Musings on a Summer Conference

Julie Gordon Dalgleish

"Creativity takes time; it doesn't need time. Plants take time; they don't need time." In a panel discussion on artists at the ninth biennial DanceUSA Roundtable, Marda Kirn, former director of the Colorado Dance Festival, delivered a thoughtful, well-prepared presentation. The focus of her talk was artistic process — how we think about it and the language we use to describe it. Process has become mechanical, she said, as compared to something that is organic. “We tend to think about experimental labs as opposed to planting a garden. We say we need things — like time, space, money. But it is what we do with these things,” she said, “that we should think about more thoroughly.”

The DanceUSA conference, which was held this year in early June in San Francisco, is a favorite of mine — in part because it includes so many artists (though never enough!). And the conference is relatively small (more than 375 attendees), which helps to make it very inclusive and welcoming to newcomers.

When I began sorting through the seven pages of notes taken during those three days, I noticed consistent references to process. Is that all I was interested in hearing? Or, is that what is on the minds of dance artists and administrators? I can't honestly answer that question, but I suspect it is a combination of the two.

\Whether I am attending a conference or working with artists or arts administrators, I hear a paramount need to acknowledge that organically driven process is central to the making and presenting of art. In the DanceUSA meeting of artistic directors of modern and folk dance companies, the discussion primarily revolved around the artists' desire to know and connect with one another more often and in more substantial ways than they currently do. “How do we get to know more about each other's work and understand how we influence each other?” asked one choreographer. “How can we develop a grass-roots network among artists and companies, and provide a human link to presenters?” Were they actually asking, “How are you a part of my creative process?”

In another session on “Nurturing Creativity,” Wendy Rogers talked about her “ten-year project.” She abandoned the traditional company structure in 1991 and began an extended “dance” that has evolved over this past decade. “I had been living a life of temporary solutions. So I threw out the corporate structure. Now I can pursue the work as it unfolds and then understand what has happened, rather than having it happen the other way. I am here for the process,” said Wendy. “And when I publicly made that statement, that was the end of the support.” Where is the support for process, which is the core of an artist's work? How often have we heard that question posed?

In a session called “Funding Dance in the Future,” representatives of private foundations and government grantmaking organizations discussed the status of funding dance in the United States. Inevitably, I interpreted some of the panelists' statements as testimony to the difficulty of supporting artistic process — though they did not discuss this directly. “The need for funders to see accountability and outcomes became a predominant theme during the Reagan/Bush era,” remarked one of the panelists. In that period, “we became more focused on accountability with respect to government programs. As a result there was more pressure internally at foundations to keep accountability standards equal among programs.” That initial push toward quantifiable outcomes has been pushed even further in the past few years with the current movement toward “venture philanthropy,” another panelist suggested, in which strategies are designed with an eye toward the bottom line.

This summer I have been reading Eric Booth's The Everyday Work of Art in which he says, “The work of art lives in the experience, the journey within the process, not in the resulting monument to be presented in a certified art-place.” Having read Mr. Booth's wonderful book and having heard him speak so eloquently about creative process a year ago at another conference, I wonder if he doesn't really believe that the journey continues in that “certified art-place” as well as beyond that moment in time. Since the art ends up as a “resulting monument” isn't art a symptom of the drive toward a quantifiable, tangible outcome — a product?

The journey. The process. These concepts seem so fundamental to art that it's strange to me that we spend so much time defending it, seeking it, protecting it, and separating it into fragmented parts. What would happen if in our words, our strategies, our conceptual thinking we mended and fused the parts back to a continuous thread?

This summer at the new Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MassMOCA) in North Adams, I saw an installation in which an artist was weaving from a very large weaving loom a mass of cloth that didn't seem to have a beginning or end. Hmmm? I wonder. Was I still harboring a need to see “process” in trying to understand this work, or was the artist seeking a way to hold onto it?

Julie Gordon Dalgleish is program director, Bush Artist Fellowships, Bush Foundation.