Arts Administrators: What Is Your How?

In this political climate, how do you activate change within your organization? At Critical Correspondence, we’ve asked our beloved institutional administrators to respond to the question in a new series, Arts Administrators: What Is your How? Our arts administrators wear many hats within their institutions and in their own artistic practices. We’ve asked individuals who work as marketing directors, operations managers, office managers, programming directors, events managers, development directors and everyone in between to speak up about their roles within their workplace post the election. In this political juncture, how do institutions foster action and assert their mission? As potential federal precarity knocks on the door, what are ways to take action within the institution and how will it manifest? This series was inspired by Lucy Sexton’s Open Letter and we will publish content on this topic for the next few months at Critical Correspondence.

-Tess Dworman and Mariana Valencia, co-editors

Liliana Dirks-Goodman: Peggy, please introduce yourself and tell me about your organization and your position.

Peggy Cheng: I’m Peggy Cheng, I’m the Director of Development at the Danspace Project. I’m in my sixteenth season there. I was the first development staff at Danspace and in the sixteen seasons since I’ve been there, there have been various changes. I’m also a performer and have been for the last 20+ years of living in New York City. I’m a parent of two kids, two girls, seven and nine, school-age kids. Lots of homework and activities, things like that.

LDG: I’m Liliana Dirks-Goodman, and I work at New York Live Arts, I’m the Marketing Director. I also do all the design. I am an artist, I run the performance series event platform AUNTS. I’m also a visual artist. I’ve worked at New York Live Arts seven and a half years, since about 2009; I started at DTW, and then went through the merger until now. I have a son, he’s almost 4, we’re looking at preschools. It’s a bit stressful but good.

PC: It’s exciting to send them off to school.

LDG: Oh, I think it’s going to be great. Let’s talk about how you activate change within your organization.

PC: I think as we’ve been talking this afternoon, something that I was thinking a lot about listening to you and thinking about my years at Danspace Project is that we’ve sort of both been around long enough in our positions and in our affiliations with our organizations. As practicing artists in this city in this community, we have seen changes and undergone changes and been apart of things that have changed, you know? Just because time has passed, and some things have happened, 2008 for a fundraiser was a terrible year.

LDG: Oh yeah…the economic collapse.

PC: Yeah. And that was a big deal of course, because we realized that as non-profit organizations we rely on funding from foundations and individuals who, when the economy goes they’re not…

LDG: I haven’t thought about that in a long time. I mean I know, from what I heard when I started at DTW, just a few years earlier there had been much more corporate support for art spaces and now I feel like we have hardly any. You really have to sort of be trading them service or a good for whatever support they’re going to give which was the case before.

PD: Corporate philanthropy was a very different creature for a long time and then all that support of small organizations has gone away. The kind of artists that we support at New York Live Arts or Danspace Project, many of whom are independent— doing however many projects a year— that kind of work has gotten less and less support in a gradual way. It’s not like culture has never been under stress or even attack. When I look at everything that is going on, and think about how to move forward, one thing that I’m grateful for is that I’m in this community of people who work in these fields and are suited to deal with change. Which is so important right now because change, whatever the quality of the change, it’s still change. The main purpose of the work I do at Danspace, or the work that Danspace does is about valuing difference and creating spaces for that to exist and for things to coexist that aren’t always in agreement but also still value all the voices.

LDG: How do I activate change here?

PC: I’m taking this conversation a little away from…

LDG: No, I think our tangents are always good. I think in my position, managing a few people and also with AUNTS, I always think of myself a little more as a nurturer rather than a manager or a boss. Teasingly, I’ve been referred to as Zeta Boss here, which is funny.  I’ve just been trying to advocate for things that my staff wants or needs. One of those things is anti-oppression training. A couple of staff members have requested it and everyone is open to it, it’s just a matter of finding money in the budget to make it happen. Because I manage a budget, I can help figure out the steps and the process that we need to get that to happen. It helps to have another person serving as an advocate for someone else. I’m definitely always advocating for the artists with AUNTS. What Laurie Berg and I have been doing in our work with other institutions has been like the mediary between the artist and the institution, trying to push on the boundaries of each institution a little bit so that the artist has a little bit more space, not necessarily physical space, but you know, space to do what they want to do, and be seen in the ways that they want to be seen. I think Laurie and I are always interested in presenting a lot of different viewpoints and bringing those people together. At New York Live Arts, it’s always difficult because I’m working for the institution here, and not necessarily for the artists. There are some things that I’m responsible for here, that are not always in service, or might not necessarily be in service to the artist directly. That’s always hard. It even comes down to things like, what copy the artist wants to use to describe their work; I always find that’s an interesting negotiation.

