What can be learned about the unique lives of contemporary curators in just ten minutes? The new series Curator in 10 surveys art curators across disciplines in search of deeper understandings of emerging art scenes, audiences, and curatorial practices. This week, Walker intern Sean Donovan sits down with Senior Performing Arts Curator Philip Bither.
Sean Donovan: So, we’re here to talk curating. Based on your experiences, how much of curating is intuition and how much an analytical exercise?
Philip Bither: It’s hard to talk about curating live performance as exclusively an analytical exercise. There’s an analytical part of it, but I think the majority is more based around intuition, passion, and an informed knowledge. But the key in it all is mission. In my instance, it’s mission of one’s institution. I, of course, have to interpret that, but it defines much of what I go to see and what I find inspiring. Luckily, the mission of our institution lines up with my personal passions and tastes, so it’s a combination of all of those things.
Donovan: Being a curator must be a deep challenge but also a unique privilege – to be a storyteller, a contextualizer, an advocate, and, some would say, a gatekeeper. Just as visual artists exhibit their work for audiences, you exhibit your seasons. Do you ever feel intimidated or honored by this privilege?
Bither: Both. I feel tremendously honored. It’s a really big responsibility, and I try to honor that by taking it really seriously around the choices I need to make as well as how we shape the experience for audiences. I can feel intimidated because, as I’ve told other people, you sometimes feel like you’ve invited a thousand really good friends to a party, and some nights they very well could have a terrible time, and I feel very responsible for what their experience is. Not that the work we choose should be accessible and safe, because that’s not our mission. But, it should be something meaningful for people.
Donovan: How do you pick up on whether something has reached its expiration date… like a type, a style, a theme, or even an artist? How do you know when something feels outdated or overdone?
Bither: With artists, if they’re not challenging themselves any longer – if they’re repeating themselves — that feels like it’s time for us to step away. With regard to art movements and styles, you just feel it. Seeing work all the time, traveling a lot, you just start to feel you’ve seen this work before. Also, if things have gravitated to a mainstream, it feels like it is no longer our place: if it’s been completely embraced commercially or it’s become something that’s embraced by television or other mainstream media and is written about in glossy magazines or popular websites. Our job is to be finding and supporting work that doesn’t yet have that attention.
Donovan: So, that’s the intuition part?
Bither: Yeah, although some of that is pretty obvious. But the issue of what is or isn’t dated can be dangerous too, because the flip side of that is what’s “trendy” or what’s “of the moment.” So, one tries to not just dismiss work because it feels like the style of work comes from an earlier time.
Donovan: Instead of only featuring the “new” and “upcoming,” the Walker makes a point of bringing performers back multiple times. Can you think of any other contemporary performance centers or venues which take the entirely opposite approach: to exclusively feature emerging groups? Could the Walker ever do this?
Bither: In the way I’ve programmed the past Performing Arts seasons, balance is a fairly important element, in my mind. We have selected a handful of artists who we have supported multiple times. But, if you look at the season in any given year, this one included — it’s about a third, a third, a third — equally split. This season actually has closer to half of artists who have never been to Minnesota, who we’ve never presented. Then the rest is a mix of artists who have been here numerous times and some who are coming for their second or third time. That balance feels right to me.
Donovan: Are there any presenters that disregard balance and solely program fresh and upcoming works?
Bither: None that I could point to immediately. There are a lot of festivals of new performance work that make it a priority to bring mostly new voices. I think that may be more fitting for a performance festival that has a frame that’s interested in the brand new and the emerging artists at all time as a core principle. There are festivals dedicated to emerging artists. But I think there is something very special and rare for communities to have the chance to witness the creative development of a handful of seminal creative figures of our time. It is, of course, tremendous and so appreciated by contemporary artists to feel they have a few anchors nationally — homes away from home.
Donovan: Does it ever feel like it’s too balanced, with artists — like Bill Frisell, for example — who people know and keep coming back?
