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Stanford Makishi Visits the Interdisciplinary Work Group

Early on in our Interdisciplinary Work Group convenings, a fundamental question emerged: Is our focus solely concerned with collaborations that happen among artists, or are we also drawn to how the interdisciplinary could apply to our daily work as Walker Art Center staff members?  While our diverse range of IWG invited guests spoke to both […]

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L-R: WAC Senior Curator of Performing Arts Philip Bither, WAC Assistant Curator of Performing Arts Michèle Steinwald, WAC Associate Director of Public and Community Programs Susy Bielak, WAC Cunningham Research Fellow Abigail Sebaly, Asian Cultural Council Director of Programs and Deputy Director Stanford Makishi

Early on in our Interdisciplinary Work Group convenings, a fundamental question emerged: Is our focus solely concerned with collaborations that happen among artists, or are we also drawn to how the interdisciplinary could apply to our daily work as Walker Art Center staff members?  While our diverse range of IWG invited guests spoke to both types of exchange, it is important to note why this distinction came up.  One observation is that we cannot overlook the methods we use to facilitate and realize an interdisciplinary project.  In this case, the rules for engaging across disciplines are not solely the prerogatives of artists themselves.  Instead, as curators, designers, educators, and researchers, the techniques that we use to develop and support interdisciplinary projects must themselves be responsive to the dynamics of working among multiple fields and departments.  This may demand re-examining the language that we use to talk about a project, or re-thinking the pacing of the project’s timeline.  It may even require that we set up alternate physical workspaces in the building so that we can be closer to our collaborator colleagues.  Whether we are artists, or staff members of an arts institution (or both!), interdisciplinary work pushes us to reassess how we negotiate not only multiple practices and voices, but also a more fundamental series of human relationships.

For my IWG guest, I invited Stanford Makishi, who is currently the Director of Programs and Deputy Director of the Asian Cultural Council in New York.  As a former dancer with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, and now a high-level arts administrator, Makishi is familiar with interdisciplinary work from both artistic and administrative perspectives.  For his IWG presentation, Makishi was offered complete freedom on how to format his talk.  The resulting conversation was a fascinating biographical survey of the numerous transitions that have occurred in his own professional life.  Even though Makishi has had numerous shifts in his career, from editor to dancer to development director to program director, there is also a remarkable consistency to his approach: Do not diminish your opportunities by immediately rejecting an idea that may seem daunting or beyond your capabilities.  Work hard at a project, but do not be afraid to make a change if the project ultimately doesn’t fit your interests.  Do not shy away from unusual professional hybrids (such as being a professional dancer while also working in development).  In a leadership role, carefully weigh the individual strengths of your team and allow others around you to lift the group, even if this may sometimes mean sharing tasks that you would like to keep for yourself.  When fostering collaborations, try to understand and acknowledge the perspectives of the various partners, seeing the circumstances through their eyes.  Although these may seem like fairly universal, basic tenets to abide by, they have clearly served Makishi well throughout his career.

Writer Susannah Schouweiler was also on hand for Makishi’s visit, and chronicled our discussion in the following report.

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In late November, a group of Walker staff in the center’s “Interdisciplinary Work Group” – curators, artists, programmers, designers, researchers and educators – gathered to chat with polymath artist-turned-administrator Stanford Makishi, who had been invited by Cunningham Research Fellow Abigail Sebaly. As Makishi describes his hugely successful, wide-ranging career path, his work approach is distinguished by expansiveness, and an openness to change and unexpected possibility. At one point, he says, “I was at the right place at the right time, to have all these opportunities open up to me. These shifts didn’t happen by design. I’ve had many people open doors for me; one thing that was really important to me was saying ‘yes’ to everything.”

Makishi’s career is as much a story of friendships as it is one of individual accomplishment; because of this, it isn’t surprising that his leadership style emphasizes mentorship over competition. His experience across fields and disciplines has been varied, but it’s also taught him again and again that fruitful collaboration and felicitous creative partnerships often don’t just happen – particularly in the workplace, they’re fostered by someone and nurtured by a perceptive, responsive management ethos up top.

Background and career pivots:
Born and raised in Honolulu, Makishi is a natural interdisciplinarian: a Harvard Economics major who, upon graduation, turned to focus on a career in dance. He remembers, “When someone suggested that I might possibly be talented enough to be a professional dancer, I took that to heart and worked really hard. I happened to be in New York when what became the company of my dreams, the Trisha Brown Company, was holding auditions. I gravitated to the kind of work she did anyway, and had taken a bunch of classes taught by her company members while I continued to study ballet.  I auditioned for the company and got in, and I became good friends with Trisha.” After five or six years, he told her he was ready to transition out of the company. Makishi recalls, “Trisha asked me to stay on for another two years and devised this plan where I would, in that time, become the organization’s development director. That meant I gradually spent more and more time in the office, writing grant proposals and the rest, while I was still dancing. The transition was very strange – I was often going straight from rehearsal, still sweaty from dancing, to do paperwork in the office – but it was also organic.”

After working as the Trisha Brown’s development director for a year, and serving another short stint in the Proposals Department at Sotheby’s, Makishi was hired by the editorial department at Carnegie Hall. They brought him in as a marketing associate, but he quickly moved through the ranks, and in a few short years was offered a spot at the helm of the department; soon thereafter, he was offered the directorship of Creative Services for the whole organization.

He credits the expansive work ethos of the place, as much as his own initiative, for his rise: “It’s a tremendously warm environment filled with very talented people — a really great and generous place. My various positions there had so much to do with simply being present and willing.” At Carnegie Hall, his tasks included editing all the educational materials produced by the venue – including all the detailed materials for teachers and classrooms, programs; as a result, he worked with all the various departments, their executives and staff. “One colleague in particular, gave me access to all these meetings that I wouldn’t have otherwise been a part of,” he recalls, which gave him invaluable entry to all manner of areas of expertise, and afforded him a chance to speak on behalf of various interests in the organization at various times. “It was an unbelievable opportunity to learn.”

