Jennifer Leake: What motivated you to initiate the
David White: It concerned me when,
in the early 80s, 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 dont
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 werent
from, for example, New York City, were the most productive ones. Yet
they couldnt 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 NPNs
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
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 havent 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 todays 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 NPNs future
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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