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

Katy Dammers: Ok here we are. Should we introduce ourselves?

Elisabeth Skjærvold: You go first.

KD: Ok. I’m Katy Dammers. I’m an assistant curator and archivist at The Kitchen. I also work as the general manager for Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, two choreographers.

ES: I am Elisabeth Skjærvold and I am the creative producer at Performance Space 122.

KD: Cool. Tess and Mariana have tasked us with talking about the current political climate and how it informs or impacts our work as cultural producers. I think that was the term that they used. And we both work in the curatorial, producing, management, putting-the-show-on-the-road, on the stage, capacity. We’ve thought ever so broadly about how that effects our work, but do you want to start us off?

ES: Yeah, the thing is that I’ve been thinking about it not in terms of getting the show on the stage...I’ve really been thinking about audience. In PS122’s mission statement, the audience are the first people mentioned.

KD: Hmm, that is fascinating. It’s totally different for The Kitchen.

ES: As PS122 is moving back into the East Village, we’re moving back into a building in a neighborhood that has changed quite drastically since we’ve left. And obviously, I’m sure we’ll talk about inclusivity in performance, but I’m really fascinated with getting different people into a theater. Politically I feel like I’m in a bubble. You know, I feel that art, performance, and visual art has the ability to change things and foster conversation but I also believe that requires different people to be in a space.

KD: Right.

ES: That’s what I’ve been thinking a lot about.

KD: That is so interesting. So at The Kitchen, our mission statement really focuses on the artist. Historically we were founded as a video collective and then a couple years later incorporated as a non-profit, and we’re really artist-driven. As curators we have relationships with the artist and then work to really put their vision out in the way that they want it to be. So we do really have a responsibility to our community, both in Chelsea and more broadly. And being such an interdisciplinary space, we think about that a lot--what’s the different audience for a gallery opening versus a dance show versus... but it’s really artist focused. Though I hear you about that bubble.

ES: Also because the East Village is one of the most economically diverse neighborhoods in the city, I think very specific people go to see performance art, [people] who can afford it and have that luxury. I mean we try to keep our ticket price at a place where people can have an entry to things but I don’t know if that outreach to different groups has even... you know, I wonder how to explore outreach more. Do we translate our brochure to different languages to reach different people? Those are the people we also want to be in conversation with. We want to be a part of their neighborhood. PS122 coming back into the East Village feels like we’re further gentrifying the neighborhood. And it’s not a new building, but it’s know they gutted it and it will feel like a new building. But really, touching all the people in that neighborhood… how does that even happen?

KD: Well you know, speaking of gentrification, Chelsea has changed so drastically since The Kitchen moved there in 1986. We were one of the first organizations that side of 10th Avenue and then galleries came in the 90s. There was a big growth of industry and gentrification then, but I’d say that in the last 3-5 years…

ES: The Highline.

KD: The Highline has been huge, the Hudson Yards project that’s happening, Chelsea Market. It’s pretty crazy. You have multimillion dollar “affordable” condos going up, as they market them, next to housing development projects, next to places like The Kitchen that are these historical stalwarts of the neighborhood. We do think about that. How can we be locally engaged? After the election in particular, we are really grounded here in Chelsea. We reach out to people in different ways and so we’re doing a number of initiatives to really think - where’s the Kitchen in our community, in our state, in our nation, in our world, in our universe?

We’re partnering with the Highline actually, who’s reconsidering in a number of ways the effect that they’ve had on the community and how they maybe could have done some things better and how they want to change going forward. Around Zoe Leonard’s “I Want a Dyke for President” project, we’re doing some civic engagement workshops that should be cool. Our community board is coming and telling us what it means to be on a community board and how you can run for office. We’re doing upstander training and hearing from local activists in the community. That’s one way we’re engaging with the community.

ES: I think that’s great and that those types of engagements are important and necessary. I just want to know how to get people in a space. It’s hard for me to go to theater sometimes, so it’s like, how do you bring in these people who have no context or do we bring things to them? I don’t know.

