Sam Miller (1952–2018)

Sam Miller. Photo: New England Foundation for the Arts.

SAM MILLER'S IMPRINT on the performing arts in the United States is indelible, but he himself was an enigma. I was always at a loss for what to call him. Curator? Producer? Funder? Entrepreneur? Cultural architect?

He was all of these things. And as well, he was a poet.

When he was the director of New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA) between 1995 and 2005—during which time he founded the National Dance Project (NDP), and the Contemporary Art Centers (CAC) and Centers for Creative Research (CCR) initiatives—he became impatient with writing the obligatory annual “letter from the director.” So instead, he wrote minimal, idiosyncratic texts as introductions to NEFA’s annual report. I always wondered what his board of directors made of them. The following is from 2001:

Three funds plus three zeros
Equals six states and two dozen dances
A maze, a necklace, an emerald minotaur
Asking and offering forgiveness – in public, in process, in secret

One of his recent literary obsessions was Paula Fox, a writer he discovered reading Lynne Tillman’s collected essays What Would Lynne Tillman Do? (2014), in which she writes:

After September 11, reckoning with Paula Fox’s memoir, Borrowed Finery, is intellectually consoling. Like most people, I’m roller-coasting: Nothing means anything, everything’s urgent, life’s precious, obviously, expendable. Her memoir asks: What does another life tell us? How is the manner in which a life is written significant?”

In what significant manner did Sam write his life? He carried long, slim cards on which he customized lists for friends and colleagues with whom he met regularly. They included initials of artists, books, cities, and single words like “neuroscience” or “digitize.” I thought of them as “list poems,” and as I would wait for him to pull one for me from his jacket pocket I’d wonder, “What does he want me to think about now?” During our meetings, usually over breakfast at the recently shuttered Noho Star, he would listen intently while mapping new cultural initiatives on paper napkins or the backs of envelopes. It was during one of these breakfasts that we first talked about creating what he called a “think space” or “idea store” for Danspace Project.

Two of Sam's early influences stem from his time as an undergraduate at Wesleyan University in the 1970s: Joseph Beuys’s performance How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare, 1965, and Lucy Lippard's 1973 book Six Years: Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. Beuys’s utopian ideas about social sculpture, and social architecture, undoubtedly seeped into Sam’s programmatic, philanthropic thinking. And like Lippard, he was never as interested in material artifacts or final artistic products as he was in cultural, political, and economic processes and systems. Given the impact Wesleyan had on his life and work, it is fitting that in 2011, he co-founded (with Pam Tatge, myself, and others) the Institute for Curatorial Practice in Performance at the university—the country’s first program dedicated to performing arts curation.

Sam’s translation (or was it his mistranslation?) of social architecture was to direct the flow of money from individuals, governments, and foundations to artists. He had an unshakeable belief that giving them unfettered support and resources was his civic responsibility. Although he fiercely advocated for all artistic disciplines, dance was closest to his heart. It infuriated him to see the greatest choreographers of the 20th century, Trisha Brown and Merce Cunningham among them, struggling to make ends meet at the end of their lives, after decades of radical contributions. He was also devoted to Cambodian classical dance. During his tenure as director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in the early 1990s, he produced the Music and Dance of Cambodia programs, and assisted in efforts to reunite practitioners who were refugees in the United States with the few artists still alive in Cambodia after Pol Pot’s reign of terror (1975–79). He understood that dance is a political, precarious art form, one that requires a person-to-person transmission of knowledge.

Sam’s genius was his ability to persuade and galvanize artists, funders, presenters, and curators to get on board with his ideas. In 1999, he collaborated with Mikhail Baryshnikov on Past Forward, a project revisiting seminal works by artists associated with the Judson Dance Theater: Simone Forti, Steve Paxton, David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Lucinda Childs, and Brown. Sam was also one of the architects behind Ralph Lemon’s ten-year Geography Trilogy (1997–2007), an evolving vision involving three continents, three epic theater productions, three books, and numerous videos, installations, and drawings. As President of the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council (LMCC) from 2011 until his retirement in 2016—as well as through collaborations with Danspace Project—he supported a new generation of performance innovators, among them Sarah Michelson, Maria Hassabi, Trajal Harrell, Okwui Okpokwasili, luciana achugar, Faye Driscoll, and Kaneza Schaal. Even in his retirement he could be seen regularly at performance venues, galleries and museums. He was always, as he wrote to me, “responding to the impulse to construct creative conditions for ourselves [and] for others.”

In 2016, I invited him to be a writer-in-residence for Eiko Otake’s six-week Danspace Platform, A Body in Places. He wrote weekly responses to her site specific performances in and around St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, including the following excerpt from a longer poem:

I feel about Eiko as
Lynne Tillman feels about Paula Fox or Susan Howe about Emily Dickinson or maybe the way Ana Mendieta feels about Ana Mendieta in her films showing right now at Galerie Lelong.
 Eiko, Ana, and Maria all in town at the same time! This is certainly the royal eclipse of the sun and all of us attendants will be able to say that we were here under this lunar shadow, tidal in its affections.

And all of us attendants are able to say that we were here under Sam’s enigmatic shadow, the better for his affections.

Judy Hussie-Taylor is executive director and chief curator of Danspace Project in New York.