The International Presenting Commons Convenes at Last

Mara Isaacs widened the scope of the conversation, reflecting on the sense of isolation that artists and producers everywhere have been feeling, and which has led, on the global exchange front, to isolationism, retrenchment, and risk-averseness. “’The room for error has gotten smaller,” she said. “We need to re-open the pathways… for how we collaborate.” Derek Goldman (the Lab for Global Performance and Politics, Georgetown University) found pandemic inspiration in the Lab’s Global Fellows, artists and activists from around the world, most working in isolation, who met online regularly and became a “kind of lifeline” for each other across cultural, geographic, and disciplinary borders. “It’s not an industry-driven model,” he said, and went on to advocate for “mixing the stew in really unusual ways—trusting that this artist working in refugee environments in Cambodia and this artist from Zimbabwe might have nothing they need except the chance to be together and be supported in that work.”

The energies of the convening coalesced around resisting the noes and looking for the good news in how the pandemic disrupted business-as-usual. The subject of funding came up frequently, and Michael Orlove (National Endowment for the Arts) was the first to call for greater flexibility and outside-the-box thinking among funders. “It’s okay to be a funder and not have all the answers,” he said. Susan Feldman (St. Ann’s Warehouse) acknowledged the life-saving monetary infusions from the government and from foundations like Mellon and Gilman, adding “it would be nice if that could become a sustainable thing.” Joshua Heim (Western Arts Alliance), who until recently oversaw grant-making for a quasi-governmental agency in Seattle, described the liberating thrill of seeing funding rules go “out the door” during the pandemic. Many private family foundations, he said, “excused the need to prove outcomes, what?!!” His COVID-time takeaway is that “anything is possible,” with the caveat that the door for systemic change “is closing really, really quickly.”

It all comes down to the capital that exists in human relationships.

Matthew Covey (Tamizdat), whose non-profit organization facilitates international artist mobility and assists with problems related to international borders and United States visa policies, had some in-the-trenches advice about formalizing and improving the relationships between presenters and artists. “We can have a lot of great conversations about building community and building relationships, but then it goes to Legal and it all falls apart. But I want to say, as the lawyer in the room, it doesn’t have to.” It takes work, he conceded, and it takes having lawyers on your side. “Push through the bureaucratic changes that are needed to come up with better contracts that create better relationships. Because if you can do it, they will spread and become best practices in the industry.”

“What does it look like,” asked Michelle Witt (Meany Center for the Performing Arts), “when we really start to look outside the arts box and build relationships with other sectors?” Several speakers saw potential for innovation and common-cause with academic institutions, climate scientists, business leaders, and for-profit enterprises; Miranda Wright (Center for the Arts at Kayenta) went so far as to get an MBA during the pandemic. “I tried to be a capitalist,” she laughed. “I’m not a capitalist yet, like I can’t figure out,” but she allowed that capital, in the broadest sense, is needed for the challenges under discussion. “Capital doesn’t need to mean money,” she said. “What are we personally… willing to put on the table in a practice of generosity when we leave the room today?” Time, space, mentorship, funding flexibility, and legal support were among the resources ticked off during the session; but as Emil reminded the presenters, creative producers, and artists sharing the space, “it all comes down to the capital that exists in human relationships.”

The convening ended as it began, with questions begetting questions, and if it sometimes fell short of specific action-items, it provided something else: an actual room where a diverse and lively group of Zoom-weary human beings could ask “what if?” and “who’s with me?” and instead of clicking on “Leave Meeting” when the clock ran out, could, and did, continue those conversations at the reception that followed.