PC: Yes, these are our roles as people who have to get certain things done and checked off in a certain amount of time, with certain limitations. It is our job, there has to be a delivery of some sort at some point. I certainly feel this way about Danspace, as an organization and the culture of the organization, we really value the voice of the artist, hoping that that’s the thing that leads us. That we are creating the space, as you said before, where things can happen in a way that artists would like for it to. It’s about their vision as opposed to a bunch of restrictions and limitations or being dictated by some other set of criteria besides what the vision is. The intention of platforms at Danspace for instance, is to create a structure in a space where artistic visions are more likely to happen. Our whole idea surrounding them is to be flexible. For example from a fundraising perspective, I’m always trying to fundraise for flexible funds because at the point where we’re raising the funds, which may be similar to the point where you might be starting to promote something and you need to communicate about it, it’s the same thing. I’m communicating about something that’s happening but down the line. It’s not like you want to force the artist to say “This is what it’s going to be and it’s going to be this way eighteen months from now no matter what”, because there’s no way that really amazing and meaningful work can be created like that.

LDG: Commissions.

PC: Yeah, right [laughter]. The platform is supposed to be an inquiry, it’s supposed to be a question, it’s not a themed thing. It’s not a festival with a theme, it’s actually a question and when presented that way from the very beginning it can be useful because if we can communicate about it in a way, and get a funder to trust that a Platform means something valuable to our community and culture at large. It can be very difficult because we are still dealing with budgets which is why I say that we’re suited for dealing with change. So much changes between making the plan and when the plan happens; so much changes from when I’m fundraising for a platform until it happens. If we can create enough stability of the right kind, that doesn’t change what the outcome will be or wants to be, that’s the ideal thing. And that’s hard to do, because you have to not know, there’s a lot of not knowing and you have to be comfortable with that and we in turn need to trust the artist. They need to trust us too, but if you can create those relationships it’s amazing and really important right now.

LDG: This comes up in the structure of AUNTS, and how Laurie Berg and I organize each event. AUNTS is an event series where we get a group of artists together to perform in one evening. There’s usually between 10 and 20 artists, usually about 15. We don’t curate the artists based on a specific work that they’re doing we just try to get a lot of different personalities and perspectives and approaches to art making in the room together. We sit in a big circle an hour or two hours before the show and everyone goes through and says what they need for their performance in terms of sound, light, what the energy level is, and then Laurie and I put this puzzle together into a show order and often times performances will overlap on top of each other and it creates this bigger performance installation environment. Once we’ve determined this order we leave it to happen on its own and we try to enable the artists to have a little bit of autonomy over what they’re doing. We tell them if you can help someone else with what they need, if you can help someone with their light, help them with it, be there for each other. In terms of show order it’s not necessarily important of the time that we say you’re going to go but know who’s before you and after and communicate with that person so that you’re going at the right time. Often times you will start performing at a certain point when someone else is performing and to have some communication around that is really good.

You were talking about leaving things open and letting it be unknown, we don’t need to know everything that everyone’s going to do and what their piece is about or every detail of it. We want the unknown to be able to happen and we want that special ecstatic state. I always talk about the ecstatic state with AUNTS because it happens and when you’re controlling things too tightly you can’t get everyone doing it together to get there. It doesn’t happen very often and a lot of times there’s a huge potential for failure. We’re always trying to figure out, how much do we need to structure or control things and how much can we just let it go? Now that we’ve been doing it so long—Laurie and I started organizing it in 2009— we kind of intuitively know what we’re doing and how to do or not do something. We don’t have as much failure or as much unknown stuff happening. We want to bring in someone else, a younger person perhaps, someone who doesn’t have experience organizing AUNTS events to start to take, learn from us what we’re doing and then just take it on their own and modify and make it what they’re going to make it, so that we can have a whole other set of unknowns, so there can be this possibility for growth and change and a new invigoration of what AUNTS is or could be. That’s what we’re doing, there, to activate change. Sometimes it feels a little bit more expansive, but AUNTS is art, it’s not necessarily an organization or institution.

