WHERE IS THE NEXT GENERATION OF PERFORMANCE CURATORS? IT’S TIME TO BET ON WOMEN.

by Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Over the last year or so, suddenly, after decades of limited to no movement in the upper echelons of artistic leadership of major performing arts institutions, there has been a string of departures in the field. Many of these exiting curators have been white men, leaving some to wonder: Will a changing of the guard also mean a change in demographics?

 

Unfortunately, it been business as usual so far. There’s been a game of musical chairs in smaller but important theaters in NYC and across the country (played mostly by white men): Charles Helm left the Wexner Center in Ohio, Lane Czaplinski left On the Boards in Seattle (to take the Wexner job in Ohio), Jay Wegman left Abrons Arts Center to take a job at the Skirball Center, Craig Peterson left Gibney Dance Center (to take the Abrons job). Vallejo Gantner left PS122 and was replaced by the lone woman taking a spot left open by a man on my unofficial scratchpad list: Jenny Schlenzka from MoMA PS1.  

And now, there will be more openings. Joe Melillo will leave BAM at the end of 2018, Nigel Redden leaves Lincoln Center this fall, and my former boss Martin Wechsler, from The Joyce, will leave at the end of the year. As many of these jobs have opened up, the question of when and what new voices will emerge has rung out.

Over the summer, Wiley Hausam wrote a piece entitled “Wanted: Young American Visionaries for Lincoln Center and BAM.” He writes: “Several of America’s important performing arts curating jobs are open. But where are the new leaders? Why is there any shortage of completely qualified, visionary American talent?” He continues, “Can any American under 55 actually succeed at BAM and Lincoln Center and bring to NYC an exciting new vision?” He thinks not. “Simply put: they haven’t been given the opportunity to prepare themselves for these demanding jobs,” he writes.

Since Hausam’s article was published, it’s been grating on me. At first, I thought: Just let it go. But, you know, something is in the air, and suddenly it feels essential to rebuke aloud what I once would have brushed off as the status quo. 

I strongly disagree that there is no American talent under 55 to take the place of these departing leaders. In fact, I believe there are perhaps more qualified individuals now than there were when many of these departing visionaries ascended the ranks. I see many people who are ready to make that leap, and here’s why.

 

It’s important to recall that many of these major curators started their jobs as less informed than they ultimately grew to be. These major figures have been seeing work for 30 to 50 years. But many were just getting started when they were asked to take the lead. Melillo was 36 when he was hired by Harvey Lichtenstein to be the director of BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Wechsler was 31 when he became the programming director at The Joyce. While the Boomers have been holding tight, the Gen Xers and Millennials have been seeing everything they can, too. I see them, sometimes multiple times a week, out at shows. We all talk to each other about what blew us away.

In addition to taking in as much art as possible, many arts administrators now come into their jobs with extensive, formal performing arts education. In many undergraduate and graduate arts programs—which have grown exponentially since the Boomers were in school—students not only practice artistic craft at a level that many current curators have not, but also learn about art history, performance history, curatorial practice, queer theory, critical race theory, and more. There are now some very good graduate programs for preparing future programmers: Wesleyan’s Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance program has been churning out curators for several years now. There are graduates of several top Performance Studies programs in the country, including NYU, where I earned an M.A. in 2005 with many people very capable of taking on these key jobs now. And there were graduates before me, and there are new graduates spilling out into the field every year. One such individual, Performance Studies PhD candidate Tara Aisha Willis, was just hired to curate performance alongside Yolanda Cesta Cursach at Chicago’s MCA. This is very good news. But, before you say there’s two women at the helm, I’ll note that neither of these women has director next to her name, as Peter Taub, who stepped down, did. (Cursach and Willis are listed as Curator and Associate Curator of Performance on the MCA website, respectively.)

Then, there are countless people in our profession who have obtained a master’s degree in arts administration. Some have studied in the evenings, while working in a theater all day, with little to no hope of gaining a leadership position for years to come, but with a deep dedication to learning and to their jobs. Some individuals went directly from undergrad into graduate school before entering the field because they heard (rightly) that it is difficult to get an entry level 30K-a-year arts job without a 100K graduate degree. (It’s been mentioned by others, but the cost of all types of arts programs should be addressed, as it limits the pool of arts workers to a privileged few to begin with, and leaves many with crippling debt.)  

The next generation of curators has also been aided by the growing professionalism of the industry, both in the university setting and outside of it. When many of the curators stepping down began their careers, the field was quite different. I see my contemporaries attending festivals around the country, and even the world, that didn’t exist 20 years ago, and frequenting new kinds of professional development conferences where they learn about and develop new best practices. I see them writing for arts publications. I see them attending lectures, and giving talks, themselves. I see them preparing.

And then, there are people, with or without a graduate degree, who have simply been doing the heaping administrative work necessary for a theater to function for many years. They have been standing in the wings and learning by watching—or, in many cases, by doing much of the administrative and even curatorial work behind the scenes without the money or the credit. And let’s not forget the handful of women already in major curatorial positions across the country.  

