2010 Arts Summit Address by Norman Armour
June 29, 2010
On Friday, June 25th PuSh Festival Executive Director Norman Armour participated as a panel speaker in the session Cultural Assets and Infrastructure: Buildings and Human Capital at the 2010 Arts Summit.
About the session:
City Planning calls for the creation of ‘whole’ communities that are successful in meeting and mixing quality-of-life needs. Such communities need signature theatres, galleries and museums but they also need artist’s studios, rehearsal rooms, shops, administration spaces, places where artists can live and rough, unusual spaces where they can create synergies. Developers and architects have a stake in making neighbourhoods successful too. This panel explored the push and pull of divergent and converging desires; bringing to the discussion their experience of local and international trends.
Moderator Lance Berelowitz, author, planner and founding principal Urban Forum
Associates; Richard Henriquez, Henriquez Partners Architects (Woodwards redevelopment urban concept North Shore False Creek); Michael Audain, CEO Polygon Homes; Chair of the Vancouver Art Gallery Foundation, past-president of the Urban Development Institute; Norman Armour, Executive Director and Curator, PuSh International Performing Arts Festival
Over the past 5-7 years as a curator with the PuSh Festival, I have presented a fair amount of work. Prior to taking up my position at the PuSh Festival, as executive director, I also acted and directed theatre for 20 years, collaborating on projects of theatre, interdisciplinary dance, conventional drama, Shakespeare repertory, live-remote radio broadcasts, and the like. I have performed in outdoor stages and summer festivals, in 2000 seat rooms with triple A rated acoustics, in basements and other assorted bunkers, as well as on city streets and back alleys.
Now that I travel a fair amount to view work in a myriad of spaces, venues, performing arts centres, site-specific situations, and cultural contexts, I have been reminded of what I painfully learned once while touring a work that I’d been involved in as a director: in the practice of theatre, presenting performing arts work in the “wrong” space will bring out all the weaknesses of a work, while burying all of its strengths. It’s a disaster of tragic proportions that I would not wish on anyone.
Selecting a venue for the PuSh Festival is the single most critical curatorial decision. Having worked as a director and performer, as well as presenter, I am well acquainted with the city’s inventory of performing arts spaces. Over the past 30 years, I have also seen quite a few changes in the existence of Vancouver’s cultural assets—their renovation, availability and disappearance.
In that time, I have heard it said that there were not enough spaces for art. I have heard it said that there were enough spaces, but that they were not of the right size. I have heard it said that we have enough spaces, and maybe enough of the right kind, but that they were in the wrong locations. And I have heard it said that perhaps there are enough spaces, the size and type was adequate, and the locations fine, but it was that they were in control of the wrong persons, or more specifically there were not in the control of producing artists and organizations.
For our part, the PuSh Festival will work with between 12 and 16 venues in any given year. They range from 1,000 seats concert halls to 90-seat flexible, rough make shift rooms. Now… in the performing arts, the role of “space” is an often taken for granted. It functions to stage a work of theatre, dance or music; and, in general terms, it’s either “good” or its “bad.” It lives in the imagination of both audiences and artists only for the sake of performance—not before or after, and certainly not in the glaring light of day. In contrast, think of a church and it’s many social functions.
This is a severe case of shortsightedness. It has left us with inadequate spaces for creation, residency, production and administration. It has left us with spaces whose financial survival (and indeed purpose and impact) is solely focused on “audience attendance” and ticket sales. Think of your favourite performing arts space or centre in Vancouver. Now ask yourself, do you frequent it in the daytime, when there is no performance? Do you rehearse there? Do you convene there for creative meetings with other artists, producers, administrators and or funders. Do you grab a meal there? Do you gather there with colleagues, or with people who do not make their living in the cultural sector?
Each and every space has imbedded within its design, walls, materials, social use, building codes, previous use, historical significance and the like—certain hidden meanings and assumptions of class, the role of art, aesthetics, civic values, social mores, prescriptions for what is deemed high and low art, criteria for what is to be considered good and bad art, and instructions for appropriate and inappropriate behaviour—both on and off the stage.
Now while I could talk about certain “trends” on the national or international scene, I’d prefer to talk about a practice that is only nascent, but are increasingly being talked about by performing artists and curators as “important”, “timely,” “needed” and “necessary.” Considering an artistic or curatorial practice that is only just beginning to emerge and take shape can be an interesting exercise—revealing the public policies, institutional reluctance, and economic obstacles that prevent its proliferation.
For me personally, a much-needed curatorial practice—that has once again become a topic for discussion—is the notion of “residency.” Residency goes against all the most adhered to assumptions of performing arts spaces: it rarely generates ticket sales and other forms of earned revenue; it most often happens in the daytime, it’s emphasis is not on the delivery of a finished work of art to an expectant audience, but rather on the secluded act of creation, creative exploration and the group solitude of the rehearsal room. And if the public does play a role, it’s in their presence at the presentation of works-progress, along with their engagement in critical dialogue and conversation about where the work’s development might lead next, as much as it is about what they have just viewed and experienced. For comparison, consider a “night at the theatre” and the conversations that fill the lobby at intermission or following the show.
Each year, the PuSh Festival invites to Vancouver countless artists from across Canada and around the world. Each year, I endeavour to find ways for these artists to make connections with local artists, producers, public funders, patrons and institutions—both cultural and educational. I’d have to say it’s not easy or straightforward. While we benefit in Vancouver from an incredibly generous and open mindedness with respect to our organizations and institutions (a proven willingness and adeptness at collaboration and partnering that I have not witnessed anywhere else in the world), we are painfully ill-equipped at supporting the concept of residency. This is a shame.
Essentially, we have chronically under capitalized the value of both the artists we bring to our communities and the artists that live just around the corner. Most importantly, we continue to under realize the potential for connecting the perspectives, vision, knowledge and energies of out-town artists to the artists, producers, public policy makers, patrons, corporate supporters, and audience members within our own neighborhoods. We need to find ways to better situate and imbed artists within our communities.
A few inspiring examples that buck the trend: the Cultch and new Culture Lab and its youth program. The new Progress Lab, a shared administrative, creative and production space jointly run by four independent theatre companies; the creative residencies that are occurring up at the Caravan Farm in Armstrong BC, the new SFU Woodward’s facilities. Another is Craig Hall and Rumble Production’s Tremors Festival, which connects Vancouver emerging artists with their counterparts in Toronto. And further afar, there are the creative residencies hosted by Thomas Kraus and his Pass Festival in Oldenburg, Germany. Vancouver’s Theatre Replacement and Toronto’s Mammalian Diving Reflex were participants this past March.
Next year, the PuSh Festival will present several works that look to reflect on ideas of “cityness,” acting as touchstones for Vancouver’s 125th Anniversary celebrations. These range from: Portraits in Motion….to City of Dreams…to La Marea….to PodPlays…. Each of these works requires that artists spend an extended period of time in situ, in the city. A number of the projects involve direct and intimate situations for dialogue and exchange between visiting artists and local residents. Each has within them latent opportunities for meaningful engagement and transformation. I (and others) are increasingly committed to this type of curatorial practice because while the act of performance is still greatly treasured—paid for, attended and applauded— the “performance,” as it where, is not all there is when considering the value, role and meaning of the performing arts and the role that space can play.