PC: It has organizational principles. This is making me think about activating change, because that’s been one of the prompts around our conversation. There’s also just allowing change and by making space for that possibility, does that also on some level activate it? We’re talking about, this in both organizations and in AUNTS, we’re talking about structures where we bring together many voices and many people. When you bring together many voices, people, perspectives, into the same space whether physical or otherwise, you hope that it’s designed to be open and flexible. Do you think that naturally leads to a change from where you were before? There are so many people involved and relationship building is happening, you don’t really know which relationships will build in what way.

LDG: Yes.

PC: Relationships are very exciting and wonderful in our community at large.

LDG: Yes, the collection of people.

PC: Yes, I don’t know what the word is, I was going to say fluid but I don’t know if that’s what I mean as much as there’s room for movement.

LDG: It just brings up the idea of a shell. This building of New York Live Arts here is just this building, there’s symbolism to St. Marks too, but they’re just buildings. These shells, devoid of politics or identity only acquire those meanings once people and artists inhabit them and use them for what we use them for.

PC: Yes it’s related to creating structures, that are not physical structures but of the other, what we might call a program or an event.

LDG: Like a platform.

PC: Yeah like a platform.  Dance-based platforms and programming is ideally as expansive as possible. It should feel as expansive as possible, with all necessary stability for it to happen.

LDG: Let’s talk about politics? [laughter]

PC: Politics as the kind of air that we’re breathing as opposed to…

LDG: Right now it feels sort of limiting to talk about the politics of the day. It reminds me of the Uber guy, I don’t know what prompted him to step down or what his personal reasoning was but it seems that he stepped down because it was bad for his business after everyone dropped the Uber app in protest. I was just sort of heartened by the fact that this might be a bad business maneuver. That’s a question that comes up for me in what we’re talking about. How much do we have to define specific positionalities on identity or politics, I mean all those things are undefined, when do we get past that? To a point where it’s something beyond? I think that’s kind of what we’re trying to get at, that there is this openness that just let’s everything be.

PC: In some ways it’s a utopic thing, perhaps, some of these things can push towards, or aspire towards and somehow that feels really important. I agree, because with the politics, personally a lot of time I just want to stick my head in the sand and not hear anymore or see anymore and realizing it’s only two weeks into the current administration and we all can’t avoid hearing about it and talking about it and being in it but yes, what is the important work that needs to be done? I mean there’s a lot of important work that needs to be done, but what is my personal role in that and where should I be focusing my energy is a big question for me. I feel it, I feel a lot of conversations I’ve been having are about the not knowing right now. Is it really important that we just not know for a while? Since it’s an important behavior to not jump into a conclusion as a way of thinking everything’s better? I’m not sure what’s going to be better from right here, at this moment a lot needs to be questioned. Big questions.

The kind of work we do doesn’t necessarily need to change. It’s not that we need to change what we’re doing but maybe there’s just more importance to what we’re doing because all of a sudden a lot of things we stand for are so radical compared to what the…

LDG: The normal?

PC: Yes. The normal is.

LDG: I don’t think it’s normal. I mean, neither do you…

PC: Yeah, no, no, not at all!

LDG: None of us do but what the power is, the powers that be are. You know what’s interesting? When we did AUNTS in Detroit this summer, it was really eye opening and inspiring because the government, in a lot of ways, has very much failed Detroit, the city of Detroit. Completely failed. And they don’t have a lot of services…they can’t really rely on services and so the community has really mobilized to do a lot of the things for each other that you might generally depend on a police officer to keep your neighborhood safe, etc... There’s all kinds of stuff there. We worked with these women in the free market of Detroit. Their project is similar to the free boutique at AUNTS. It’s a barter system where you can exchange clothing and other things with people. In Detroit, people are coming together to do whatever kinds of things they need to do for each other. I wonder if we are going to start to do that kind of work everywhere. We already have in the dance community, for a long time.

PC: We’ve passed a lot of things in place and maybe it’s just about expanding or amplifying or even shedding light on that stuff.

LDG: Yes, continuing to be resourceful. Making something out of nothing. Actually it’s not nothing.

PC: No.

LDG: It’s a lot. So should we leave it at that?

PC: I think so.

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Peggy Cheng

Peggy H. Cheng is the Director of Development at Danspace Project. During Peggy’s tenure Danspace has undergone a successful leadership transition and launched several new initiatives including the Ch...
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Liliana Dirks-Goodman

Liliana Dirks-Goodman is a New York based artist. She has a Bachelors and Masters degree in Architecture. She co-organizes AUNTS and makes installations and objects. These things have been seen and ha...
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