So, who’s prepared to take the helm? I kindly ask you to look around. Will not one of these capable women will do? Still don’t see them? I’ll happily give you a list of all of the great women I know. If you open your eyes—you don’t even need to look closely—you’ll see; I promise you will. I promise, they’re real, and some are still standing, but some of them left. And it’s time to consider why that is, too.

I’ll give you one reason I see, aside from simply having had to wait too long while being paid too little (remember that debt?). The schedule verges on inhumane, and I don’t think it’s good for anyone. In the last year alone, aside from those in programming jobs who retired, a significant number of people took a sabbatical or just quit, presumably to rest. Creativity doesn’t thrive when people are exhausted, but this is a topic for another day. The reason I’m bringing this up, is that, in part because of the schedule, American women have received the message that they cannot have children and be curators of performing arts institutions. Where would women get that idea, you might ask? Let me share just a few examples.  

When the job at New York Live Arts opened several years ago, I can’t tell you how many times I heard someone (both men and women alike) say, without an ounce of apology: Well, it can’t be a woman. And, it has to be someone without kids. And then it was given to Tommy Kriegsmann, a man who has two children who were quite young at that time.  

Several years ago, I was told that I might be considered for a curatorial position “once I pass child rearing age.” It wasn’t a joke, and it wasn’t a friend. It was an older male member of the field, just stating the facts as he saw them.

 

A few weeks ago, a young female colleague considered asking her old boss if she was going to apply for a great curatorial job we’d heard about. But she stopped short to say to me, with regret: But, she has kids. Already, not even a two years into her professional career, this is the message we’ve sent this leader-in-development. Thinking she might like to have a family one day, I saw her already mentally recalculating her path. Even if a woman chooses not to have children, which more and more women are doing, others might speculate about whether she might—perhaps for 20 years of her career—and assume she can’t take on anything big until this unanswered question can be laid to rest. This needs to end.

I recently heard a story about a serious candidate for a performing arts curator job who was told by the departing director (a woman) that the candidate couldn’t possibly do the job because the candidate has children. Twist ending: said candidate miraculously got the job and is doing it now. With children. And I’ve just been updated (truly) that she’s also made a batch of homemade pumpkin soup.  

Sidebar: Women, we need to support other women, too. Lord knows what you had to put up with to get to where you are, but we can’t simply inherit and recreate the same limiting frameworks of the past. We need to build a better, modern culture in the non-profit workplace, if we want to hire good people and keep them, which is a larger topic, as well. Some of the sexual harassment cases lately have prompted me to reflect on the larger problem of which they are a part: gross abuses of power in outdated hierarchies. I’ve seen a lot of talent walk away from the arts because basic standards of respect in the workplace weren’t being met.    

About a year ago, I decided to pursue a slightly different path than programming, as I wanted to flex different creative muscles. I don’t plan to re-enter that arena in the near future. But, whether I return someday or not, I feel compelled to speak up for those women with whom I’ve worked next to for a decade or more, in my own organization and at arts organizations around the country, who are more than capable, indeed. It’s time to ask if anyone is advocating for them to fill the spots of at least some of these exiting men.    

In Hausam’s piece, he says his “bet is on the Euro,” noting that two British men have gotten major American curatorial performance jobs in recent years, and it’s likely this will continue. This only illuminates the problem of expecting that society will recapitulate the past, instead of advocating to change it. 

It’s important to diversify the voices in our field, in as many ways as possible. While the non-profit sector does better than the corporate world in diverse hiring practices, things still need to improve a great deal. But, the question of why women, of various races, who already exist in greater numbers than men in our field, are not being considered vocally for big curatorial positions remains. The reality is, while there is still much work to do, we have a leg up on some fields, particularly tech, in terms of racial and gender balance in the workplace. None of us should be happy until the demographics of our workplaces mirror those of the city we live in, but the good news is: the place is already teeming with all sorts of women! If you work at a performing arts institution and you look around, chances are, you’re working next to someone capable and female. Why not consider her?

If you are a person with stature and power, before you go betting on the Euro, just do me a favor, please: look to see if there’s a woman within spitting distance of you whom you or your board has overlooked, and consider advocating for her. 

 

Even if she has kids, or might later. Because it should be possible to be a well-rounded person and also be in charge of selecting the artistry that will help to create a fully-realized humanity. In fact, many audience members have children, and too little family programming is often cited as one of the major limiting factors in getting people into the theater.     

I’m not saying the women hired have to have children; I’m illustrating a point: new problems are solved when new voices are invited in. So, consider inviting a women! There’s one right there next to you.

Wiley, you don’t seem like a bad guy, but your article concerned me very much. 

If you don’t move at least some of that bet over to the Susan B. Anthony dollar coin or that forthcoming Harriet Tubman $20, you only exacerbate the problem; and we need people like you to step up to the plate. It’s time to consider going to bat for women.

I simply don’t agree that the younger generation hasn’t been given “the opportunity to prepare themselves.” Many have been preparing for years, and it’s time to give them a shot.

After all, a bet is in some ways an expression of hope for the future. Expectation can help create change. So, why make tired bets based on past bias that says British men will win? It’s all queens on the table now; it’s time to bet on women.   

  

 

 

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