How can you support a work without knowing where it’s going?
“It’s not easy work to present, easy work to explain or market, and it’s not inexpensive either,” admits Ann Rosenthal, Executive Director of MAPP International Productions and the administrative force behind multimedia artist Ralph Lemon. Rosenthal has been working with Lemon since 1995, the year he dissolved his New York based dance company in favor of a project-by-project creative model. Over the past 15 years, Rosenthal has helped bring Lemon’s decade-long The Geography Trilogy to fruition, along with numerous other projects, from video installations to book publications.
I spoke with Rosenthal about the process of producing Lemon’s current project, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (HCYS), which premiered at the Krannert Center in Illinois in September, and tours the country this fall with NYC performances from October 13-16 as part of BAM’s Next Wave series. A sprawling endeavor that includes a live performance, a visual art installation and an exhibition, HCYS has been five plus years in the making, with 17 artistic collaborators and performers, and significant contributions generated by Lemon’s relationship with Walter Carter, a former sharecropper in Betonia, Mississippi. The mainstage theatrical component of HCYS is made up of three sections that weave together dance, film, and live narration. Complementing this is a separate installation, “Meditation,” presented in an empty theater following the performance run, an exhibition of drawings and photographs, plus The Walter Film, which tells the story of Lemon’s work with Carter.
So how does a project of this magnitude and scope come together for an artist who has explicitly chosen to work outside of the conventional presenting and funding system for the arts in this country (aka the single choreographer who makes new work each year)? Rosenthal points out that “the scale that Lemon works on means that it takes a long time to put together.” The themes and some of the material for what became HCYS came out of Lemon’s Come Home Charley Patton (2004), the final installment of The Geography Trilogy. As Lemon was wrapping up Come Home Charley Patton, he deepened his relationship with Walter Carter, and this evolved into what Rosenthal informally called the “The Walter Project.” This yielded several video and visual art projects, including (the efflorescence of) Walter, shown in Minneapolis, NYC, and New Orleans. By 2006, The Walter Project began morphing into HCYS, and Rosenthal started fundraising with an eye towards a full-scale performance work.
Rosenthal secures grants from government sources and private foundations, but Lemon is able to work the way he does because of a core group of presenters and residency centers that have supported his work for many years. “They are amazing, they say yes even when they don’t even know what the work will be,” Rosenthal admits. “We couldn’t make this work if we didn’t have these partnerships.”
Philip Bither, the Senior Performing Arts Curator at The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, emphasizes that, “Ralph Lemon is an important artist who has a vision that needs to be supported.” Bither, who has commissioned a number of performance and visual arts projects from Lemon over his 13-year tenure at The Walker, was one of the first presenters to commit to HCYS back in early 2008. But he points out that working with Ralph requires a certain “leap of faith” since “he is interested in not really explaining the work before people see it. That asks a lot from both presenters and audiences.” Bither was also quite frank in saying that “Ralph’s work has never been easy to sell. We have the luxury of supporting a risk, taking programmatic chances that we really believe in.”
The fact that Lemon’s work is increasingly inhabiting multiple disciplines has helped expand his potential funding base, and also made HCYS attractive to large presenting institutions that seek out cross-disciplinary projects. Angela Mattox, Performing Arts Curator at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, committed to HCYS in 2008 and noted, “I think it’s imperative for curators to find ways to embrace an artist’s full vision, and in particular artist’s visions that defy conventional presenting models. As a contemporary art center, we think deeply about the ways we can encourage our audiences to move fluidly between the artistic disciplines.” In addition to the performance of HCYS, Yerba Buena is presenting the accompanying visual art exhibition and screening the sci-fi film, Solaris, which influenced Lemon’s work with Carter.
This isn’t to make the realization of HCYS sound smoother than it was. Rosenthal had the unenviable job of putting the project together at the height of the country’s economic woes. Many presenters weren’t able to contribute at as high a level—via direct financial support or in the form of residencies—as in the past. As a result, the rehearsal process was very fragmented, with a total of 16 weeks with all the performers between March 2008 and September 2010. The final creative budget for the work was $550,000 for September 2007-September 2010.
While Lemon has successfully skirted the ‘new work every year’ model for funding, the project-driven approach is harder to escape. As Rosenthal diplomatically puts it, Lemon “finds the creative and research process incredibly satisfying. However, in order to support this process, there has to be a product.” HCYS has an intensive national tour schedule this fall, but there are questions as to what happens next. Lemon is starting work on a film that tackles a specific angle of HCYS with videographer Shoko Letton, but beyond that, he doesn’t have big new project on the docket. Under the U.S. arts funding system—both public and private sources—if there isn’t a project meant for public consumption, there’s nothing to raise money for. It’s a situation Rosenthal finds “scary and frustrating,” although she’s hoping the foothold Lemon is starting to establish in the visual art world will provide a viable source of income going forward.
In the meantime, Lemon reflects, “Most of the funding I get to do everything that I do comes from the dance funding world, and I am grateful, devoted, but not faithful! I am in love with all of it, the questions, the research, the people, alive and dead, the performances, the anti-performances, the videos, the drawings, the paintings, the writing…they really are all the same to me, just different.”