My Problem with the Arts in Philadelphia

Please Do Not Hire the Local Talent

Bridge dances at Bushwick Open Studios. Photo by Michael Yu._small

Megan Bridge might be best-known as co-curator of <fidget>, which, together with neighboring Mascherspace, presents some of Philadelphia’s most exciting experimental performance. As a choreographer and dancer she has performed with artists as diverse and lauded as Lucinda Childs, Jerome Bel, Willi Dorner, Headlong Dance Theater, and Group Motion. Her most recent project, Dust, premiered here in Philly at FringeArts in April before touring the country. Bridge is also a critic, and has recently taken over as executive director of thINKingDANCE. Bridge is ubiquitous in Philadelphia’s experimental dance scene, so asking her to curate a week of content was a no-brainer. Here she discusses something very much at the tops of our minds: financing art.

– Julius Ferraro, co-founder

Once the nation’s capital (a status it lost to DC in 1800) and the center of culture in America (a status which gradually, and for reasons beyond the scope of this article, trickled away to a certain island just to the north), Philadelphia is currently the second largest city on the East Coast.

With a population of 1.5 million, Philadelphians have struggled for decades to escape the little sister syndrome. Philly is a city of hard workers. Local pride breeds a certain provincialism, unfortunately perpetuated by constant reminders that New York City, an economic and cultural giant that lies only 100 miles to the north, is still very much in people’s minds the art capital of the world. But with increasing glocalization, and visibility and accessibility through the web, not to mention the burgeoning population of young artists in cities other than New York and the new energy they bring, New York’s hegemony is pretty much over (I know, Brooklyn, it hurts).

Unfortunately, the chip on Philadelphia’s shoulder remains. Philly artists have an inferiority complex which is perpetuated by an institutional imperative to look outside of Philadelphia to find “excellence” in the arts.

This actually happened to me.

I was at the very beginning of working on a new project, choreographing an evening-length dance. It was a big project, and I needed big funding. I met with a small group of representatives from a Philadelphia foundation that I thought might be a good match. After describing my project and talking about the dancers I was interested in working with, I was directed by the head grant officer to not hire any Philadelphia dancers. In this person’s perspective (and . . . I inferred, the perspective of the foundation), there weren’t any dancers in Philly that were “good enough.” This particular grant officer even went so far as to name two specific dancers (one in New York, one in Europe) that they thought I should reach out to as potentially good matches for my project. I was flabbergasted. The audacity! How could a funder possibly suggest that s/he knows best what collaborators an artist should choose to bring into such an intimate relationship as creating art together?

After fuming for a few days, I used my application for that grant to get on a soapbox about my commitment to working with the excellent local artists in my own city, and about the intimate nature of collaborative relationships. From my application: “The dancers I am working with are LOCAL. This is an ethical and political stance. I believe in working collaboratively with performers, and in collaboration that is built on trust and personal/political/aesthetic relationships that grow over time in the studio…I believe in rigor and depth of inquiry, not “talent.” …There are many other qualified “experts” in this field that reside outside of Philadelphia, however I would not enter into a collaborative relationship of this depth with someone I don’t know.”

Needless to say, my application was rejected.

But so here’s my problem with art in Philadelphia. It’s that we keep going back. We keep letting these funders determine the nature and scope of our art, we jump through hoops as they change reporting requirements, budgetary guidelines. We spend as much time developing innovative marketing strategies (outreach! growth! capacity building!!) as we do making our art.

Could you imagine a Philadelphia where the richest funders required some basic proof every year that artists were regularly practicing, and based on that proof, the pie was divided evenly between all the artists? More art for everyone, with built-in diversity. Communistic-style. Down with capitalistic art and the way funders are holding us back from making our best work. Philly artists, what can we do?

Edwin Markham’s epigram Outwitted puts this much more eloquently, and I paraphrase for its application here: If someone draws a circle and excludes you, then draw a larger circle and include him. Can we artists band together somehow and draw a bigger circle that includes the funders? Choreographer friends of mine Gabrielle Revlock and Nicole Bindler have attempted this in a comedic way with their “2015 Call for Funders: Gabrielle and Nicole invite funders to apply to support The Dance Apocalypse’s 2015 creative work. Eligible funders must demonstrate a history of supporting radical, experimental, feminist performance for at least 5 years. To be considered please submit a letter of intent…addressing the following questions…” (read the full Call for Funders here).

Another approach is a boycott. Easy enough for those of us making work that would be an unlikely fit for large foundations. Many artists are making work with the support of small donations via crowd funding, or traveling around for tiny gigs to make ends meet. But it’s hard to blame those few of my peers, whose work does fit the foundation bill, accepting large grants to fund their work. And sometimes I even get hired as a dancer for those sweet gigs, sucking the tit of one of the foundations I’m so harshly railing against.

I don’t know the answer. But I do know that Philly artists need to support each other and keep reminding each other that WE ARE MAKING WORLD CLASS ART THAT NEEDS TO BE SEEN AROUND THE WORLD! By any means possible.

Photo credit: Michael Yu

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3 Comments on "Please Do Not Hire the Local Talent"

Jonathan Stein
2 years 9 months ago

Thanks Megan for a gutsy polemic, as artists (and presenters) have been saying this sotto voce for some years now in the face of the same interventions and demands into artistic expression and choice that you cite here.
Change will only come when these issues become more transparent and the subject of public scrutiny.

Jonathan Stein
2 years 9 months ago

Thanks Megan for the courage in saying what many artists (and presenters) have been saying privately for years now, self-censored in fear of retribution and hostility from those writing the checks. More transparency and discussion these heavy-handed intrusions into artist decision-making is a first step toward change.

Tieshka Smith
2 years 9 months ago

Powerful commentary. Will be sharing widely!