Demystifying the Art of Presenting

By Kenneth Foster


As a presenter for nearly 30 years now, the question I get asked by artists, more than any other, is, “How do I get my work presented?” Sometimes it’s directed specifically at me and my institution, but often it’s a more general, plaintive cry from an artist who finds the whole process inexplicable. Is that you?

You’re not alone. The process of presenting is one that does seem mysterious if you don’t do it as a regular practice. Like all mysteries, the conversation around it can be mysterious as well – fraught with dead ends, false leads, gossip, innuendo, misunderstandings and misleading information. A lucky few seem to manage to navigate this successfully and get their work presented. But for LOTS of others, it seems frustratingly opaque. As a presenter, I’m hoping I can use this space to take some of the mystery away from the process and suggest some strategies about working with presenters that might benefit you. It still might be just as hard to get your work presented, but at least it might not seem so mysterious.

First, despite everything you’ve heard, believe me when I tell you that presenters are human too. They definitely have varied tastes, varied communication styles, varied priorities and varied commitments to their work. That means that there is no single process that works, nor is there a simple answer about why your work is or is not being presented. So the first thing to realize is that one size does not fit all – there is no template when it comes to working with presenters. It means that getting your work presented requires building individual relationships with presenters, and everything that implies.

The good news is that presenters are generally amenable to building relationships over time. It’s why most of us are in this field—we genuinely like artists and enjoy working with them. And we share your desire to have as much dance as possible reach as many people as possible. It is us working together—artist and presenter—that makes this happen. So the presenter is your friend, not your enemy. Think about what you do to go about making friends and see if that applies to how you work with presenters.

In the spirit of creating a relationship then, do your best to understand presenters, the nature of their work and the challenges they face. All of us in the arts, dancers, choreographers, presenters (even critics!!) work long hours for little money because we care deeply about the art. The payoff is in the relationships. So start building your relationships with presenters.

Now, I know that presenters don’t always make that easy. That’s because we’re a little suspicious that you’re talking to us just so you can get a gig. So be creative. Talk to me about something other than yourself and your next piece. Engage me in dialogue about the dance field in general (or the world in general!). Demonstrate to me that you are interested in many types of dance; that you have a thoughtful opinion and can talk intelligently about other peoples’ work as well as your own. Right away I’m impressed and also I begin to relax because every encounter with you is not going to be a sales pitch.

Now that we have had some kind of conversation, you can start to move the relationship forward. Your intention should be to help me know you better, know your work better and understand what you are thinking about as you create work. Ultimately, you want me to be as enthusiastic about your work as you are—but that may take some time, so be patient. Remember, we are building a relationship over time.

Put me on your list to invite to everything you do. Maybe if you invite me 10 times and I consistently turn you down, it’s time to move on to someone else, but even then, you may want to reengage me when you have a particular project in mind that you think would really pique my interest. How do you know that? Well you’ve carefully reviewed all of the seasons I’ve curated; you’ve had several conversations with me about work that reveal what my tastes are. You have a project that is really special and seems to fit with what you know about me. Let me know that you have a new project you are working on that you’d like to share with me, would I be interested in hearing more?

At this point, unless the presenter is really an awful person (there are some, it’s true) or unless your company is really not at all what interests me (we do contemporary dance, you do classical ballet) most presenters will say sure, send me your materials. I won’t go into a long conversation here about what to send or the quality of it except to say that your video/DVD in particular is your most potent tool for presenters. Spare no time or expense to make it amazing. Don’t doctor it up to be something it’s not but grainy video shot from the back of the house will hit the trash can in the presenter’s office very quickly. Invest in the technology to make this excellent quality. You can do that without being slick or fake.

I’m also always interested in an artist’s statement that accompanies a video and says something about what you are trying to accomplish. Truthfully, that’s more important to me than your bio. More and more presenters are curating by theme and idea rather than company, so let me know what issues you are working with in this piece. Remember that I am going to have to communicate about your work to a larger audience so avoid all the inside art jargon. Talk in plain human terms about what you are up to. Follow up. This is where frustration often hits. You call, I don’t call you back. You email, you never hear back from me. You call again, and again, and again. No response. Frustration mounts and you are starting to curse me and all presenters for their rude behavior. All these efforts at building a relationship suddenly seem to have come undone.