KD: After election day, we all came to the office and there was this moment where we were like if we’re really honest, there are a lot of alternative spaces that do the kinds of work that we do in NYC. I think the Kitchen is a really critical player in our ecosystem, our community landscape, but there are a lot of other places. How can we be most effective? Should we move to Kansas?

ES: I’ve been thinking about that. [Laughs]

KD: You know? What would that mean just to uproot and do that? Does that really make sense? I don’t really think so. I think it should come from the community. I think in some ways it’s been heartening to remember--who is our community? Our community at the Kitchen is really artists who come to see other artists’ work. We try to keep ticket prices really low so that artists can do that, they are an important community that we serve. Even though sometimes it can seem a little insular because it can feel like the same fifty people going. Those are important folks that we want to have programming for.

ES: Yeah definitely. What other things? What did you come here thinking about?

KD: I thought a lot about it historically as the nerdy archivist in The Kitchen, because so many people have been saying, “There will be a lot of great art that comes out of this.” And that really rubs me the wrong way.

ES: Yeah, me too.

KD: I would hate to think that art is like the positive shining light in all of this or that bad things have to happen for art to be good, that’s a strange inverse relationship. It’s interesting to see what happened at The Kitchen in the 80s when there was this similar conservative backlash. And then in the culture wars in the early 90s. The Kitchen was a really huge player in supporting artists who were a part of the NEA, like Karen Finley, and going to Congress and testifying in support of those artists. I think that’s something that we are holding on to and feel really committed to doing again if we need to.

ES: Yeah, I mean Tim Miller was a founding member of PS122 and I think that’s what we’re trying to hold strong to. PS122 was a place where people could rehearse for cheap and could show their work and things were going on all hours of all days. It was a place for community in those times. I also find it quite hard when, I’m going to be quite honest, when right after the election all I think about is, oh my god I work in theater and dance…

KD: Right, should we all just be lawyers?

ES: Should we all go do something important?

KD: Yeah, totally.

ES: I’m sure a lot of people felt that way. I used to be a performer and that was great, and then I transitioned to this world of administration because I feel like that’s my talent. I want to help people whose voices should be heard and the importance of getting those voices on a stage or in public or wherever is just so important. It’s hard to stomach the “great art’s going to come out of this.” Through history you can look and there’s reaction, like this happened and then all of this great art happened from it. It’s not so simple, that equal and opposite reaction.

KD: To me, I do think artists are working really hard and as administrators and curators that’s what we can do -  offer them space and give them support to be doing that kind of work.

ES: Yeah, I feel like artists feel a big pressure at this point, even media wise, to follow this situation that’s happening. Where can people go? I feel like artists are really taking it upon themselves in a great way, but that’s a lot of…

KD: It’s a huge responsibility.

ES: Pressure. But yeah, giving them space might be greatest thing about being a theater. That’s why I’m excited to actually move back into PS122 and actually have a space where we can provide that space. Right now we’re in a bit of this limbo. We’re almost there. I think that we are going to be talking internally a lot about what do artists need. I know that that’s a conversation that happens all the time and it’s kind of lame. They need money and they need space. They need maybe some help with some production.

KD: And health insurance.

ES: They need health insurance. I don’t know that those things change.

KD: There’s this moment where everything is being recalibrated so there’s almost like a vacuum. If Planned Parenthood doesn’t exist, who fills that? If there’s no longer free speech in the press, who fills that? How is the need shifting and how can we fill that or provide an opportunity for someone to do that?

Tina Satter is going to be doing an amazing series of talks and performances and Curator Lumi Tan  really handed the gallery over to her and said it’s your space, you can do what you want. She came back and had way more than we expected. There are talks happening two or three times a day for ten or twelve days straight.

ES: and from a wide variety of people...

