In Conversation With David White
Kyoung H. Park, The Brooklyn Commune’s Cultural Democracy and Representation team coordinator, interviewed David White, Artistic and Executive Director of the Yard, former Executive Director of Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts) and founder of The National Performance Network / Visual Artists Network.
I’m glad we could find the time to make this happen. How are you?
I’m doing fine, thanks. Yourself?
I’m doing well.
Why don’t you recapitulate what you’re doing and why?
OK. I’m part of the Brooklyn Commune, which is this artist-led, grassroots initiative, and we’re researching the contemporary performing arts field. We have different research teams, some focusing on issues of labor and value, some are speaking with funders and addressing issues in philanthropy… My research has been focused on issues of diversity and social inclusion, but all of our research is going to be integrated to look at how different factors are intertwined. In the end, we’re looking for a more holistic approach to what’s going on…
Meaning, understanding the way the landscape operates…?
Yeah, understanding how the landscape is operating and looking for places where changes could be made. Hopefully, we’ll be able to look into the field and provide alternatives or solutions.
When you say field, you’re talking about the field, more broadly, right? As in multidisciplinary.
Yeah, multidisciplinary. We’ve interviewed choreographers, performers, playwrights, directors, who identify within the scope of our research, which is focused on issues of race, age, gender, disability, sexual orientation. Now, I’m approaching the subject with arts leaders. Do you have any questions…?
Well, the basic ontological question I have always had is, How does dance relate to the national defense? But having not being able to answer that question to date, it’s nevertheless kept me motivated all of these years. That comes from my background as a youngster in the anti-war movement and the kind of community-organizing that went around back in the late 60’s.
You know, I actually started my playwriting career right after 9/11 and I was born and raised in Chile, so September 11th always had this history—
After 9/11 happened, I realized my writing was becoming very political and I ended up doing a peace studies program in Korea and my research was based on all of the anti-war movements happening post-9/11. That’s been a concern for me as an artist, on how to approach issues of cultural violence, cultural non-violence, and the role of the artist in this. I don’t know if we can broach that subject in the context of this interview, but I would be really fascinated in that conversation.
If I ever get to writing an autobiography, I thought it would be called “A Dance During Wartime”, just because, at least in my lifetime, we’ve lived through a series of wars beginning with Vietnam, and including the conservative tide and the AIDS devastation of our field, and our peers, not to mention any or all of the culture wars, foreign and domestic.
Yeah, I wish more conversations like these were happening because I really think there is a relationship between war and the way our field operates.
Donna Uchizono, a contemporary, modern artist in New York, was getting a Master’s and writing about the period of time in which she came of age as a choreographer in New York, which was in the 80’s.
She was talking about herself in reference to people like John Jasperse and Neil Greenberg and Tere O’Connor, all of whom came out of Dance Theater Workshop, which was the organization I ran for 28 years. She was asking a lot of people what they thought about that period, to characterize what their formative experience was as a group, at that generational moment. I simply responded: “death.”
For artists growing up through the 1980’s, it was almost impossible to ignore the fact that people were dropping like flies from unexplainable kinds of illnesses and at the same time, trying to justify any type of artistic content other than that—the loss of so many people who were so dear to people in the field as a whole.
I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about it consciously, but when she asked me the question, it sort of popped out. It just seemed to me that some important artists and pieces dealt with it, such as Neil Greenberg’s The “Not-About-AIDS” Dance, which of course, it was all about, because he was HIV positive and his brother died of AIDS. So all of these issues, if not looming in the background, were trickling into the work even if political, socially topical work is the hardest to achieve on purely artistic grounds.
But we don’t have to talk about death.
I think that the political nature of art and the political context in which artists are making art is sometimes separated, and when artists make political pieces, or works about politics, they’re scrutinized for their engagement in political discourse, and not an aesthetic one. I think that conversations between what’s political and what’s aesthetic and whether the political could be beautiful, or whether there are more beautiful politics, are not questions that we often ask ourselves when we’re watching art.
Well, in various historic moments, that creates friction in the field. The question of whether you can be a socially relevant artist without dealing with a kind of civic template. But can you really work as an artist without being, in a sense, a daily worker shoulder to shoulder with anybody else holding any kind of job?
It’s amazing to think that there were any golden years in the arts, but for many, many years, there was a public support of the arts, which began with Nelson Rockefeller and the New York State Council of the Arts in the mid-50’s. Nancy Hanks went off to Washington with Jacob Javits, and essentially, using Rockefeller’s model, created the National Endowment for the Arts. You also had John F. and Jackie Kennedy, who were strong cultural consumers and certainly raised the profile of art as a matter of public policy, and even Lady Bird Johnson with the beautification of America, brought up a lot of issues related to art.
All of this support came along from the fact that artists were being valued and a lot of artists came to expect that their lot in life was to be deserving of a grant from somebody, as opposed to finding their way into an overall working community which, on the one hand, would be art-centric, and on the other, be not art-centric, but much more—I don’t want to say political—but socially conscious, socially engaged. There’s always been that tension on either side of that coin and the arts community has a hard time getting political.
I mean, The Fugs and Allen Ginsberg, among many other artists, would sign massive, full-page ads in papers against the Vietnam War. People do that for all sorts of reasons, but I think that’s a legitimate way to publicize something and certainly a lot of people, like The Fugs, figured out a way to create a kind of public performance art that set out to raise consciousness.
Its ultimate embodiment came with Act Up and Gran Fury in the real meat of the AIDS battles, figuring out how public art could convey extraordinarily strong messages while at the same time, promote needle exchanges, etc., etc…
There was an evolution to what happened with Act Up in the 80’s. As public perception changed, that artist/activist kind of model had to evolve when the issues reached the mainstream consciousness and there was a greater tolerance and advocacy for the issues in multiple levels of society.
Yeah, but there were a lot of moving parts. AIDS, as massive an oppressive force as it was, was also in a sense, a call to arms in identity politics.
The AIDS crisis coincided with a broader sweep of identity politics for Latinos, African-Americans, Native Americans, and resulted in post-Spalding Gray monologues, which were a vehicle for this kind of artmaking—you know: my story is a universal story of a particular people or subculture, which wasn’t always true, but in a sense, it was a mechanism and a tool of choice for standing out loud, for slicing and dicing the culture at large into these smaller and smaller identifying pieces.
Then, you had the rising conservative tide and looking back at all these years, it started rather modestly with Ronald Reagan, even though we thought it was the death of the arts in America at that time.
It was really under George Bush the first that we reached a turning point around 1990, 1992, when there were homophobes—the Pat Buchanans—in the culture wars and the tide came to full force with the NEA Four: Karen [Finley], John [Fleck], Tim [Miller], and Holly [Hughes]… All of them worked in the National Performance Network that I had created, the NPN, with no screams of protests anywhere, but at some point they got singled-out by Jesse Helms and others as poster children for a perverse culture that was going to destroy our kids.
During the Clinton Administration, Jane Alexander axed all the fellowships except the Heritage Artists and literary grants at the National Endowment for the Arts. In a slew of areas—most particularly in dance and the visual arts—it was no longer possible for the NEA to fund an artist directly. The official conversation about the arts in America would, for the first time, continue with no primary participation by artists.
After that point, funding to artists had to go through third-party organizations and the government created a number of obstacles there as well, ultimately restructuring the NEA, along the lines of decision-making that reflected what Lynne Cheney had previously done at the National Endowment for the Humanities.
All of that torpedoed for good, on a national level, whatever remaining public consensus there might have been towards the arts in America, and about the value and citizenship of working artists in civil society.
Do you think that the private support that rose to respond to the challenges of artists is not considered part of public opinion?
Yes, this new phenomenon was mitigated at different times through private forces. First of all, NEA funding and influence was on a downward slide throughout the 80’s, but that coincided with an uptick in funding in state agencies around the country. State art agencies became very, very important after the crash and recession of ‘89-‘90 – you have to remember, we are now emerging from only the latest, of a series of recessions, each of which have left a wound on the artistic (and educational) spirit, not to mention on the ever more inclusive cultural landscape.
In the 90’s, states became the targets of budget cutting and that’s when private foundations became more important, since they picked up the slack of what was being lost in the states.
It was really this past recession in which all the funding arrows finally pointed down together. States were hit hard. The federal government was hit hard, obviously, and so were foundations and corporations. Foundations particularly were hit really hard because endowments were slashed and all foundation giving is percentages of endowments.
I think that based on statistics, most foundations, as of now, have seen their endowments recover to their pre-2008 levels. But it’s taken seven years to get back.
Do you feel that the public consensus of the arts has ever returned?
Well, I would say cities have certainly taken it up. Look at Providence, which is a city in a state that has the worst unemployment in the United States—yet Providence itself has rebuilt itself along arts lines, including its WaterFire, and seems to now have a vibrant cultural life.
In New York, a billionaire like Bloomberg imposed a diversion of progressive culture and in fact, Bloomberg was one of those people that stepped up anonymously after 9/11 and put his own money into the pipeline and served about 132 small to large organizations in all 5 boroughs. For all the talk of his occasional arrogance, that targeted post-tragedy generosity is something not often remarked upon — even as funds were being lost in the city, he made sure that those cuts would not have an extreme consequence on the artistic character and workforce of the city. It was as important an effect on distressed cultural production as Gates’ was on the fight against malaria.
There have been states that have been up and down, such as California—the California Arts Council was de-funded at certain times—but cities like San Francisco, cities like LA, seem to be doing relatively well.
I think what’s happened is pretty much a given now. I would say that this is beginning to reflect what a lot of progressive politics are headed towards, which is at the local level.
For example, if climate change is going to be worked on as a matter of policy, the assumption now is that major solutions have to come from the cities, and maybe rural communities, up to the states, and I think that culture at this point will be a composite of a lot of local efforts working their ways up from the grassroots.
Then, you’ll have organizations like the National Performance Network, where you have all these local, mostly community-based leaderships encouraged to come together as a peer national action community, and you’ll give them money in return for their absolute attention to the living lessons that different people are teaching one another through best activist practices at a variety of communities. Then, you’ll uncover through synchronicity these natural, organic partnerships moving forward.
Do you think that this shift is due to a need for new artistic leadership or is this a re-articulation of the relationship between the artists and their community?
Well, we talked about how foundations stepped up in the 90’s, but one of the things the foundations began to do was to couple goals. In other words, they began to say: we want to support the arts, but we want to see the arts address these other social goals, as well. And this is when you saw a big structural shift, and this again, coincided with the cultural wars which told all the artists out there, “No, there’s isn’t a public consensus.”
Many of those parents who sent their kids to band practice or ballet school, gave a shit about what you were doing as an artist, so you know, artists were to some degree, on their own. But even more to the point, they were themselves somewhat to blame for not having built these alliances with, what I would refer to, as a larger non-arts working community. And artists don’t often show up at the theater on Friday because they work constantly on whatever their own chosen craft or business is.
So as artists began to realize what they had at stake, they had no choice but to now represent, and there was an additional incentive to get out into communities and figure out how to work inside of and with them.
Historically, we had always been a small band of artists who had historically done work in a community-based political way, like Liz Lerman with Dancers of the Third Age (inter-generational dance in Washington DC), John Malpede with Los Angeles Poverty Department, or Rhodessa Jones, who was working with women in prisons.
But beginning in the early 90’s, artists who had historically moved back and forth from studio to stage and maybe taught an occasional master class or public workshop, were now researching potential collaborations, pedestrian work in communities, and they were creating models that were then translatable to other communities with similar demographics.
Stuart Pimsler and Suzanne Costello started working with caregivers, people who worked in medical institutions, creating pieces and participatory story-telling; and sure enough, a market place emerged around that kind of creative research.
Keith Antar Mason, an African-American artist from South Central— a tough-minded artist-advocate created work that was about empowering black men and their stories. Originally, Keith worked out of Highways, an alternative space in Santa Monica. But all of a sudden, through a mechanism like the National Performance Network, where people shared the processes of community cultural engagement, Keith was seen by people like Carolelinda Dickey, a Caucasian woman who ran the Pittsburgh Dance Council (a very different kind of organization), as a specialist in community building, not in audience development.
Pittsburgh had a long history trying to cope with a lot of issues in the black population and she discovered Keith. Personality-wise, she was 180 degrees from Keith and they spent a year dynamically arguing in front of the NPN, where a lot of these issues began to get sorted out, community to community. After that year of dialectic, she brought in Keith to do an extensive residency working with black men in Pittsburgh in what turned out to be a hugely successful project.
So the field itself had to create laboratories and I have to say that the National Performance Network was one of the first, and remains remarkably enduring as it approaches its 30th year. I created it and I ran it out of DTW for fifteen years before we spun it off as a separate non-profit corporation (see www.npnweb.org) now based in New Orleans.
Luckily, a regionally elected Steering Committee that governed the policy of NPN under DTW was in the position to make a transition over eighteen months to be a Board of Directors. It was shaky at first, but the reality is that it’s been able to sustain itself in the national funding community somewhat unbelievably to all of us. Those who were building it hoped that it would grow into a continuing entity, but no one could conceive promising that it would be, given the nature of ephemeral funding in the arts.
Somehow, foundations kept stepping up to it until the NPN became indispensable—an emerging artist and mentorship marketplace of both progressive ideas and financing.
Well, I think this is when we go back to that question of arts and politics. If you’re doing work at a local level and crossing issue-based, class-based, and race-based issues, and gathering to discuss them publically, then you’re creating a civic forum for that discussion—
The moment you give people a place at the table (which anybody who was brought into the NPN automatically had), and gave them equal voice, then, the entire baggage of years of denial of that role come out.
For me, as a white guy named White during that period, I realized the opportunity to do something that tapped in both where the zeitgeist of things were going, but also the reality of where the country was going, not as a kind of melting pot but as an evolving culture of cultures.
This kind of laboratory was a place where things could be worked out, just as artists in general have to discover these issues on their own and work through very tricky kinds of relationships. I mean, you saw in the 80’s in Europe, a new generation of artists beginning to discover the colonial roots of their countries, say in France or Netherlands. They would hop over to Africa and create a kind of post-colonial work, which actually in its trappings looked very much like colonial work, and of course, it’s utterly understandable because these are the roots of their history and they’re trying to address, however imperfectly, their history. There were no models for this kind of engagement backward into a history that is characterized by its colonial rule and the exploitative wealth and cultural divide…
In the beginning, there were a small group of organizations of color that joined the NPN but it was hard to figure out where a far greater number lay because we were looking at the so-called “alternative spaces.” Most of them, even if they were progressive and inclusive in their program, were white-run because to some extent, the alternative space movement was a reaction to the institutional side of the dominant culture.
So, if you looked for other organizations serving Native American needs, Asian-American needs, Latino, or African-American needs—it didn’t seem that there were any organizations doing that. Of course, there were, when we drilled down—as this was happening within social service organizations, inside certain colleges and community-based organizations that were not arts organizations per se on the surface, but that were in fact, supporting a crucial community-based cultural mission.
Once we began to understand that, then it was easy to find the people and invite them to become part of this. But at certain points we reached critical mass on things. For example, we were designing something and not getting anywhere, and at midnight, James Borders—who was working with Junebug Productions in New Orleans—and John O’Neill—a famous African-American civil rights artist—came up to me and said: the organizations of color have decided to join together in something called the People of Color Caucus and James said: “We’ve come up with a list of suggestions.”
It was one of those moments, like a scroll in the cartoons that unrolls down and out into the distance. I looked at James and I said: “Man, this is your work, you know what I mean? You have the voices, you have the table, all you have to do is to persuade everybody else and this becomes part of our policy. You don’t have to persuade me.”
That was always the case because we always felt that we had to find some point of equilibrium between the different points of views. There were a lot of people at the NPN, some referred to as the grumpy, old white men, who just wanted to make their artistic decisions and go home. Then, there were the community organizers who thought everybody should be vying for social sainthood.
Within those extremes, we had a lot going on in the middle and the reality was that most people were doing some mix of both, in order to serve both their own communities and to connect their own communities with artists of other parts of the country, which was really the function the NPN had at its very outset—to breakdown the geographic and informational isolation.
I hate generalizations, but how would you qualify the nature of the artists’ awareness, or their necessity to be socially aware to do this kind of work within the NPN?
I think that some people arbitrarily came our way because there was some money appearing towards this direction, but I think that it really has to do much more with what happens once you build a peer community of leaders who are doing things—they may have very different agendas, and very different demographic constituencies, whether you’re in Anchorage, Alaska or Boulder, Colorado, or San Antonio, Texas, or New York—so you’re not going to do necessarily—nor is it a requirement—to do exactly the same thing.
However, the philosophy of understanding who your community is and seeing art as a by-product of relationships, as an incubator of relationships (not simply an offering), is when you definitely begin to see the change.
There definitely were those moments that at least, in my mind, were transformative, or showed that a transformative thing had gone on. Each year, the member organizations that were in the NPN could make four artist selections. The great premise of this was that we gave people money upfront, they didn’t have to apply for grants, and we could pay people in a certain way to guarantee artists a certain base salary, or stipend, per week, per artist traveling. So if somebody was picking up Ron Athey, as they did, or Karen Finley, as they did, or Bill T. Jones or Mark Morris in the early days, they did that but there was a limit of times an artist could be chosen in a given year, just to make sure we were spreading the wealth around.
There was that kind of straight-forward, structural fairness issue, people didn’t have to justify who they were producing or anything like that, and at the end of the selection cycle, all of these choices would come to DTW and we would compile them. We eventually put them into a book and distributed it, and all of a sudden we could see the sum total of what people had selected.
In that fifth year, well over the 50% of the artists selected to perform and tour all throughout the network were artists of color.
What that meant was that people had indeed been listening, and paying attention to one another during the previous years. What the reasons were to support some of these artists was probably different, but I don’t think there was any question that at some basic level, the common denominator was that these were the artists that were doing the most interesting work around.
That only came from sitting in the NPN—remember, the NPN was created in the analog era—but I think this still applies: nothing replaces sitting down at the table over time, having to listen over time to the stories that everyone has, and telling your own. We were always required to do this or otherwise you couldn’t stay in the network.
Listening as producers or presenters make the case for artists they really care about, you may go: oh no, or sleep through the presentation, or move on to the next case—but at the same time, you begin to absorb and know why people make decisions, what the outcomes of those decisions have been from year to year, and also, where the replicable models were, the wheels that didn’t have to be invented again, like the one I mentioned with Keith.
I’m wondering if you could unpack this kind of practice, just because right now it’s become institutionalized and what you were doing was happening organically, not theoretically.
Well, just as I said to the Ford Foundation, you will know nothing about the choices people make until after they’re made. But once the first year is in place, you’ll have a history in which you can begin to see how things might emerge and track in the future, and after 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, you have a substantive history which is going to be hugely predictive.
That history has indeed proved to be predictive about new works, cultural trends and social issues at the crossroads of art-making. It gives you a sense of how people are operating together. And for me, this is functional—people talk about producers/curators as gatekeepers, but a lot of curatorial practice to me is basic organizing and community building. That is the lesson of the NPN.
With the NPN, we weren’t trying to say who was in or who was out—I took perverse pleasure in seeing artists that personally, I wouldn’t touch at DTW—rightly or wrongly—but they would be supported elsewhere in the network. That for me, was always one of the reminders that we weren’t getting in the way of people’s agendas and there were a lot of ways to build this kind of avenue in and out of the community through the medium of artists.
But the NPN wasn’t based on social theory—it was organized based on a couple of highly conceptual ideas. One was Thomas Pynchon’s novel, “The Crying of Lot 49”, which was about creating an alternative postal network, and also the French Resistance, the idea of a cellular network structure where you could lose a cell but another would pop-up.
Of course, many others do this very successfully in the political realm, but in the arts: how do you organize for survival and the long-term? The fact that the NPN is still around and is still supporting about 60 organizations in 40 cities, after almost a third of a century, is to me unbelievable, because to some extent, none of us were promised that we could last for the long-term.
But here we have structures that are in fact—well, it hasn’t outlived its founder yet, but it’s there. The structures are enduring and made it through one of the worst periods since the 1980’s, so it made it through thirty years, including the least culturally friendly period in the history of this country.
During your experience with NPN, how would you guide artists and serving the many masters they had to serve? The communities and the arts organizations?
Well, it wasn’t up to us to guide. The whole point of this was to leave agenda’s untouched so you got past a lot of the general defensiveness that is caused by general organizational survival stress.
But I would say that over time, the NPN developed through the annual convenings. Later on, artists who had been in the network were brought in to speak at the meetings, and eventually, that grew to bringing in a whole group of artists prior to the meting to discuss issues.
There was a fundamental issue about the relationship between the presenters, the cultural organizers, and the artists themselves. Remember—a lot of these presenters, cultural organizers, gatekeepers, were artists themselves. DTW was an artist-created organization. PS122, Pregones, Highways, On the Boards, Out North, Tigerrtail Productions—all of these were artist-directed organizations at some point, and they often stayed close to their missions even after their founders moved on.
But I think, again, this idea of communicating best practices peer-to-peer, was a way to do this and the organizations learned from each other and said: “you know, I really want to do this, we need more of a public practice with artists.”
DTW did its own local response called “Public Imaginations.” We had a group of artists, ranging from Doug Elkins to Mary Ellen Strom, sit-down with a bunch of community organizations in town—The Gay and Lesbian Community Center, the Hudson Guild of Settlement House—we had about seven artists and seven or eight organizations and they sat down for a year, just to talk to each other. Out of that came three mutually-determined projects where the artists joined up with the community and DTW facilitated those projects.
I think we would have gotten to that point at some point, but for me, NPN became a learning community that was, in a way, building this way of working and collaborating in public. And for me, personally, it was a way of working out of this kind of isolation in New York felt in the 70’s/early 80’s, and to figure out who were my peers and what they were doing, figuring out which communities were like mine, and which weren’t.
Ultimately, building the network to a certain size, rather than having a small elite group, we had more of this “chaos-theory:” sub-sets, micro-communities that would grow up around subsets of shared ideas. Some people would say: “I want to work with a particular artist” and two or three other organizations would say: “yeah, we’ll do that too,” and then you had your co-commissioning program and create a minimum of $6,000 to $8,000 upfront for the mutually designated artist, in addition to commitments to present the work.
For example, Pat Graney, a choreographer from Seattle, went up to Tampa where we had a partner, where she wanted to work with incarcerated women. What they decided to do was to use some of our community-based money to bring Rhodessa Jones—Bill T. Jones’ sister—who has a long history working with incarcerated women in the Bay Area, so Rhodessa came in to mentor Pat onsite with an incarcerated population in Tampa.
A mechanism like that—that was something mutually chosen by a discussion between the artist and site—and based on issues that both the community wanted to explore and that the artist wanted to explore, allowed us to provide practical and empirical expertise.
Tomás Frausto, a chicano scholar who was Associate Director for the Humanities at the Rockefeller Foundation once said: “Practitioners are the new theoreticians.” He wasn’t saying that practitioners had become theoreticians in order to be practitioners; it’s just that accumulated practice, is in itself, a deep dive into important issues and real-world community dynamics – not to mention pure cultural practice.
How did you build the trust to propel these actions forward?
If you have an agenda—and by agenda, I mean what you want to do, and what you believe, what your principles are, and where you hold your injuries and wounds from the past—if we could show all this by being in the NPN, you were free to pursue whatever you wanted to do in your so called agenda. That gave us the trust. It gave people the confidence to argue over issues and policies and the state of America, and there were a lot of those arguments.
As things grew in the NPN, we also had the breakdown into groups like the People of Color Caucus—and they had to break eventually into a Latino Caucus and African American Caucus—and there was a very interesting moment, I watched it bemusedly, because I’m a straight guy—when there were enough Gay and Lesbian organizations in the NPN and at a certain point, they formed a caucus, and there was a moment when the Gay and Lesbian Caucus demanded a meeting with the People of Color Caucus because of contention over issues in communities of color regarding gays and lesbians, a necessary debate that was out in front of what would later be a major public policy question..
All of these issues that were simmering in the real world existed (and still exist) in the network. The NPN is a Petri dish. Progressives of all stripes are not immune from the same kind of behavior that we criticize others, but you only know that by hearing it—which is why I’m a big fan of anecdotal documentation, of story-telling, as individual stories may not represent a scientific sample, but the depth of those types of stories, in many cases, tell you more than the statistics.
I’m sure that you’ve seen how issues of diversity and social inclusion have evolved over time. As a person of color, as a queer person, as an immigrant, as an artist—
You’ve got it all—
I’ve got it all, but I cannot speak on behalf of a majority. Issues of white privilege are hard to address in communities that are predominantly white. Has the issue of white privilege come up when you speak about diversity?
Yes, but language is torturous. Nobody can share the exact same language because the exact, same language coming out of different people’s mouths tinges it with things that have nothing to do with intention. It’s hard to find common language around these things and again, that’s why I’m so much more project and action-oriented – as the NPN is. Art and the scientific method: Hypotheses, ideas, ideologies need to be tested and refined in practice, in action, over time.
In the very early days, when we realized that only one, or maybe two, out of nineteen organizations of the NPN were organizations of color, we tried to figure out where they were and how we could get to them. We set-up a diversification committee led by MK Wegman, who was at the Contemporary Museum of New Orleans and is now the Executive Director of the NPN in Washington—a real social champion.
We set-up a Diversification Committee to figure out who we were not seeing, much less, talking to. And I have to say that in the beginning there were a bunch of us doing alternative work and we didn’t know each other.
There was geographical isolation, and it seemed to me that geographic isolation obviously led to informational isolation—it certainly did at that time, maybe now with the Internet it’s not as big a concern—but it certainly felt like certain communities were out-of-sight/out-of-mind. Of course, informational isolation led to all sorts of bad things—social injustice, racism. Communities that were not known became feared, made invisible.
I spoke with Sixto Wagan in one of these interviews—
Sixto is someone who grew up and was mentored within the NPN. We met him when he was first hired at Diverseworks—he was a young artist and he’s grown to be a wise, old man of the NPN. And now he’s a major figure in the Houston establishment, as the presenter at the University of Houston.
If you look at someone like him, here’s somebody who’s grown into a role in which he’s a leader now. He’s organizing his community. I think he would have been successful no matter what—I don’t want to pretend anything—but I suspect that Sixto is doing the work he does because he was on the regionally elected Steering Committee, then on the Board of the NPN, and had a huge immersion in all sorts of organizing and practice.
I think that part of what you’re saying is that at a certain point, what comes out of this is leadership, whether it’s by artists—and the kind of projects they initiate and then seek to be replicated in other parts of the country—or by organizers that see the larger cultural institutions and their faults.
Ultimately, you don’t profitably change an existing bureaucratic culture from the top down. Instead you nurture new leadership under the radar that over an activist generation ultimately grows up and through that old-school landscape, and truly begins to shape policy. Now it becomes fun to see what Sixto (and others like him) does from his new higher perch.
How did you balance the social needs of different communities with the artistic conversations and the economic pressures that exist within arts organizations?
Well, all of the organizations were trying to figure out how to survive and the reality was that organizations did come and go at times. I mean, just as you can’t make an artist a good artist or a great artist by curating them, there is, in fact, a subjective/objective component to this. The talent, the gift, the idiosyncrasy and individuality are all part of that mix and the same applies to organizations.
Organizations may be doing God’s work in certain places, but for whatever reasons, all the forces that all of us have dealt with would do an organization in. At times, we’d try to do peer-workshops to help people in some of these areas and sometimes, some of us could actually go in to provide that type of help.
But again, a lot of the pressures are local. People now had a connection nationally with people doing similar things to what they were doing, but locally they were still pretty alone, even though they were connecting much more deeply with their constituencies, which were artists and/or communities of need, needing what the organization could offer.
While addressing the real needs, social needs, was actually a fairly logical way of trying to find an audience, audiences are just the tip of the iceberg. Much of the community—no matter who you are or what you do—will not come to the theater or the gallery or the arts center. You have to go to where the attention is—what they term in the Internet world: “stickiness.”
If there was a struggle for survival, did you feel that the audience felt this kind of urgency when they were seeing the work?
That’s tricky. Not all work is created the same. Not all work, necessarily in of itself, gets to address every issue that is of current concern to a particular audience. And I think that at a certain point, if you’re an audience member in front of a work of art, the dynamic changes to that relationship between creator and observer.
So then, what floats to the surface? What was successful and which attempts remain as a challenge, in terms of the work created through the NPN?
For me, personally, I hoped for a diversity of interesting work. I hoped for a penetration of that work out in to the countryside and then, again, we’re talking about the United States. The United States is a very big piece of territory. It doesn’t matter if you’re connected by the Internet, it’s still very difficult to know what’s going on in Wyoming or Iowa or Idaho.
So the idea was that these artists, assuming that they survived, would be leaders in twenty years, maybe sooner, and these organizations, if they survived, would be community leaders, on some level or another. Some have grown to become major institutions, given their alternative missions, but in general we remain small, vital, and influential.
In that sense, I often thought of something I’d heard from the civil rights movement: you invest in a generation of struggle, a generation of change. The idea was that if we all grew up together, and to a great extent we have—for almost 30 years—a whole group of people doing this kind of work have grown up together, watching each other, learning from each other, collaborating with one another.
In the early 90’s, we weren’t sure what was going to happen with the new generation, it felt like we were all growing older and younger people weren’t coming along, and that seemed utterly understandable given the missiles raining down upon the arts from all quarters.
