Hey, we contributed this money to support the arts in Newark. We are concerned, but we really can't separately support the artists of Mozambique, except through fees when they come here to perform"?

BS: First of all, NJPAC does understand, both at a staff and at a board level, the importance of having an international profile and recognition. They also want to be perceived as an innovator in the field. One of the conversations that's occurring at the board level, even during this time of downturn in the economy when we're all being very cautious because of the tragedy of September 11, is, "We don't want our organization to become fearful and insular. We want the programming department and the curators to be forward-thinking, forward-looking, and talking about taking intelligent risks. After we, hopefully, get out of this belt-tightening mode, how will the curators think about expanding the program?" When I took on Global Exchange, knowing that it would be labor-intensive work, I did a strategic analysis of my World Festival series, taking a critical look at what I had done for the first two or three years, in order to decide how I wanted to move forward. I determined that I absolutely needed to cut back on main-stage programming. In the first two years of NJPAC World Festival, I presented between forty and fifty-five performances a season. I now do somewhere between eighteen and twenty-five, because we're putting more emphasis on residencies, humanities, Global Exchange.

PB: You referred to the impact of September 11, on the world in general, of course. One of the things that I am particularly concerned about in our field is the impact of renewed nationalism on people's interest in or ability to bring artists from abroad to the United States--the possible rejection of our role as world citizens and a reluctance, perhaps, to be as fully engaged as our field has been over the last ten years with arts from around the world. For me, this makes the Walker's global initiative an incredibly important way to provide leadership, in attempting to expand our role globally while remaining very concerned about issues of equity. How has September 11 affected the nature of our field right now, four months after this tragedy?

BS: On September 11, I was in Amman, Jordan, as a guest of Arts International, based in New York, and the Middle East Center for Culture and Development, which is also based in New York but has an arm in Amman. It was interesting … the initial reaction of the presenters who were there with me was to think, "Oh no, perhaps we're not going to be able to present work from the Middle East any time soon." But in all fairness, there was also the opposite reaction. We also thought this could be an opportune time to focus on the Middle East, even though some people felt this might be problematic in their communities, especially considering what we heard was happening in terms of violent reactions toward Arab-Americans in the United States. We were certainly conscious and even somewhat cautious about the vulnerability of our group while we were there, what could happen in response to this antagonism.

A journalist was on that trip with us, and she called me several weeks later to ask, "What art will you be bringing from Jordan or the Middle East?" First of all, we were there for only three and a half days. We saw very little work. We saw work that was out of context. I said, "I don't really know what I saw in Jordan so I can't say that I'm going to bring artists from that country or even from other parts of the Middle East. I'm going to have to study more. I'm going to have to learn more. I don't know if I will be able to return to that part of the world any time soon because we don't know what's going to happen, especially if a war in Afghanistan breaks out. But I'm absolutely committed to working with artists in that part of the world. That's why I traveled there in the first place."