Fail Safe

Left: MAP Fund program director Moira Brennan with Creative Capital grantee Jim Skuldt. Right: Creative Capital grantee Michael Robinson.

“IT’S LIKE YOU’RE DEEP-SEA DIVING. It feels like a transformation that is urgent and necessary—even if it is exhausting.”

Moira Brennan said this to me the Thursday before last at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, as we were settling into the first full day of presentations at the Creative Capital Artist Retreat at Williams College, in Williamstown, Mass. Retreat is something of a misnomer in its implication of relaxation; this year’s event, the foundation’s ninth, featured forty eight new projects from the performing arts, literature, and emerging fields, as well as recent grantees from the visual arts and film/video (a strong thread of social practice ran through all of the categories), for a multi-day endurance test of meetings, panels, workshops, networking, and formal presentations. As program director of the MAP (Multi-Arts Production) Fund, Brennan is a veteran of these marathon conferences. But this was my first. I was there not as a consultant or grantee, but simply to observe as, one after another over the course of four days, eighty-five solo artists and collaborative groups stepped to a podium and spoke about their work.

Because Creative Capital is modeled in part around venture capitalist models of entrepreneurship and networking, and because a retreat like this is guaranteed to bring out big doses of inspirational and self-congratulatory feelings, TED Talks comparisons are probably inevitable. But unlike those Monterrey-based ego-baiting melees, CC artists are allowed only five or seven minutes in which to describe their projects (stay too long and you are, umm, encouraged off the stage). And given the violently under-resourced structure of progressive arts funding, presenters are urged to appeal to the crowd for their remaining needs.

This, for non-business savvy readers, is called The Ask. (At least it isn’t an acronym. Like “B-HAG,” for example, aka “big hairy audacious goal,” introduced to me by Creative Capital’s president and executive director Ruby Lerner as she announced a fundraising push; please tell me someone has repurposed those four letters into something dirty.)

Left: Sam Green (2001 Film/Video grantee) and LaToya Ruby Frazier (2012 Visual Arts grantee) at the Creative Capital Artist Retreat. Right: Creative Capital grantee Cam Archer.

Here were some of the Asks that tickled me:

“An abandoned summer camp in the jungle would be perfect.” – Michael Robinson, film/video 2012

“What I need from you is $17 billion or, failing that, a Winnebago.” – Mark Elijah Rosenberg, film/video 2012

“I need a travel agent and an estate planner, because I also want to create a will where I become a sausage.” – Elaine Tin Nyo, Emerging Fields 2013

“If you see a place for this in your life, please let me know.” – Jesse Sugarmann, film/video 2012

“What I’m looking for is a good time. No. I don’t know what I’m looking for.” – Cam Archer, film/video 2012

This last one struck a particular chord. As the theater director and writer Jesse Bonnell, a 2013 performing arts grantee, put it at the Red Herring bar at the end of the first night, “Speed dating is hard for everyone.”

Yes. But surely it’s harder for the person doing The Ask, isn’t it? I’m a big fan of Creative Capital (full disclosure: I received a 2011 Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant). I think the folks working there have their hearts and brains in the right places in a way that a dismaying lot of foundation folks don’t.

But as wave after wave of presentations washed over me, and I listened to artists talking about the stress and strictures of the format, or strategizing about how best to both get stuff and maintain dignity, I wondered what it would be like if the roles were reversed, and the artists got to sit and take notes as the arts professionals did the song and dance. After all, on a fundamental level, curators and critics and foundations and consultants and marketers and presenters all share one essential Ask, don’t we? You know, artists.

At the same time, I agree with Brennan’s description of the experience of listening to and watching dozens of artists talk—charmingly, movingly, fumblingly, bombastically, brashly, etc.—their way through what they’re about. “The experience of doing it definitely creates empathy,” said choreographer and 2013 performing arts grantee Emily Johnson after her presentation. “You know what people are going through, you feel for them. For some people it’s easy; for most of us it’s not.”

A group of 2013 Creative Capital grantees at the Artist Retreat in Williamstown, Mass. (All photos: Carolyn Lambert for Creative Capital)

The more polished and performance-savvy among the presenters shone in a setting like this (perhaps a bit too much; there was sometimes, inevitably, the feel of being at a comedy showcase). But somehow, and maybe in keeping with what Johnson was saying, what has stayed with me were the quieter, human moments—the film and performance artist Patty Chang, a 2012 visual arts grantee, talking about this being a big year for her, and then mentioning, without any flourishes, the birth of her child and death of her father. Or the choreographer DD Dorvillier, a 2013 performing arts grantee, expressing her desire to be able to tour in her own country while her voice shook with nerves.

As the writer, artist, and critic Matias Viegener, a 2013 emerging fields grantee, said in describing the drone he is working with, “It’s clumsy. And I love its mistakes.” (Not that either Chang or Dorvillier were mistaken or clumsy—only that they were, like many of the artists who talked, vulnerable in a way that seems anathema to the practices of branding. Or, you know, spying.)

Viegener’s lines were my two favorite sentences from the retreat. And here were the ones I disliked the most:

“I was also blown away by the presentations. There were maybe five projects I could imagine bringing to my space. … our audience is a classic NPR audience and will take chances on work they don’t know. But they want it to be pleasurable.”

That was Aaron Greenwald, the director of Duke Performances at Duke University, speaking during a State of the Field performing arts focus session on Sunday, shortly before we all piled back on New York–bound buses. Back to the daily grind—Greenwald was doing his part, I suppose, reminding us that the reality of a lot of arts institutions in this country revolves around selling a safe product.

No clumsy. No mistakes. No thanks.