Dance and the Museum: Sarah Maxfield Responds

Performance and visual art have a long and winding relationship. The current trend of visual art institutions presenting performance isn’t exactly new territory, but it is noteworthy, and it has been raising some concerns in the performance field.

Unlike most visual art curation (particularly of works by now-dead artists), one cannot curate performance in a completely controlled context as the singular vision of one person. There are nearly always multiple people’s contributions to consider: performers, designers, choreographers, directors, writers, etc., etc., etc. One of the troubling trends in the current milieu, in which we find performance more and more frequently presented in visual art institutions, is the elevation of a single artist over and above the other collaborators. This attempt (by institutional curators, the press, etc.) to fit performance into a visual art presenting structure ignores the deeply artistic contributions of so many, and perpetuates a fiction that a single creator is the only artist worth noticing.

This fiction leads to damaging consequences, one of which is a hierarchical structure in which performers are un-credited and treated as media, rather than self-actualized artists. Designers are generally hidden completely from wall texts and press releases.  Perhaps because design contributions, which could be considered individual works of visual art in their own right, most threaten the single-creator fiction in a museum context. As performance-makers being invited into visual art institutions, we have a responsibility to advocate for a presenting context that is more accurately complex.

Equally important, we must advocate for performance to be presented in visual art institutions as performance and not as objects. If our framing of performance shifts from a time-based experience to a collectible item, the very thing that makes performance unique and necessary in our culture is diminished. We stand to lose much if performance that calls itself performance is less important than performance that calls itself an art object. We stand to lose more if performance is no longer a conversation, but just another item for sale.

Sarah Maxfield investigates contemporary performance and its history through practice, discussion, and critical theory. She creates live performance and, with equal focus, creates structures for viewing and discussing performance and its context. Maxfield’s work has been presented by The Chocolate Factory Theater, P.S. 122, and the Museum of Arts and Design, among other venues in NYC and beyond. Maxfield has contributed writing to The Brooklyn Rail, The Performance Club, and the Movement Research Performance Journal, and she was a Context Notes Writer for Dance Theater Workshop’s final season. Maxfield curates THROW at The Chocolate Factory Theater, and is working with a team to develop a festival to honor the work of performance artist Tom Murrin.  She is also conducting an artist-driven archive of experimental dance and performance in New York, titled Nonlinear Lineage, in collaboration with Elliott Jenetopulos. Maxfield is currently a fellow at Abrons Arts Center at Henry Street Settlement.

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collaboration, curation, Dance and the Museum, Dance and Visual Art, objecthood, performance, Sarah Maxfield, time, visual art


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