At that time, our NPN finance person, a Caribibean woman named Anne Marie Joseph, suggested that we put together a mentorship program to find what would otherwise be a lost generation of potential successors. There is now a continuing mentorship program so that younger organizers can be brought in to the NPN and they can get professional development and things like that, so organizations can begin to deal with, in fundamental terms, succession.
I mean, these organizations are going to remain vital and outlive the limitations of their founders, just as the NPN has outlived me as founder. I mean, I’m back in as a rookie, as The Yard has now joined as one of NPN’s newest members, which is humorous to me. At the same time, I bring 2-3 of my key Yard artist-staffers, all of whom are (unfortunately) decades younger than me, to the Annual Meeting. This is the most critical Professional Development I can give them, and I see so clearly as a ‘rookie” that with these meetings, I launch them into this indispensable web of relationships, into this bubbling culture of cultures – tell me if there’s a better way to reveal up close and personal the new American cultural ecology.
When I went back to do the 25th anniversary keynote address, I looked out over hotel ballroom and it was filled with all of these young people—Latinos, Asian-American, African-American, Native-American—and I asked someone, “What were we worrying about?” It was clear to me that people had stepped forward and that there is a continuing, intergenerational thrust to do this kind of work.
I’ve felt so much pressure to address the economics of a practice that most often guarantees no possibility of profit. How can one address that kind of objective reality, along with the social or aesthetic quality of the work we’re trying to do?
I remember writing an introduction to “The Poor Dancer’s Almanac” and writing about the degree to which we learn to essentially cope with survival, that we have to have a life and a career—we have to have income and make a living—and the degree to which we understand that is going to shape how we work.
This work is fascinating because it’s as much about community-organizing that it is about the art –making.
I wouldn’t’ say that. From the artist’s point of view, it’s first and foremost always about the work. From the artist’s point-of-view, the NPN was always about a group of presenters, which is a term I don’t particularly like. It’s one thing to say we’re presenting work this weekend, but it feels to me off-the-shelf stuff, whereas the commitment of these organizations was a lot broader and deeper than many other presenters out in the world.
Initially, things were set-up to address very straightforward, practical concerns: the movement of people around the country, support of new work, developing partnerships with artists and around artists, and stuff-like that.
But again, from the outside, it can seem opaque even though the NPN explains itself ad nauseam on its website and its materials. But there’s always that sense that I’m an artist and I’m outside of whatever this club of other people is—right?
To the NPN’s credit, it always created opportunities for people to organize themselves. The Artist Caucus was created so that their points of view could be passed up as policies, or help us shape new resources as they came to being.
That’s process, right—there’s no immediate answer to it. But in the overall, you have to figure out how to absorb all that and the NPN learns and it learns all the time—it’s a kind of a learning instrument and it’s made more and more room to let more and more people inside the mechanism. It’s not been a mechanism that hides anything.
What do you wish artists were more aware of, so they didn’t consider themselves as outsiders to the organization and the systems that are already in place?
You’re asking, how can artists stop feeling so much as outsiders to structures that already exist?
Well, first of all, you need to understand what they are. So you know, read the material and understand that again, your lot in life, depending on what your artform is—I’m talking from a dance and performing arts point of view—your lot in life is tied up with producers/curators/organizers who believe in your work, some of whom may well be peer artists. Sometimes, you yourself are ultimately a self-producing artist, and ultimately, most artists are self-producers in most home seasons. Organizing, contextualizing, framing, curating, producing, presenting – these are in fact core functions for the creating artist.
In any case, to the extent that you get other people involved in those communities, interested in your work, that kind of information becomes circulated. So if I’m collaborating with Ronald K Brown, or Camille A Brown—two African-American artists I’m currently working with—I’m on email talking to other presenters about those artists and who will represent them at the Idea Swap at the New England Foundation for the Arts or at NPN or at Arts Presenters (APAP) over the course of a year.
Annually, New England presenters get together to talk specifically about projects they’re thinking about, but this requires artists—so I’m on the phone, deciding, who are the artists we’re going to champion? And I’m talking to several people, seeing where commonalities of interest exist, and who should lead on an application. It has to be led by presenters, even though it goes to support the fees of artists. And so, to some extent, your lot in life is in fact set—unless you’re going to self-produce all the time—and you’re going to be tied in to strangers.
The most important thing is that none of these strangers are necessarily alike, so you know, people often make the mistake of taking the first gig that comes along because they say I’m interested in you, but you don’t know that their space is a 10×10 foot box, and your stuff won’t fit in there, but you’re afraid to ask the questions that will prohibit those opportunities, and then the opportunity falls apart. That creates extraordinarily bad feelings.
The fact is that the information is out there, every member of the NPN is described on the website. Most presenters or organizations have specs on their websites on what kind of spaces they have and you can tell, looking through their past seasons what they’ve produced, whether or not your work is consistent or fits their agenda, generally speaking, and this is separate from the issue of quality and who perceives/judges/confers quality in the work. That’s the wrinkle in time that nobody can explain, and I can’t either.
