An Interview with David White,
Former Director,
National Performance Network
October, 1999

By Jennifer Leake


After nearly 14 years at the helm of the National Performance Network (NPN, a pool of cultural organisations spreading dance across U.S. communities), David White, Executive Director and Producer of New York’s DTW (Dance Theater Workshop) has relinquished his leadership of NPN to Eleanor San San Wong. White’s devotion to supporting emerging artists in their, in his words, “laboratory of work at the cutting edge of the street-life of cultural community” is no secret in the U.S. White talks with contagious enthusiasm about his role in forming the NPN into the autonomous “not-for-profit” organization it has now become.
 

 

Jennifer Leake: What motivated you to initiate the NPN?
David White:
It concerned me when, in the early 80’s, President Ronald Reagan talked about getting rid of the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Community cultural development deepens relationships between artists and communities. People in different communities here felt isolated. Where only the highly viable and familiar were given a chance, the unfamiliar remained on the sidelines, if at all visible. We needed to change the mechanics of the emerging arts in our society.

How did the NPN establish itself as a legitimate organisation?
In 1983, with the help of the Ford Foundation and, later, the National Endowment for the Arts, we started to create quasi-permanent relationships between cities across the U.S. The idea was to invest in a standard behavior, one of assisting artists to establish their work. Soon, the NPN confirmed its legitimacy and became nationally important. I don’t think those involved thought it could last this long. We were working with unknown artists and unknown venues.

What impact did the NPN hope to make on the circumstances of emerging performing artists across the U.S.?
When the NPN was established in 1984, the objective was to allow outsiders into a community and give them a place in that community, create a marketplace where artists could emerge and recoup their costs. Often the artists with the smallest budgets who weren’t from, for example, New York City, were the most productive ones. Yet they couldn’t get into even the modest venues like DTW in New York City. The transportation expenses, living costs, etc. involved with travelling were too high. Therefore, the work known to communities was only the tip of the iceberg. I liken it to geography; Volcanoes pushing up – we needed to re-landscape the way culture operates. By building a macro-community – originally 14 organisations, in 12 cities – we would give people the tools to go back inside their own communities and create new work. The goal was to raise as much money as possible and subsidize up-coming artists while they perform in cities and venues that might otherwise be inaccessible to them.

Recent figures suggest that its activities reach approximately 100,000 audience and community members each year. What are the NPN’s criteria for choosing which artists receive residencies in U.S. communities?
The NPN was never supposed to be a touring system or a God-like way of determining who should get assistance. It was meant to respond to the needs of people making decisions in their own communities and to give as many promising artists as possible one week and two week residences in different venues. The members, now called the Primary Partners, are artists and cultural organisations from the areas of dance, theatre, music, performance art and puppetry, across approximately 33 communities in the U.S.

Two funds were established in 1988; the Creation Fund, which has directly funded the development of almost 120 new works, and the Special Underwriting, Research and Frontier Fund (S.U. R. F. F.). The S.U.R.F.F. has set in motion almost 200 community-based projects to encourage new initiatives and greater interaction between artists, arts organisers and communities. Where do you see the NPN going from here?
The NPN is constantly re-stating its objectives in order to maintain the financial support, close to US$9 million during 15 years, it has amassed so far. I no longer maintain a major role in the NPN, but its objectives haven’t really changed since the outset. We have to keep reminding people that what we are trying to achieve will impact on our educational institutions – with today’s emerging artists becoming influential community members (for example the dancers Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris) – and the future of our cultural identity.

San San Wong added her vision for the NPN’s future to White’s:
“We need to strategically form alliances and partnerships with other international, national, regional and local organisations to create an integrated approach to systematically address needs in the arts. External to the arts field, we need to examine the place of arts in societies, current and historical, and articulate more clearly why arts – the artistic mastery and content relevance – are integral to our lives.”

(Copyright: Jennifer Leake)

 

A form of this interview was first published in Ballet International, Germany, October 1999.

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