Artist Residencies as Homes for Community-building and Risk-taking

IN THE RECENTLY-RELEASED documentary about Yvonne Rainer called Feelings are Facts, one statement reveals a key element in the artistic explorations of the 1960s: Steve Paxton says that he had an apartment that cost him less than $20 a month. In the film Paxton says “that apartment made it possible for me to be a dancer.” The more we study material conditions that surround artists’ practices, the more we notice alignments between creative risk-taking, affordable costs of living, and residencies that nurture longterm relationships.

“Choreographers need affordable and free of charge space to make the act of dancemaking an accessible feat,” says Rebecca Johnson, executive director of Shawl-Anderson Dance Center (SADC), a non-profit organization. SADC was founded in 1958 by Frank Shawl and Victor Anderson in a second-floor space across the street from its current location in a house on Alcatraz Ave. in Berkeley. Today the two men own the building and SADC pays them each a monthly lease.

Resident artists at SADC are offered free rehearsal spaces, and these residencies are spread over different timelines, some lasting one year and others three or more. Johnson says, “This allows their voices to grow and develop, and space is critical to this process. And not just space that is free and affordable, but also space that is informed and held by the values we hold most dear: ability to be yourself as a human and artist; integrity in creation, teaching and learning; and community through collegiality, non-competitive spirit, sharing and love.”

While SADC has been able to nurture different communities of dancers––children, professionals, and hobbyists––other Bay Area spaces cater to a more interdisciplinary approach, offering space to film, music, and dance artists, as seen at Temescal Art Center (TAC) in Oakland and MilkBar, which just moved to Richmond.

Leyya Mona Tawil, TAC’s director, speaks about the importance of sustaining a consistent presence, as TAC has done since it was founded by Leigh Evans in 1994. Tawil’s story sheds light not only on essential ingredients for dancers’ processes––space and time––but also on how smaller, more informal venues are crucial for artists’ explorations. These venues also challenge notions of “creative placemaking,” a phrase used by funding entities such as National Endowment for the Arts that seek projects that “help to transform communities into lively, beautiful, and resilient places with the arts at their core. Creative placemaking is when artists, arts organizations, and community development practitioners deliberately integrate arts and culture into community revitalization work.”1 By staying rooted in a community and providing low-cost spaces for artists to reside for long periods, venues like TAC show how “placekeeping” may be a more sustainable approach than “placemaking.”2

Such terms––“placemaking,” “revitalization,” or the notion that “art drives equity”––are challenged by scholars and artists because they can mask the work of displacement. An essential element in TAC’s sustainability is Tawil’s approach: she’s not interested in expanding or increasing TAC’s income. The costs of running the space (rent, heat, insurance) are subsidized by renters’ fees, and the space is “really really booked.” Costs for renting operate on a sliding scale with some artists who have been renting for a decade “grandfathered in” to a lower rate. Tawil adds that although some events at TAC like music concerts attract “lots of internationally touring musicians,” and Shapeshifters Cinema has become a consistent and popular event, the space for the most part remains “invisible to the outside, or the mainstream, and that serves us well.”

Tawil says this venue for experimental performance “is a great place to do your first show, to workshop ideas, and to introduce people who are new to a community.” TAC is part of a property owned by Cal Bay Property Investment, which also owns the adjacent offices and corner space occupied by Lanesplitter Pizza & Pub. The rent Tawil pays has increased over the last 18 years yet the costs are balanced by rentals of the studio to people who teach classes (primarily yoga and theater improvisation) during the day and most weekday evenings. On weekends, TAC becomes a performance space for experimental fi lm, music, and dance. TAC’s small size encourages artists to venture into new territory: it was the site of Nora Chipaumire’s first Bay Area showing of her work, and a place where Eric Kupers/Bandelion can collaborate with out-of-town artists such as Theater Grottesco. “It lets people break through some creative walls,” says Tawil.

TAC was run co-operatively between 1998 and 2012 with three women, Evans, Tawil, and Micaela Gardner, occupying codirecting roles for many of those years. Today the space is no longer run cooperatively––it’s a “project of Leyya Tawil’s DANCE ELIXIR”––with three people, Deborah Karp, Margit Galanter, and Dominic Cramp, assisting Tawil as “ARMs,” Artist Resident Managers. Tawil adds, “we divvy up the space for our own use. The four of us have been participating in the health of TAC by helping with renters and business needs, so it works as an exchange.” The space measures 23 by 40 feet, with capacity for 49 people, and is rented on a “first-come-first-served basis with priority given to people who have rented before.”

Deborah Karp adds that “working and creating at TAC as an Artist Resident Manager has given me time to experiment, explore and develop new work, key elements for a creative process, without having to make artificial, hasty decisions because I feel financial pressure of hourly space rental. And, Leyya’s creative, alternative way of running TAC, providing artists time in the space in exchange for maintaining it, is what I believe has allowed it to sustain itself these many years.” TAC’s commitment to collaboration, investment, and trust is palpable. Tawil compares the space itself to a “family room or tree house… All the artists who have gone through TAC, who have worked and added to the spirit of the room, have made it what it is today. That’s why it holds movement and music the way it does.”

Artists Debby Kajiyama and José Navarrete emphasize the importance of longterm investment in partnerships. Kajiyama explains, “When EastSide Arts Alliance purchased and moved into their current space in East Oakland back in 2006, Navarrete x Kajiyama Dance Theater (NAKA) inaugurated the performance space by producing The Revenge of Huitlacoche there. This was thanks in large part to Susanne Takehara, visual artist, cultural worker, and a core member of the EastSide collective.”

Last month at EastSide, NAKA presented The Anastasio Project, a work that takes its name from Anastasio Hernandez-Rojas, a Mexican national who was killed by border patrol agents while trying to cross back into the United States to be with his wife and five children. “When we first brought the proposal to Susanne in 2012, she was very supportive,” says Kajiyama. “She also encouraged us to look at the ramifi cations of state violence right here, in the streets of Oakland. One of EastSide’s primary initiatives is to respond to the issue of State brutality. That fact alone made them a perfect partner to work with. They are also an arts organization who believes that culture is a vehicle for healing from injustice.”

NAKA’s residency at EastSide highlights the transformative effects of integrating communities and artists. Kajiyama says, “A huge part of our creative process is ‘hanging out’ at EastSide.” This approach to “residency” shifts the artist’s presence from temporary or short-term, often imposing ideas that come from outside of a community, to intertwining art-making with social and political changes. “Our performers include both experienced and new performers who live and work in East Oakland,” says Kajiyama. “It didn’t make sense to have it any other way.”

“At EastSide, in the middle of a rehearsal, José loves to invite people who are just walking through the room to sit down and see what we’re working on. Sometimes what we do, what we make, or our practice is unfamiliar to folks who come through. Especially the parts that are primarily movement-based,” explains Kajiyama. “But by asking them what they see… asking them their feedback, we make them the expert. And when one person has a strong opinion or feeling about something we have just made, that person is a model that encourages other people to pay attention and voice their thoughts too. It also means that the performers are seen, and the feedback gives them ideas about what they are conveying.”

These approaches to residencies challenge notions of a “creative class” that comes in and transforms neighborhoods, an idea made popular in Richard Florida’s 2002 book The Rise of the Creative Class. Tawil says “I don’t think artists change neighborhoods anymore. Tech changes neighborhoods… I never felt like TAC made it okay to live in Temescal, nor were we an attraction… Now artists are priced out of Oakland, and I’m overwhelmed by what’s happening.”

Scholar George Lipsitz notices a preference for a “white spatial imaginary” as the emphasis placed on “pure and homogenous spaces, controlled environments, and predictable patterns of design and behavior. It seeks to hide social problems rather than solve them.”3 In San Francisco, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts occupies a space that went through a “highly controversial, problematic, and costly redevelopment scheme.”4 When cultural centers are used to “transform” neighborhoods, artists may become participants in acts of displacement. Lipsitz writes, “The white spatial imaginary promotes the quest for individual escape rather than encouraging democratic deliberations about the social problems and contradictory social relations that affect us all.”

Residencies at SADC, TAC and EastSide make visible the generative relationships between space and creative process, between dancers and communities, and between supportive environments and risk taking. They also demonstrate that long-term investment produces multiple and interlocking benefi ts: for artists, communities, politics, and structures of support.

1. NEA, “Our Town: Introduction.” http://arts.gov/grants-organizations/ our-town/introduction
2. For more analysis of “placekeping,” see Roberto Bedoya, “Spatial Justice,” Creative Time Reports, September 15, 2014. http://creativetimereports.org/2014/09/15/spatial-justicerasquachification-race-and-the-city/
3. George Lipsitz, How racism takes place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011).
4. Chester Hartman, City for Sale: The Transformation of San Francisco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002): 8.

PUBLISHED October 1, 2015

POSTED IN In Dance

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