I personally ask two questions: WHY? I want to know viscerally, I don’t need to know it articulately, but I want to know why you shut yourself down from the world or immerse yourself in a particular world to do this work, over whatever period of time.
And then, SO WHAT? Now that I know a piece works, and you do this, I want to know what it means. Does it have any meaning outside of you and your shared universe of assumptions?
I’m sure you’re aware of the incredible way the economics of the arts world are changing, making it so hard for artists to survive. I’m in a generation of artists that are deciding to leave the city because it is nearly impossible to stay.
Well, you also live in a city with a generation of artists that a generation ago, decided to leave Manhattan. But I think what you’re asking is, how do I get out of this trap, this particular urban trap? How do I get more opportunity, how do I move up this ladder?
We think of it as a ladder initially—we all begin at zero, unless you have a trust fund—and then well, in New York, say, there’s lofts, there’s Movement Research, Dixon Place, NYLA, the Kitchen—the grassroots are very well organized and dovetailed in New York, and I take some responsibility for that with my peers, for having done that community-building over the years. New York is a good place to have hope, in terms of being an artist, but the ladder, should it work, will only work to a certain point.
You get to BAM Fisher space and what are you going to do? Next year you’re going to be back at Danspace or you’re going to have to find a loft somewhere—this happens all the time. It’s happened to great artists, so I often think that that is really the wrong way to look at it.
Each artist has to look at themselves instead as standing in the middle of a disk, and that disk radiates 360 degrees. Let’s just assume that one of those degrees is maybe the ladder, the typical way that the very few and the proud—Mark Morris, Bill T Jones – get illuminated or anointed and they move up. There’s not really a stratosphere for anybody in dance, but they move up to a level of relatively significant support, and more or less free-will to choose what they want to do.
But rather than looking at it as an end all straight up above your head, that is simply one degree pointing out in these 360 degrees.
The other things might be your work as an educator, your relationships (because you’ve been with a presenter or an organizer in Hungary or Mexico City, or Singapore), it may be other kinds of connections you may have, including hometowns, where you may go back to work or something. Connections back to your college. Applied efforts in health, education, incarceration. Somewhere along those 360 degrees, I guarantee that there’s some point where you feel good about your work and its possibilities.
The problem is when you limit yourself to one mindset going forward and you neglect this idea that there is, in fact, a scope of choices and in fact, these choices may lead to other ideas down the road.
It’s hard enough to think about your next concert, or your next exhibition, not to mention your rent and your next meal, but still, there is a degree of self-analysis necessary. For too long, artists in the late 20th Century thought that somebody would map this out for them. Grants would fly you there. And maybe they did, to a certain point because they gave you the time for you to discover your own purest motivations and where you wanted to land on this creative territory. But this is a time-based process and you have to really understand what you want out of your career, out of the dramatic arc, of art-making, not to mention of out of living and working in the world, and making sure those practices connect to a community you would be proud to represent.
Going back to where we started the interview, do you think that the articulation of an artist’s intention can be political and socially conscious and can it be free from the aesthetic way we describe our work? Or how does it all come together holistically?
Well, the one thing that is most clear is that history is a series of examples of people asking the same questions you’re asking right now and none of this stuff is new. All of this is cyclical and – for the intellectuals among us – ontological.
This has been amazing, thanks so much for your time.
I hope it’s helpful. I feel confused myself; I don’t do this a lot.
David R White is the Artistic and Executive Director of The Yard in Chilmark, MA (Martha’s Vineyard), an artist/company creative residency, presentation and educational center dedicated to the nurturing of outstanding artists in contemporary dance and related art forms. He also chairs the National [Artist] Council of Florida’s Atlantic Center for the Arts, a leading multi-disciplinary artist residency and teaching community in New Smyrna Beach. Until 2011, he was the Director of ARTVENTURES New England, a statewide program in New Hampshire focusing on rural community cultural development and arts accessibility, based under the Crotched Mountain Center, a leadership institution in the treatment and educational strategies surrounding brain trauma and neurological disorders.
From 1975-2003, White served as the Executive Director and Producer of Dance Theater Workshop (now New York Live Arts) in NYC, where he mentored, commissioned and presented countless contemporary artists, and where he founded, funded and directed such groundbreaking and long-lived community-wide programs as the National Performance Network (currently in its 28th consecutive year), the Suitcase Fund, and the NY State Dance Force. He co- funded Pentacle, a pioneering arts management cooperative (also in its 28th year). He served as Executive Editor of and contributing writer to The Poor Dancer’s Almanac, published by Duke University Press.
A former dancer and filmmaker, White is a “Distinguished Alumnus” of Wesleyan University; a Knight (Chevalier) in France’s Order of Arts and Letters; a recipient of the Dance/USA Honors, the Capezio Award and the Dance Magazine Award (the American dance community’s highest honors); as well as both the Governor’s and Mayor’s Award of NY State and City; among other citations. He has consulted widely on issues and policies of community cultural development in both urban and rural settings, and has served as a grants panelist for numerous, federal, state and private agencies, foundations and corporations.
This interview was originally published on the blog of the Brooklyn Commune Project.