The Wave of Things to Come

By Ann Murphy


When the Republicans swept into power in the early 1980s they brought with them a fanatical commitment to business. Everything fit under the imperial umbrella of the marketplace, and everything was for sale. What was life about if not making money? As the political tide shifted from neoliberal to neoconservative, the performing arts were reconstituted almost overnight. The new paradigm was the corporation; the ideal person, the wily entrepreneur. Attacks on artistic content soon followed.

Choreographers were flummoxed. Other than tickets and tee-shirts, what was there to sell if you made things that were performed which disappeared into the night air? How did you bottle experience or sell transformation? Yet, if you wanted to scrounge up donations from foundations or government, you suddenly needed to be “professional” and have a company with certified non-profit status. While that seemed sound to some, there were a few nasty hitches to the process. If you wanted a company, you needed to build a board of directors. To create a board of directors, you needed a smooth-talking manager who could lure the powerful and wealthy to your cause. If you wanted to find the money to pay for a manager, you had to apply for grants. But in order to land grants, you frequently had to have a board, a manager, and all your bona fides lined up in tough, business-like fashion. A few, thanks to native grit, private resources or business acumen, jumped the hoops and survived. Dozens of others cast off their leotards and went home. To the business-minded, this was simply a welcomed Darwinian process, weeding out those who were meant to be choreographers and those that weren’t. Artists have always known better.

Now, a new consortium of philanthropies called United States Artists appears to know better, too. Attempting to redress two decades of concerted neglect of art and artists, USA has plans to reestablish some measure of philanthropic balance in a country where corporations and private philanthropies give freely and abundantly to museums, theaters and art centers, but regard living artists as wildcards best kept out of the game. The historically forward-looking Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, along with Prudential and Rasumson Foundations, launched USA with seed funding of $20 million. As the organizers describe it, their “horizon line is not three, five, or 25 years, but rather 100 years and beyond. We are building a program that is privately funded, prestigious, and permanently endowed.” Take that Jesse Helms.

Undergirding the program is a 2003 study by Washington D.C.’s Urban Institute entitled “Investing in Creativity: A Study of the Support Structure for U.S. Artists.” A crucial element at the heart of the investigation is the discovery that Americans’ attitudes towards the arts is remarkably positive–96% believe in arts’ importance. But, in an act of magical thinking, only 27% think artists matter. That’s amply bolstered by the numbers. In 2005, for example, close to $14 billion was given to arts institutions, yet more than half of all cash grants to individual artists was $2,000, barely enough for a year’s transportation to one’s “real” job.

Established in 2005 with first awards announced in December 2006, USA has the earmarks of an old-fashioned philanthropic enterprise–giving away money, not as indirect corporate advertising, not for moral uplift, but because artists need dollars in order to make art, and they can make art best when they have little bureaucratic burden loading them down and usurping their time.

Chaired by Susan V. Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, there are 51 artists in USA’s first crop of recipients–visual artists, writers, filmmakers, composers, architects, craft artists, designers and choreographers–quite a few well along in their careers–all of whom receive $50,000 with no strings attached. Each of the artists or groups were tapped from a pool of 300 nominees in a country that claims two million practicing artists. Five choreographers made the list–Ronald K. Brown, Ralph Lemon, Alonzo King and Eiko and Koma. While it would be easy to get touchy about the numbers–four dance company versus nine literature and 12 visual arts awards; the demographics–four men and one woman; the racial composition–three African-Americans and two Asians; the geographic spread–four New Yorkers and one San Franciscan, the deeper veins struck by the selections are more interesting and notable: artists like George and Mike Kuchar in film, Meredith Monk in music, and Alonzo King in ballet have been creating art for decades that has consistently defied and redefined the mainstream dictates of their various disciplines. If part of the right-wing attack on the arts over the last two decades has been designed to vilify and starve the daring and rebellious, USA seems determined to honor an older wave of pioneers. One hopes that in coming years they can also jumpstart the careers of young choreographers whose work may be too edgy to even reach the mainstream radar.

In Dance recently visited Alonzo King at his studio on 7th Street in San Francisco to find out how he views his USA award and to weigh in on the state of the arts.

ID: Were you surprised that there were so few choreographers among the winners?

Alonzo: No, I wasn’t surprised. I was just grateful I was one.

ID: How will you use the money?

Alonzo: To simply make more work.

ID: Do you think by the limited number of choreographers among the winners says anything about the view of dance’s importance in the realm of art?

Alonzo: I think that a lot of people don’t think of dance as art, including dancers, and many people don’t think of it as thought. They see it as facile, that’s it’s just moving and having a good time. That’s backed up by most dance writing. It’s very light weight, and its emphasis is on personalities and styles as opposed to what the work is. It’s fluffy. If you look at “Art Forum” it talks about art in really sophisticated, vigorous ways. The situation is odd, because dance is profound.

ID: Why do you think this is the case?

Alonzo: For many people the ability to see has been taken away. They hear the word “ballet” and they have some kind of cliché of what it should be. Their expectations are based on a stereotype of what is good. People will often go to what they call a foreign country and say: “This can’t be zucchini because this isn’t what I’m used to.” But it’s zucchini. They look at ballet the same way: “This is not what I’m used to.”

ID: Where does art stand in our culture?

Alonzo: The belief in the necessity of art has disappeared. It used to be considered one of the sciences–you had to study art. This is what made the complete human being. Music was understood to be part of education, a language that opened up a whole new way of observing the world and of finding truths that were non-verbal. Music uses a whole different part of your mind, and we don’t exercise that any more. The people who do exercise it are the wealthy, because to have a music elective, an art elective, a dance elective, you have to have money. Art has been extracted from all of our public schools. If you’re poor or middle class how do you manage to take up an elective? Our educational system’s emphasis is on two things: creating nonthinking sheep who become consumers; and guiding people into the banking model of making money–not for humanitarian discovery but for making money. That seems to be the obsession of everybody. Dance–art–people have forgotten what they mean.

ID: Why do you think that’s happened?

Alonzo: The materialization of everything, from our language to our beliefs to our goals, has corrupted our culture. When I was a kid, adults and children aspired to be heroes and sheroes, to help people. When you asked what would they like to do, they wanted to transform their lives in some way through their occupations. Today when you talk to kids they say two things: I’d like to be rich or famous. They know that if they’re wealthy it will save them from some of the brutality of our world. They won’t have to deal with the constant indignities that you’re otherwise bombarded with in this isolated fear-filled society we inhabit.

But I also believe there’s an undertow being created by people who perceive this corruption. They want to stop the war, they want to bring art back, they feel a responsibility to children who don’t have this given to them–a food missing from their diets. That’s happening, yet it’s not in the news, it’s not in the papers. There’s an effort to suppress the undertow, and yet something is happening that’s starting to become a wave that’s going to rise. The darkness that’s here can’t last forever. It has to crash.

This article appeared in the May 2007 issue of In Dance.

Ann Murphy, a long-time Bay Area dance critic, is Assistant Professor and Chair of the Dance Department at Mills College in Oakland.