Dance and the Museum: Curating the Contemporary (Part 1 of 3)

In recent years specific inquiries have developed concerning the challenges faced by a so-called ‘coming together’ of visual art and dance in the museum. This essay aims to reflect on a number of those significant issues and to consider the curatorial responsibilities that such a union might imply.

Objects are last Friday, give me some action

–Choreographer Marten Spangberg

InApril 2012, for the first time in history, a choreographer was awarded the prestigious Bucksbaum Award during the Whitney Biennial in New York City. British choreographer Sarah Michelson was awarded the prize for her work ‘Devotion Study #1’, which was presented as part of a program curated by Biennial organizers Elisabeth Sussman and Jay Saunders. During the event Michelson was showcased along with fellow British choreographer Michael Clark in a program, which according to New York Times critic Gia Kourlas, ‘was going after dance with a vengeance’.[1]

According to Times associate Claudia La Rocco, dance in the museum around 2012 had become a ‘high profile fixture’; noting that ‘what at first seem(ed) like a run-of-the-mill trend’, had later developed into ‘a thoughtful integration’ of dance and the visual arts.[2] La Rocco observed that, at the time in New York City – while curators were busy scouting the contemporary performing arts – the museum as institution was researching how best to implement dance and other forms of performance into their visual arts programming.[3] According to La Rocco, the period drew parallel to the early nineteen sixties in terms of its comparative atmosphere of ‘interdisciplinary investigations’ combined with ‘political unrest’.[4] The renewed interest in the relationship between dance and the museum that pitched with Michelson’s awarding, has led to an increased number of choreographers showing as part of the more recent 2014 Biennial and perhaps more significantly, has spawned a new actor in the contemporary art arena – one better known as the performance curator.

The Whitney Museum of American Art has one. New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art has one. Minneapolis’s Walker Art Center has one. From Philadelphia to Sarasota, Indianapolis to Los Angeles, performance has become a buzz-word of sorts and as result – in the increasing profitable game that is contemporary art – dance is being presented in museums and galleries across the globe; its’ presence being determined by a legion of newly instated performance curators. This recent infiltration of dance into the historically object based construct that is the visual art paradigm has been raising question on both sides of the proverbial white cube about the significance of its appropriation. For a time, the overarching question that seemed at the forefront of the discourse was: why now? La Rocco has offered two responses to that question. The first being the influence of ‘blockbuster performance art shows like Marina Abramovic’s retrospective at MoMA in 2010’, which according to La Rocco, had worked to invigorate museums ‘just as a new generation of curators [were] becoming seduced by the tradition of body-based work’.[5] Second, she suggests the generally accepted theories that link performance to the cultural and social shift from an industrial economy to an experience and knowledge based one.[6] Though La Rocco’s responses answer to the contextual dilemma that the renewed interest in dance suggests, there exist more specific inquiries about the challenges faced by the so-called ‘coming together’ of visual art and dance in the museum, and about the curatorial role therein.[7] This paper aims to reflect on a number of those significant issues and to consider the curatorial responsibilities that such a union might imply.

Since the early part of the twentieth century, dance and the visual arts have been negotiating the parameters of their interconnectedness. Most notable in the annals of dance history is the Ballets Russes, the pioneering dance company founded in Paris in 1909 by Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev. Widely considered the most innovative dance company of the twentieth century, the Ballet Russes inaugurated groundbreaking collaborations between artists and choreographers by pairing some of the most significant contemporary artists of the era, such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse, with their choreographic contemporaries, which included Vaslav Nijinsky and Leonide Massine. Though less frequently regarded among dance historians, visual artists across Europe in the early part of the millennium also began to experiment with the constructs of dance and choreography in their own creative developments. These artists, including Oskar Schlemmer, Francis Picabia, and Valentine de Saint-Point, are often overlooked when tracing the historic relationship between dance and the visual arts, but set the groundwork for generations of artists negotiating the two art forms.[8] This cross-pollination between visual art and dance continued well into the later part of the millennium, with late twentieth century American choreographers such as Merce Cunningham, Lucinda Childs, and Trisha Brown, regularly collaborating with visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, James Turrel, and Robert Whiteman. Meanwhile visual artists continued to explore the parameters of what is ‘choreographic’ as means to augment their practice. Since the last part of the millennium, artists such as Karen Finley, Tino Sehgal, and Marina Abramovich have clearly utilized the body in a manner that – if not traditionally dance – certainly suggests the choreographic. In addition, choreographers and dance artists have been increasingly exploring their work in the context of gallery and museum settings. Choreographers such as Rosemary Butcher, William Forsythe, and the aforementioned Trisha Brown, (whose trailblazing work Walking on the Wall, still lingers in the memory of those lucky enough to observe her fearless dancers walk horizontally along gallery walls at the Whitney Museum in New York in 1971) explore gallery and museum as a way to challenge the spatial and temporal limitations inherent to traditional proscenium presentation.

However, despite the historic precedence that exists between the forms, the current enthusiasm roused by dance in the museum and the root of significance that such enthusiasm might imply (that is – the perception of dance as a relevant contemporary to visual art in a post historic museum paradigm) raises new question about the relationship between dance and art. More specifically it raises concern about the political economic actualities of museum’s renewed interest in the form as well as the cogency of dance’s contextual shift. In response to these concerns, New York City’s Movement Research initiated ‘Critical Correspondence’ in 2014. Curated by Nicole Daunic and Abigail Levine, the project engaged dance writers, choreographers, and artists in a discourse concerning the issues apparent in the union of dance and the Museum. Among those reflecting on the issue, writer Alexis Clements and choreographer Marten Spangberg suggest that the museum lacks certain philosophic or artistic reasoning behind dance’s recent appropriation.[9] Their consensus is that its presence manifests solely as novelty, a marketing tool akin to the hyper-exposed museum café or gift shop – a light diversion from the static spaces in which visual arts generally reside.[10] They view this gentrification of the museum space – this transformation intended to ignite stagnancy through the intervention of the moving body – as merely a ploy to attract more public and garner institutional revenue; an art form co-opted for its fiscal viability.[11] