The Performing Artist Case Studies is a project undertaken by ICPP and supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation that took place at Wesleyan University’s Center for the Arts between 2018 and 2021.(1) It staged a conversational, artist-centered approach to the study of designated artists’ career strategies, and their implications on performance curation, presentation, and philanthropy. Our intervention operated across three vectors:
1. Focusing outwards, the case studies aspired to be an applied research project, for which a large team of investigators tasked themselves to co-create expanded knowledge about contemporary performance curation;
2. Looking inwards, the project also served as a curricular intervention where students, alum and faculty collaborated as professionals in building more nuanced understanding of a dynamic field that is in constant motion;
3. In practice, the project became an iterative field-building exercise, where artists, scholars, and curators labored to expose tensions and contradictions in the field of performance curation without causing more harm.
While the report that these conversations yielded remains with the project funder, the work began in situ, with the support of ICPP’s community. It is our hope that these critical, heartfelt, and often difficult conversations will motivate future discourse that centers artists’ expertise, labor, and experience. Below, we want to briefly outline our research process, which drew almost entirely on face to face field conversations with featured artists: Becca Blackwell, 600 Highwaymen/Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone, Kaneza Schaal, Jennifer Harge, Tosh Basco/boychild, and jumatatu m. poe.
We approached these conversations, which numbered well over thirty, from the assumption that artists’ organizational strategies are fundamentally un-standardizable. Rather than generate another data-driven study of the performing arts workforce,(2) or survey a large sample of arts workers to concretize career nomadism, a pattern not necessarily rooted in the promise of economic gain,(3) we adopted an unapologetically humanistic route. We sought to engage artists directly in questions of value, working conditions, economic entanglements, and institutionalized “norms” of performance curation. A three-year, six-subject dialogic process that began in 2018 would, ultimately, take a massive turn in 2020 when global cultural economies shut down or at least stalled to a crawl during the COVID19 pandemic. This massive infrastructural shock further exposed the power imbalances and lack of control that artists hold over their working lives and livelihoods.
Researching issues of arts labor, support, infrastructure, and economies through collaborative dialogue is both challenging and mutually exposing for all parties involved. The co-principal investigators, students, staff, and alumni who joined these artists in conversation confronted a constant string of contradictions, which often took the form of specific questions:
• Why these 6 research subjects and not others?
• How to achieve a non-canonical or non-representative sample that still does the political work of exposing field contingencies and advocating for more just and flexible models of arts support?
• How can researchers and students without established relationships to these six artists swiftly approach questions of vulnerability without exposing artists to increased precarity through risks of exposure?
• How might a presenting institution effectively and ethically stage a series of conversations on material transparency when it holds the proverbial purse strings?
• As “intentional” as the co-PIs hope to be in their rendering of these issues, how is the economic remuneration of artists to share infrastructural challenges anything other than a “gig” in a massively gig-ified performance economy? In other words, what meaningful follow through can be attempted/exercised as the information exchanged circulates more broadly?
• Who knows what kinds of contracts might be reimagined once physical distancing regulations are lifted? What are the risks in concluding anything?
Still, we who have collectively navigated this dynamic and often tension filled terrain remain committed to the practice of engaging artists, face to face. Our collected inquiries about power dynamics, resourcing, and labor performance have not led us to “conclude” any one thing about the zigzag process of making and sustaining support in live performance and curatorial markets. What we can do is express take-aways that we do know, from this well-intentioned and imperfect process if not only to promote future learning. Here’s what we know:
• This work is not safe. It is not safe for artists, because artists are not guaranteed protection and trust from the institutions and wealth holders that invest in their work.
• Any narrative about “what artist’s need” in terms of recognition and resourcing and support is intrinsically unstable. Studying infrastructure in the arts is not unlike studying a constant negotiation with multiple, dynamic forces. These forces include money but very often the money is beside the point.
• This work is not abstract. We do not center economic data or use Marxist theory to sidestep the daily words and deeds that nurture and/or derail performance curation. We huddle close to artists’ lived experiences and center these as a primary and vital resources in the spirit of clarifying the creative practices that they use to navigate working conditions that are never fully in their control.
• This work is mutually exposing. Terms like “interdependence” sidestep clear material factors that contribute to who controls the organization of time, space, and people, and who negotiates what is true or possible in production.
If we can conclude anything after this necessarily iterative process, it is that much more work is to be done to recognize the many facets of these issues. As institutions are imploding, artists are adapting. We come to the end of this not believing in models, but gaining confidence in methods, methods that invite more open and honest reflexivity, accountability, active engagement, and willingness to press pause when genuine understanding requires time.
For this website, ICPP extended its dialogue with the six participating artists toward strategies of collecting and assembling performance documents online. The projects represented here were key to the conversations that composed the study and, in some cases, were produced in the context of the grant in collaboration with the Center for the Arts at Wesleyan.