KD: A wide variety of people: performers, artists, activists, lawyers, scholars, thinkers, and writers... Half Straddle is also rehearsing so we are giving them that space. It’s also an opportunity for conversation. That’s something we’ve thought about a lot as a staff. We just actually need the space to talk to each other. In the midst of so much that’s going on, in the day-by-day, second-by-second craziness that’s happening and the shifts, it’s just good to have space to discuss.

ES: PS122 has these things that we call “Longtables” which were created by Lois Weaver. It’s basically twelve people at a table and you can come and go as you please and other people can join the conversation, but we start with a question or a topic and just let people talk. It’s this really nice format because everyone who wants to talk can talk. Everyone can have this voice but it's still relatively a small group of people. We try and be broad in our invitations and make sure people know about it but it’s still maybe not as far reaching as it could be. I think that conversation, two-way conversation is so important at this point.

KD: We’re putting together our LAB conference. The LAB stands for “Language Art Bodies” and it’s a monthly discussion series that we’ve had for five years now. With the five year anniversary [of LAB] we’re thinking a lot about how that discussion changed The Kitchen, and how it has reflected the changes in our community. Every year we have a different word that is the starting point. It’s been “narrative”, “audience”, and this year it’s “position.” We think about how the same word has different resonance in various disciplines or different contexts. As we’ve been planning that, we’ve been thinking to really cast the net broadly. Usually we’d think of having a choreographer and a visual artist and a poet, a philosopher and a scholar. We’re really thinking now, where’s our community activist? Where are earth scientists who can talk about that? Where are criminal justice lawyers who can speak to that? I don’t have a law degree and would like to know a little more about the particulars of that.

ES: Yeah, when you think of casting a wide net, like you said, it’s like, we’ll pull from all these disciplines still inside this insular community. It’s really interesting, I’ve never had a conversation about climate change with a scientist. I’ve also never seen a show about that - I’ve never seen documentation. I’ve never seen something in a gallery or theater that touches on that, which I think would be really interesting.

KD: Well you should come see Sara Magenheimer’s show that just opened last night at The Kitchen.

ES: The thing I really liked about my reaction to Tina’s thing at The Kitchen is that when I was looking at the list of people [she’s inviting to come speak], I was noticing how my friends were popping out and I was like, “Oh, ok. I’ll go see them.” And then I was like you know what, I need to stop. I need to see people who I don’t know anything about. I need to hear from those people because those are the people I’m going to learn something from, or that will, can affect me, maybe not more, but in a different way than I’m used to. I really love that wide range of people that she has.

KD: And that’s the hard thing about New York. There are just so many options. That given an array of thirty shows to go to in an evening, I’m going to go to the one my friend is in.

ES: Also there’s such social obligation.

KD: Totally. There’s a social obligation, and there’s a professional obligation to continue to follow the career of a particular artist or things like that. I remember talking to Deb Singer who was the previous Executive Director and Chief Curator at The Kitchen and she said that when visiting a smaller town she found it was actually great to have maybe only three options because then she went to the poetry reading of the person that she didn’t know at all because that was the option for the evening. I’ve been thinking about that as a curator. I’m really trying not to go to the places that I always go to, but it’s hard.

ES: It’s hard because there’s also so many of those places as well. There’s just a lot. I feel that way too. I mean, in January I do go see things because it’s my job but at some point I almost shut down because I have no way to navigate this landscape at all anymore.

KD: I had to draw some boundaries for myself this year. I was like, realistically, we at The Kitchen definitely have international groups perform, but as an assistant curator I mostly work with people based in New York, so I was like ok, that’s one way that I can winnow the pool. If I’ve seen their work before, I’m not going to the show, and so I moved that in a different way. But still there are just so many things.

ES: At all scales too.

KD: At all scales.

ES: It’s really hard.

KD: It’s really hard.

ES: I know that there’s been a lot of talk about changing January and people pushing back against that, but I just don’t know if that’s ever going to…

KD: Well it’s interesting for me... I looked into the history of APAP this year and was like why do we do this?

ES: You’re such an archivist!

KD: I’m such an archivist. I’m such a nerd. But why do we do it in the cold of winter?

ES: Because there are cheap hotel rooms? That’s what I’ve always assumed.

KD: That’s what I’ve always heard. But it used to happen in December so people could come with their families to see the holiday windows, do their christmas shopping, see the Rockettes, you know, have a holiday experience and go to all of these performances. It’s shifted to January because hotels are cheaper now. It also usually corresponds with Martin Luther King Jr. Day Weekend and people have a little bit more time there.

This plan is only convenient or helpful for the smallest group of people. For all of the artists it’s crazy because people usually take some time off for the holiday and studios shut down and people come back and they don’t have space or time to rehearse or places to go take class and then they run around like crazy people in the middle of a snow storm. It’s just insanity.

ES: It’s a lot. I’m sure that it’s helpful for some presenters who are in places that maybe don’t get a lot of traffic. But I’m just questioning if it’s a disservice and burning everybody out.

What else, anything else?

KD: Well another thing I’ve thought about, which somewhat goes with this APAP discussion is collaboration and I hope that that’s something we will do more as we…

ES: What do you mean collaboration?

KD: Between organizations. It’s been great to do this with the Highline, and sometimes I just look around and there are so many resources but it can be hard for artists to navigate what can be a crazy network or pathway. It just seems like maybe we should work together.

ES: Yeah, I think it’s great. Coming from an organization that’s been homeless for quite a while, that’s the only way we’ve existed. The only way we’ve been able do anything is by partnering. I very much hope that that continues at PS122 in some way. Even with these Longtable conversations, we have generally two partners involved, a partner venue and then a partnering organization. Usually we try for a community organization and try and bring all of these different people who might not be in our realm into the room. I think that’s the most interesting, again I just don’t want to talk to myself and be in an echo chamber. As financial resources are dwindling, that’s also the only way. That might be eventually the only way that we can—

KD: That we can do things.

ES: —is if we all pull resources.

KD: We’ve thought about that a lot, whether the NEA is totally getting cut, which does seem likely but it’s still hard to know with this administration. And what does that mean if the NEA’s cut? What comes next? Does the Board of Education come next? How does that trickle down to us here in New York, in thinking about the DCA? Funding is going to be huge. That’s something we think about a lot.

But also more broadly about, when J20 happened, there was a big discussion at The Kitchen about how are we participating. There was a big petition that circulated around via email and there was a question - at what point does The Kitchen take a stand? As a non-profit, what bandwidth do we have to make those outward declarations? If we band together with Common Practice for example, in what ways can we pool resources? Are we all doing one thing on J20 together? Or when there was the national strike--are we all choosing to align together and shut down our buildings, or to hold series of conversations? It can feel really isolating to be in the middle. We ended up, on J20 closing, closing our gallery, but then all going to The Whitney. Instead of holding ten separate events... who can all go to those ten events on one day? That just doesn’t make sense. It’s better for us as a staff to go to The Whitney. They had a really wonderful series of almost thirty speakers that each talked about a huge variety of different causes. To go back to The Kitchen and share a meal as a staff and talk about it for an hour and a half and have that space, I think was really great.

ES: So, our Coil was three weeks this year because of partner organization schedules. So that final weekend, inauguration weekend, we had our last show which was a piece called “La Medea” by Yara Travieso. I feel that everybody wanted people to be able to shut down and go to the march in Washington and I think that we actually got some flack for not canceling the show. I remember talking with someone else at PS122, and we were talking about how this is show by a Latin American woman, about Medea, so it’s inherently an immigrant story. This is what we should be showing. This is what we should be having. What is a bigger impact at this moment? Not that marching isn’t important. Art is a statement and doing something like this is very political in its own right.

KD: And just being open feels like a radical statement, knowing that the kind of work that we do, where we’re a not-for-profit gallery and we offer artists this exciting middle space to experiment and do performance if they want to do performance or show work in the gallery if they want to show work in the gallery. So that in and of itself speaks again to the history of the alternative space.