I can’t apologize for or excuse this type of behavior on the part of presenters, myself included. But go back to the beginning (presenters are human too) and you might at least understand why this happens. First, there are way more artists out there who want to be presented than I have time or space to present and they are all working as hard as you are to build a relationship. So the competition is fierce. Second, I’m juggling lots of priorities and you’re often looking for answers I’m not ready to give. My day often feels like one crisis management after another so even with the best of intentions of returning your call or email, I might not be able to. And as the days go on, it slips further and further down my list.

The tougher realities are that, in the end, I might not be responding because of varied reactions to the work itself. For whatever reason, your work may simply not resonate with me. Respect me for having the integrity to know that anything I present I have to stand behind, so if I can’t, I’m not going to present it. That’s’ not a flaw in either you or me, that’s just a reality. It’s also possible that I am not responding because I don’t know how I feel about your work. It’s rare that I look at a video, a showcase or a performance and say immediately yes, I must present this work. Exceedingly rare. Almost unheard of in fact. I just may need more time to digest what I have seen and think about it. Another reality is that I’m thinking of a whole season of work, of multiple seasons in fact, and your work may or may not fit in this season and I don’t know the answer yet.

Here’s the toughest: I don’t like the work and I’m avoiding telling you because I know it is not going to be a pleasant discussion. OK, I’m human – but so are you. And while you claim you want to hear from me, even if it’s negative, I’ve almost never had that actually be the case. More likely, if I summon up the courage to actually tell you I don’t like your work, I’m met with, at best, stunned silence and at worst, an argument about how dumb I am not to recognize your greatness. Some artists can be gracious here, but not many. I get that. But it doesn’t make delivering the bad news any easier. So avoidance becomes a strategy. Not a good one I’ll admit, but it happens. I try to challenge myself not to do this, but I’m not always successful. So presenters not returning your call – it may be bad manners but more likely it’s our way of trying to gently let you down. After the 3rd or 4th call is not returned, my advice is to take the no and move on.

Moving on is the most important piece of this whole interaction. Not every artist is right for every presenter. Nor is every venue. That you WANT a gig at YBCA (for example) does not place any specific pressure on me to make it happen. Maybe someday I’ll come to my senses and realize how amazing you are and I’ll call you! Maybe I need more time to see more of your work before I get interested. Maybe this piece is wrong but the next piece is right. The important thing to remember is that we are in this for the long term. It may just not be the right work at the right time but one day in the future it could be. It also may NEVER be right between us and that’s fine too. Move on to other presenters.

Finally, resist the urge to burn bridges. I guess if I do something really egregious to you, you could tell me off and you’d probably feel better about having done so. But I’ve been around long enough to know that these relationships are long term; that people go away and resurface in the most unlikely places; that today’s annoying presenter could be next year’s Director of a granting program that has access to highly coveted funds. It doesn’t cost you anything to be gracious and magnanimous and wait for another time and place when the relationship can be reignited.

Lots of artists complain about the presenting model; about the power of the presenter to make or break their career and I’m sympathetic to that. Over my 20+ years as a presenter I’ve spent a lot of time haranguing my colleagues to be better presenters; think more carefully; treat artists humanely; talk more thoughtfully about work; curate with more thought than “I liked it.”

In the end, I still believe that we’re all working toward the same end—to get dance in front of audiences that appreciate it. The presenter can be your friend—and even in some cases, your advocate. But it’s a slow, long-term, process of building a relationship, with all the intervening twists and turns. That also can be the fun part of being in this field. So try to enjoy that while you are waiting for me to return your call.

This article appeared in the July/August 2008 issue of In Dance.

Kenneth Foster is Professor of Practice in the Thornton School of Music and Director of the Graduate Arts Leadership program at the University of Southern California. From 2003 to 2013 he was Executive Director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. His first book, Performing Arts Presenting: From Theory to Practice, was published in 2006. His second book, Arts Leadership; Creating Sustainable Arts Organizations, was published by Routledge Press in May 2018. He has an extensive national and international consulting practice for a variety of arts organizations, specializing in leadership development and innovative organizational design and planning for the 21st century. He currently resides in Pasadena with his partner Nayan Shah.