International Collaboration in the Arts
Internationalizing New Work in the Performing Arts, Phase I: 1995-1998
A Report on the Ford Foundation Initiative
Edited by Mindy Levine
1999, 64 pages. Developed by New England Foundation for the Arts, edited and published by Arts International, ISBN 0-9676467-0-7, 212-674-9744
This attractive publication is the first in a series to assess the Ford Foundation's ambitious, ten-year "Internationalizing New Work in the Performing Arts" initiative to "build activity and strengthen practice in the U.S. performing arts field in support of international, intercultural artistic collaboration." Presented in three major sections with an appendix summarizing all of the resulting projects and involvements (seven major cultural organizations, ninety-two collaborative projects, and 294 artists and ensembles), the report lays out the initiative's purpose and development; traces structural, management, and artistic issues that emerged; analyzes key lessons learned; and makes recommendations for building more international work within the performing arts field.
U.S. withdrawal from UNESCO in 1984 limited opportunities for interchanges between U.S. artists and those from other countries. An assessment, commissioned by Ford from the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) in 1993, found that most U.S. support for international cultural exchange focused on sending artists to Europe to participate in exhibitions and festivals. At the same time the assessment found interest in travel to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, in extended research opportunities overseas, and in hosting international partners back in the United States. Other challenges identified by NEFA's study included limited resources (especially short time frames and a lack of planning opportunities inher-ent in existing funding approaches), lack of information and of mechanisms for sharing information, and uneven patterns of access and infrastructure across regions, with Africa having the least infrastructure.
The Ford initiative chose to focus on exchanges with Africa, Asia, and Latin America and to emphasize U.S.-based international collaborations. Organizations selected to participate were five local arts centers (651 ARTS in Brooklyn; Miami-Dade Community College, Wolfson Campus in Miami; Department of World Arts and Cultures, University of California in Los Angeles; Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio; and Northwest Asian American Theatre in Seattle) and two national regranting organizations (Arts International and Meet the Composer). Each of the five arts centers receives funding to develop ongoing programs supporting international collaboration with a specific region — Africa, Asia, or Latin America. The national organizations receive support to provide planning and commissioning support to additional organizations that sponsor international collaboration on an individual basis. The initiative is remarkable for its scale, for its inclusion from the beginning of a team of ethnographers to document emerging lessons, and for twice-yearly convenings of grantees for reflection and information sharing.
The five local cultural centers chose different structures for their projects, each with different emphases: building networks among multiple U.S. organizations, commissioning new works, hosting extended residencies, exchanging workshops, and multi-stage projects including planning, development, and presentation phases.
Difficult challenges to the initiative have included leadership changes at grantee organizations and concern on the part of the grantees about the potentially punitive role played by the ethnographers who were studying their work. As the initiative progressed, the ethnographers and organizations began to work in tandem and the ethnographers' documentation proved to be valuable in sustaining project continuity through staff turnover.
The report articulates some commonalities in the processes of intercultural artistic collaboration. It outlined three-stages. “Most followed this basic trajectory: encounter/commitment; exploration/negotiation; and composition/production.” The exploration/negotiation phase “when the artists actively engage with each other's practice” is powerful and potentially challenging. To be successful, the partners must be inventive and playful, suspending a rigid sense of traditional practice and investing an extended period of time. “Without sufficient space during this period, a number of the collaborations, though they may have resulted in a product, did not seem to the grantees to be truly intercultural.”
The challenges to succeeding with this work are many, based in language and practical barriers, and in differing cultural contexts and expectations (about everything from housing in hosted sites to copyright and other legal rights). Even good pre-planning and strong affinities between partners do not necessarily lead to shared assumptions and understanding. Artist Keith Terry observed, “I think what is so difficult, and is humorous looking back on it frequently, is the assumptions that we make. So many assumptions are culturally based. The culture prescribes the lens through which we see situations. And so often [Dibia and I will] see something at the same time, and I'll realize later on that what we saw was very different.”
The report asserts, “What Phase I makes clear is that effective management of intercultural activity involves multiple strands of activity; active facilitation as a creative partner; cultural mediation to address equity issues and language barriers; and resourceful administration to handle the logistical challenges that accompany this work.” International Collaboration in the Arts concludes with a synopsis of key lessons learned, a checklist for successful collaborations, and reflections on how to build a field-wide practice as Ford moves into the final phase of this project. Recommendations include: organization leaders need to articulate and pass on their philosophy and working methods when they assume new professional roles; arts professionals at early stages of their careers need opportunities to experience this work; participants need effective, ongoing information sharing; and all partners need technical services to assist in navigating the maze of international regulations.
Review by Frances Phillips, Walter and Elise Haas Fund