Bither: Definitely. Inevitably, you get close to artists, and you continue to be intrigued by their journey, and I think when I leave someone else will have their hosts of artists. So, you could argue it’s good for curators to rotate out. But, I think we regularly make conscious choices about letting people go, which isn’t always easy — or waiting for the right moment to invite them back. Bill is an interesting case. He is a rare musical artist who continues to dramatically evolve and who is constantly challenging himself with new collaborations and interdisciplinary projects that often involve leading film- and video-makers, designers, and others. He develops programs conceptually, too, at a level which few other composer/instrumentalists that I am aware of do. That being said, it’s been three or four years since he’s done anything with us. There is one unlikely collaboration I have proposed to him that he’s very excited about. I hope it might happen some year soon, but I’m not at liberty to say more about it now!
Donovan: I’ve certainly noticed your interest in jazz, or jazz-inspired, music shows. Where does your enthusiasm for this originate? And, what can you say about the vitality of jazz today in our culture?
Bither: Well, jazz is a challenged form, but I think the notion that “jazz is dead” — something we’ve heard for thirty years — is overstated. It’s a music that is fluid and mobile. Most of the adventurous “jazz” artists I love the most refuse to use the term to describe their music. It’s a music that continues to morph and become more global and more connected to contemporary musical aesthetics. Much of what we do wouldn’t be defined in normal jazz presenting circles as even jazz. But, it has its roots in improvisation and some historical ties to jazz music. You know, it was a part of my early influences and inspirations. And, I think it’s sometimes unfairly written off as “of a certain era” and not doing much of interest anymore. So, when we involve ourselves in jazz, it’s done with an eye toward the pockets, which I would argue are significant, of continued relevance, or innovative. But again, we may only do two or three jazz-based projects (for lack of a better term) in a season of 12 to 15 music programs, which span contemporary classical, electronic, indie rock, new global sounds, and experimental music — terms which are equally contested and blurry.
Donovan: Let’s talk about selling a season. On the one hand, the performances often need to be “up and coming.” On the other, you have to make sure audiences come and see them. Has your sensitivity to what’s popular fluctuated during your time curating?
Bither: I don’t know. I’d like to say to myself, and to others, that we don’t take the question of a project’s saleability into account until after we make the commitment. But then, we feel our obligation is to find the audience for something that people have never heard of or maybe don’t even have familiarity with the art form. But, I think it’s inevitable that one is influenced when they have a whole marketing and development team, all of whom want things that people know. However, I fight against that tendency, and we very much pride ourselves that we are able to generate audiences for artists and live artworks that the public really doesn’t know at all. I am grateful that our crack marketing and PR staff is always up for the challenges we present them.
Donovan: Perhaps it’s about giving audiences something to latch onto?
Bither: Yes, and providing some relevance to broader circles — those outside of the art world, or at least people who aren’t working artists. But, I would say that we have an incredible luxury of not depending on box-office revenue much at all, really, or as intensely as other performing arts organizations and music venues. It’s 20 percent of our budget in an annual basis. Most presenting live performing art centers want to have 70 to 80 percent of their revenue coming from the box office. So, we really have the luxury to choose people for artistic reasons, artists that might not sell a lot of tickets. We know we can generate a certain amount of energy just because we’re “the Walker” with a longstanding reputation, and people have come to trust a lot of the choices we have made for the performing arts season. We try not to take that for granted and, at the same time, try not to let box office potential restrict us. If you look at any season, more than half of the events really seem unlikely things that people will go to. (Laughs). Of course, it makes it easier if we can create hooks to make it feel compelling or relevant. Because I studied journalism, I think a curator’s job is, in part, is to tell the story of unknown artists and to construct the driving narratives and hooks for the media and for audiences. So, part of it means I serve as a kind of advocate or a promotional person on behalf of artists. Still, the equation isn’t finished unless you have at least some audience there. And that’s the difference with other art forms. I feel it’s unfair to artists to commit in presenting them and then not really care whether people come or not. And, there are circles where performance curators work that way. I come from a different place.
