Lisa Dent: 10 Tips for Performance Artists Working With Museums

Sarah Michelson's performance at the Whitney Museum in 2014. Sarah also performed at the "New Circuits" conference at the Walker this past month.

Sarah Michelson’s performance at the Whitney Museum in 2014. Sarah also performed at the “New Circuits” conference at the Walker this past month.

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of meeting with colleagues for New Circuits: Curating Contemporary Performance at Walker Art Center, a convening supported by a curatorial fellowship grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. We came together to discuss new models of performance curating, particular how they are supported within the museum setting. In addition to learning about the incredible work being created across the country by these forward thinking artists and curators, I learned a lot about what artists can do to better advocate for themselves. Here is my Top Ten list, the best things I heard from curators who want to help you help yourselves!

  1. Before accepting a commission, performance or residency, instead of giving the director or curator your proposal, Kristy Edmunds, Executive and Artistic Director of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA (CAP UCLA), suggested that artists provide a wish list instead.  That way the curator or director can tell you how they can support your creative process and how they can’t.

  1. Do you want to make sure that a particular community is able to see your performance? Ask to increase the number of comp tickets you will have access to in your contract. By helping the venue consider their ticketing policy early, you can ensure that more of the people you really want in the seats are able to be there.
  1. Find a way to check in regularly throughout the process, even if you are struggling with something. There may be ways to get you what you need that you didn’t imagine were possible.
  1. Tell the curator what other projects you are working on during the development of your commission or performance. The other work may not involve the institution you are talking to but knowing what else you have on your plate will help the curator create reasonable deadlines for you. They may also be able to work with the other institution(s) to support you better.
  1. If your work is interdisciplinary and the institution has curators separated by discipline, try to get a meeting with curators from each department. Help them begin to think about how their ideas and audiences can come together.
  1. As the date of your performance gets closer, ask for a meeting with representatives from other departments across the institution that may also be involved (visitor services, education, etc.). Don’t always assume the curator is advocating for you across all areas of the institution.  Schedule a conference call or in-person meeting with everyone well before you are there so that all areas of your performance or residency are addressed.
  1. After meeting people from other departments, follow up at least once with everyone and then let them do their jobs so you can focus on your work.
  1. Consider posterity! Even if the curator hasn’t asked, encourage the commissioning institution to take a few of the notes, drawings, or photographs you made while you were there. It will become a record of the event and a great resource in the future.
  1. Have a feedback session with the curators and other institutional partners after the project is over. Everyone will be able to learn and slowly help improve the field.
  1. If the curator/presenter is not supporting your needs, trusting your vision and sharing your passion for the project, end the relationship and move on. You should not make time for colleagues that aren’t behind you 100%.

So have you guessed what my biggest take away was? Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. If you and the curator are clear about your goals, everyone will be better off, now and in the future.

More Online Resources