ES: With Vallejo [Gantner], who’s no longer with PS122, I learned a lot from him and he always said well you know, we support artists. We don’t support projects. We don’t support specific things because we want those things to be able to change and react to whatever is happening in the moment.

KD: Yeah, to stay open or to close is something that I think is going to come up again and again and again. It’s hard to know what is the biggest impact. What is the loudest way we can speak? I’m not always sure if we want to be so loud.

ES: Well that’s the thing too. There’s a point where I’m like oh, this is time for me to shut up and listen. And at what point? We want to be this entity in this community and be able to be there as a resource for people. But then there’s a moment where we have to shut up and let the people who actually know certain struggles to inform us. The Kerry James Marshall exhibit, did you see it?

KD: Amazing, yeah.

ES: I was walking through it and obviously I see that there are no white people in these images. Then at some point, because it felt suddenly quite emotional to me, it was this moment where it was like, I’m not included here. I understand it, but oh my god, this is what every non-white person feels like.

KD: Everyday, all the time.

ES: Everyday. I need to sit back, I need to let people speak up. Because it was really mind blowing for me that I had never experienced or understood that feeling before.

KD: But that’s what we can do. We’re in such privileged places. There are people who get to make decisions about whose work is shown where and how. In an effort to move toward greater racial justice and equity, I’m always like, what can I do as a curator and what can I do as an archivist? It’s often to step back and to listen as an artist and say, what do you need? And how, in the way that I have resources, can I offer that to you? As an archivist it’s how can I make sure people’s stories are told and that people don’t fall by the wayside? There’s been a lot of work around this composer Julius Eastman who died in the early 90s, homeless, penniless, and totally forgotten… but there’s been a lot of resurgent interest in him. There was actually just an article in the Research Performance Journal about him. He was this amazing, African-American, gay composer who was doing really fascinating minimalist music in the 70s and 80s, but who really pushed everyone’s buttons. John Cage was basically like, you are too much for me. I don’t exactly how the story goes but they definitely rubbed each other the wrong way. He made such an incredible contribution and performed at The Kitchen several times. It’s been really exciting to see people look at that material in our archive and reconsider the canon or the history in different ways.

ES: Yeah. Also, I love my job but to think how we are cast with helping that canon. Giving voice to that canon—

KD: Making sure it really changes.

ED: Broadening it, that feels really intense.

KD: Yeah, thinking of it that way is super weighty. To look at old calendars from The Kitchen and be like wow, 1992 they were doing this amazing work. How do we stand up to that? That is really hard. I actually try not to think of it like that.

ES: Well yeah, because then I think you’re trying to curate for a status, to make sure that instead of necessarily giving an artist exactly’s maybe not catering to the artists then.

KD: So in that way, you can’t look at it from the outside, you really have to be at it from the ground up. But it’s risky and it’s hard.

ES: So if we support artists, if we give them resources and allow them to do their thing, that’s—

KD: That’s when those moments happen.

ES: That’s when those moments happen. Then thirty years later they look back and are like, oh wow that happened. That was so cool.

KD: Yeah. Which is always heartening when something is not received the way you wish it was. The show is not sold the way you wish it was. But I feel really strongly that this was done the way that we did this. We are in a non-profit situation. We are not in this to be making money. We are not in this to be making the cover of the New York Times or having an artist win an exciting prize. It’s really to support their work.

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Katy Dammers

Katy Dammers is the Assistant Curator and Archive Manager at The Kitchen. She has co-curated numerous projects at The Kitchen including the exhibition “From Minimalism into Algorithm” and performances...
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Elisabeth Skjærvold

Elisabeth Skjærvold is the Creative Producer at Performance Space 122. From 2007-2014, she was a Performer and Company Manager with Nature Theater of Oklahoma. She performed in Poetics: a ballet brut,...
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