Donovan: I imagine you have to use the word “innovative” a lot in your job.
Bither: Yeah, too much.
Donovan: Does it ever lose relevance? How do you work around that? Just try to use other ways of describing things?
Bither: Yes, we do, and I don’t really have a good answer for that. “Fresh.” “Unseen before.”
Donovan: Depends on the project?
Bither: Yeah. The question also becomes: innovative for whom? I think that’s a challenge as a curator as well. If you’re concerned about audiences or what people feel they are prepared to want to see, then you realize you’ve seen ten times as much or twenty times as much as a lot of the people you’re inviting to see. So, what feels derivative to you might feel incredibly new and fresh to others. I try not to worry too much about those things because I feel the job of an international center like the Walker is to find the most unusual and inventive new forms and new work that are within our spheres. I don’t know if that quite answers your question— it’s a good one.
Donovan: I get the sense that your job combines many duties of visual arts curators — research and writing on art theory — with those of live performance producers — an awareness of what’s happening in the “real world” and an expertise to present them. What is it like to have a foot in each world–the study and the presenting?
Bither: I often feel like I am maintaining a split personality, almost two separate identities or jobs. That being said, I mostly consider my role as a curator in the classic sense of “to care for” an artwork. In the realm of live performance, working for an institution dedicated to new work, this is directly tied to caring for the artists themselves. What is essential in this regard is to understand as deeply as possible the context and history of an artist’s work, their influences, what artistic movements their work is part of or is attempting to reject. I am not that interested in theory in the abstract, absent its relationship to living, breathing artists and how they make their work. In live performance, a curator serves as an intermediary between an artist, the public, and the media, including sometimes those who are driving critical discourse in art world, whether they are journalists, historians, or scholars. It is essential in our contextual work and the ways we present artists that we try to get the historical framing of an artist’s work right. Personally, I prefer serving as a live intermediary directly with an artists, whether it is through facilitating dialogue with a creator in front of a public or in front of a video camera, verses writing about the work, although a do a fair amount too. It is unavoidable.
Donovan: How would you describe the curatorial lens you look through? Which art histories or theories do you care about?
Bither: I don’t ascribe to a particular single art historical theory or even telling the story of contemporary art through one particular history. I think one needs to read as much as possible, stay open to different interpretive lenses, and be willing to alter one’s perspective. I am wary of grounding one’s work around a single theory. The world of global creative work is far too diverse and expansive for that. The Walker has long been proud of rejecting one simple (usually Eurocentric) story of modernism or post-modernism. That is why in the galleries we have long shown global art movements as equally valid threads of art development. That being said, I do find myself drawn to performance writers like Claire Bishop and in the world of arts journalism, I think Andy Horwitz at Culturebot has played an important role in raising questions about the visual art world’s sometimes problematic, or at least limited, approach to live performance.
Donovan: Last question: So, I grew up here in Minneapolis, and I think I’m biased because I just imagine all the other big cities to have way cooler contemporary performances going on — like LA or New York or Berlin. From your perspective, should I be thinking that?
Bither: I don’t know. I think that this is a pretty unique city for the ecology of work that happens locally and that’s brought in nationally and internationally. Certainly, as mid-size American cities go, I feel we are a special place. Knowing your interests, I think you would be terribly disappointed if you spent time in the top 25 American cities outside of New York, San Francisco, Chicago, LA, and Seattle. Most other places feel like you’re lucky if you get three or four interesting things in a year. Of course, there is classical music and there’s modern dance, occasionally. But, there is not a culture of contemporary performance and dance work or ambitious experimental music in most American cities. Yes, there is a much more diverse and vibrant scene in Berlin and in New York. I think it’s arguable about San Francisco and Los Angeles. I think in LA there are certain types of art forms that are really vibrant and exciting. But, there are other forms, disciplines, that to my mind are less interesting, even, than Minneapolis.
While I don’t want to sound too much like a booster, I think we are in one of those four of five most interesting cities for contemporary performing arts in America, through the mix of local and imported work.