Talking to Sam Miller about the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance

Sam Miller, currently the president of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, has worn many hats over the course of his career. He has been executive director of both Jacob’s Pillow and the New England Foundation for the Arts, he founded and still serves as President of the Board of LINC (Leveraging Investments in Creativity). He also is the guiding force behind the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance (ICPP) at Wesleyan University which will be the first program of its kind in the States. We were lucky enough to get a few minutes of Sam’s time to learn about this exciting new program.

CULTUREBOT: Tell us a little about how the program came about.

SAM MILLER: Going all the way back to Jacob’s Pillow and then NEFA with the National Dance Project, I’ve always worked with this idea of “How do you encourage presenters to know more and care more about dance and contemporary performance?” What knowledge do they need and what skills do they need? So its been a consistent interest of mine.

When we put together NDP one of the core goals around it was to encourage collaboration and partnerships between artists and presenters in the development and presentation of work. That system works better the more knowledgeable and committed presenters are. It shouldn’t just be about the financial incentive – there should be a passion about this interesting work.

As time went on I became concerned that you have these really interesting artists making work and audiences that have an appetite for this work…. but do we have a next generation of future presenters who have the knowledge and skills to respond to the artists’ work? How can presenters connect it to audiences most effectively? So that was my concern – my work over the past number of years has been about that connection between artists and audience and the role presenters play in the development and presentation of the work. The better the presenter is, the better off the artist will be in making that connection.

So you perceived a need for this kind of program?

As I was working independently the past couple of years – I was working with the Mellon Foundation and the Eiko and Koma Retrospective project – I spent a lot of time thinking about what does the system need and where are the gaps. It became clear to me that one of the gaps was in professional development. Judy Hussie-Taylor at Danspace was one of the people who said, “We need some kind of a place to do this.”

I had been working with Wesleyan University as an incubator on some projects so – here was the need for these leadership development programs and here was Pam Tatge at the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan saying they could respond to that need. So the three of us came together around how to develop a partnership program in response to the need.

One of the first things we did was say, “Is this kind of training being provided and is it just a function of directing people to it?” We found that there are strong programs in the visual arts – Bard, California College of Art and the great work that Independent Curators International is doing – but there wasn’t a performance-based program.

As you mentioned there already is a pretty strong infrastructure for curatorial training in the visual arts, how will ICPP integrate that?

What we’re looking for is a program that examines and takes advantage of the best features of both visual arts, media arts practices and performing arts. We’re not trying to impose the visual arts practice on performing arts or vice versa. There’s a hybrid that we’re after. How are we going to get that? We’ve put together a core faculty that draws on people from different spheres. So there’s Doryun Chong from the Museum of Modern Art, who was also at the Walker, some key Wesleyan faculty members from different departments – theater, dance, music and the visual arts – and then people like Philip Bither and Judy Hussie-Taylor who have historic experience or are currently involved in areas where there is an intersection between visual art and performing arts.

What’s the program going to look like?

There are six courses. First there’s a survey of artistic practice to look at contemporary dance and performance over the past 50-80 years and look at key movements, artists, trends and issues so people can understand where this work comes from. How do you look at it? How do you talk about it?

The second course will deal with topics in curatorial practice. We’ll talk about what’s the terminology here – how has performance historically lived in the museum and what are its characteristics. Then we’ll look at three case studies – one would be The Walker. Philip Bither can talk about when you sit around the table at a contemporary arts center and you have these conversations as curators where the visual arts curator says “I’m going to go do an exhibit that comes out in three years.” Philip then has to turn around and do a season that has 30, 40 events…. So how does curatorial practice that comes out of a contemporary art center translate in one of those institutions.

Then we are going to work with one of Judy Hussie-Taylor’s artist/curators to talk about how they work with Judy to develop a program that works within a larger season.

We’re also going to look at a small university or a community-based presenter that has worked with a single artists on the development of a project over time – so those kind of three layers of practice will be something to examine.

Then there are two contextual courses – one will be sort of a survey course – from Bauhaus to Butoh – examining what were the cultural trends that surrounded this work over the past 80 to 100 years.

The second contextual course will be looking at intercultural performance, work from multiple cultures and multiple traditions – how do we look at it? How do festivals frame it? What are are the different issues around that?

The fifth course will be entrepreneurial strategies. It will be a series of modules that look at how do we do this and what are some of the theories behind how do we do it? What’s the history and ideas around philanthropy? What’s the gift economy? What forces are we really engaging when we then turn around practically and raise money for this work?

So there will be a sort of a lecture/workshop module where we’ll look at issues around philanthropy and how you put the money together, there will be issues around social media and how it really works – network theory. But also how do you build marketing strategies and develop the networks that the work needs. So we’ll look at the practical aspects of this work. That’s important to think about in terms of how performance work differs from visual arts work in that we’re not dealing with objects, we’re dealing with the artists and we need to support them in the development of the work. We’ll look at what practical tools you need but also what theories underlie these practical strategies.

And the sixth course is the independent project which will allow each student to put together something that will allow them to use these tools in real life.

For each of the on-campus sessions there will be artists-in-residence at Wesleyan whose work we will see. They will participate in these discussions and the courses – so there will be that aspect, it will be totally present each time we’re together.

The other reason its designed as low residency with both on-campus and web-based learning is that it reflects our practice as presenters. That is – we get together and we work intensely and look at work. But we are also required to look at work online, think about work online, interact with our colleagues and artists online so the benefit of a low-residency program is not just to let professionals work and learn – it also mimics what our professional experience is actually like.

Who is the program for?

This is a low-residency, certificate program geared toward working professionals. So its two weeks in July, three days in November and three days in March on campus at Wesleyan. The rest of the time its web-based learning. We’re looking for about 20 students beginning in July of 2011. What we’re looking at are a number of different types.

First is the person who is in a presenting organization who is in the number two spot or number three spot, however you would characterize it, who has some skills – it could be a really strong marketing or development background, could be that they are really knowledgeable about music – but who says, “Hey if I had this stuff I could really do my job better and grow up to be this…” so first of all somebody in a presenting organization.

Secondly is an artist who may want to develop a curatorial capacity in terms of a career transition or as a career enhancement. they want to be able to have this practice.

The other is independent curators who want to develop these kinds of projects for performance.

Then again there may be people in smaller organizations who do come from music or visual arts who say “If I had this experience I would really be able to do a better job and advance professionally.”

The curriculum is designed to have a combination of theory and practice, so its not just curatorial theories – it is how do we do the work and not just think about the work.

What would you like to see as the outcome?

This is going to sound corny, but I do tend to think of things in sort of twenty year arcs. I’ve been working in Cambodia since 1990 and our challenge was “How do you develop the next generation of artists in Cambodia? How do you develop an independent sector?” And it doesn’t happen overnight – it takes 20 years, 10 years, 15. So I think here its not quite like that….

There are four things I’d like to have happen. First you develop the tools and knowledge that you need to do this work. Secondly because there are twenty students plus faculty – you develop a network of colleagues that you can work with going forward. Third, we’ll have not just twenty students there but we’ll have twenty projects that will be at least conceptualized – and hopefully actualized – which will illuminate what we think this practice is in its diversity. And fourthly we hope to have a publications program that allows us to reflect on what we mean by curatorial practice in performance – what characterizes it and how can we document and share that with others.


For more information about ICPP and how to apply, visit

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