During his time at Carnegie Hall, he reconnected with Trisha Brown: “She asked if I would work on a project that involved staging a production [Winterreise, at the Paris Opera] with a lot of my old friends in the company. The offer was irresistible, given all I had going on at the time. But Carnegie Hall allowed me to accommodate rehearsals into my schedule.” And during that project, “there was a pianist who knew Mikhail Baryshnikov…”

And once again, those connections led to a career pivot: after a matter of months, Makishi took the lessons gleaned from his years at Carnegie Hall to take the reins at New York City’s new Baryshnikov Arts Center as Executive Director.  In his four years there, he established the center’s residency program, and ended up heading a major theater construction project and capital campaign.  As with so many things in the course of his career, Makishi said yes again, and set about learning, on the spot, what he’d need to pull the building project off and keep doors open at the same time.

And now, after stints as artistic director of New York City Center’s Fall for Dance series and serving on various boards for other organizations, Makishi spends much of his professional energy working on behalf of cultural cross-pollination between Asia and America as director of the Rockefeller-funded organization, the Asian Cultural Council, shepherding the professional development and creative growth of hundreds of individual artists across the globe by funding and facilitating intercultural study and travel.

Putting the interdisciplinary, collaborative workplace into practice:
Our conversation shifts back to modes of work – the practical business of operating within the teams of a larger organization, of leading and being led in various sorts of creative projects across disciplines. Bartholomew Ryan, a visual arts curator, asks Makishi,”By the time you got to the Baryshnikov Arts Center you had all these pockets of experience and also the opportunity to begin with a relatively blank slate, with a new organization. Based on all your experiences, what was the working culture you aimed to create and inculcate in your new team? How did you go about setting that up?”

Makishi responds:
“I had some really inspirational leaders — firm and warm. I also knew how horrible it was to be on the receiving end of a tyrant’s direction. I’d worked at a smaller organization, Trisha Brown, but also for very large organizations – Carnegie Hall, Sotheby’s. There were just five other staff members when I got to Baryshnikov Center, but I’d learned from Carnegie Hall how to divide work in ways that are really efficient. But, really, I just had to improvise. I looked to my experience at Carnegie Hall: I thought about the culture there, how I felt so loved and valued, and how it made me want to work really hard for the organization. I knew I wanted to recreate that in this other environment, even with the much smaller scale. We were stretched– our staff was small – and it was a challenge, because I didn’t want our mostly young staff to get used to the idea that they should be working until 1 in the morning (like I had at Sotheby’s), so I probably took on more than I should have on myself.”

Michèle Steinwald, a curator with the Walker’s Performing Arts department, follows up: “At Carnegie Hall, having all those streams of information come through you from all those departments, navigating all those various interests and points of view: As you considered the sort of work flow you’d institute at the new Baryshnikov Center, what was your strategy for avoiding the silo-ing that often happens in organizations?”

Makishi replies: “We did many things together at Baryshnikov Center, because we had to. We were all in one room together:  we all knew what the others were doing. With so few people, everyone very talented, we didn’t have specialists. At a place like Carnegie Hall, you tend to get very specialized – you go down one track for 20 years, your expertise became very niche.” With a small organization, where professional agility is not just desirable, but essential, the sort of silos of knowledge Steinwald refers to, he says, you just don’t have a chance to become entrenched, much less calcified as happens in much larger institutions.

Abi Sebaly, observes: “You mentioned that, at the Baryshnikov Center, you ended up taking on more of the work yourself to ease the pressure on staff members. As a manager now, how do you balance that willingness to take work on with a trust for your staff members, delegating those responsibilities and duties to them?”

“I love working – I love what I do,” Makishi says. “And it’s hard to give away the good parts, but it’s important to delegate – it’s a necessary part of developing a staff member, giving them a project that you know really well so you can be useful in that relationship [as they begin to learn the ropes].”

Strategies and tactics for collaboration:
Susy Bielak, from the Walker’s Education and Community Programs Department is interested in strategies for collaboration: “There is a system at play here at the Walker, some levels of specialization –on the spectrum, we’re somewhere in the middle of your experiences, it sounds like. Can you offer some insight on tactical collaborations? It sounds like you’ve had some beautiful mentorship – but what about those instances of working together where collaboration isn’t quite so natural, so easy.”

Makishi responds, “The residency programs I’ve worked in all champion natural collaborations, self-chosen collaborations, but I don’t think that’s the only way to work together. For myself, I’m very fond of matchmaking:  As a manager, I’ve occasionally put two people together who weren’t natural pairings, but where there was one person I thought would benefit tremendously – like medicine. Maybe, as a result, I needed to be a diplomat, when one of the pair drove the other crazy, but these could still be very useful partnerships.”

He says, as a leader in such situations, “it’s my role to see things through another’s eyes, to make the bridge. [Inculcating that sense of collaboration, even among unlikely partners, then] becomes a very gentle admonition to think a certain way, to empathize and try things from a new perspective.”

On the other hand, he says, “when two people naturally gravitate toward each other, I think one should take advantage of that, allow them to boost each other. But that kind of partnering is easy, isn’t it?” He says, for him, the strategy linchpin is in putting the right team in place from the beginning, selecting a complementary mix of qualities and working styles: “It’s important not to worry so much about hiring quickly, but hiring correctly. To put the right person in the right job, so that they love what they’re doing – so they’re just where they want to be.”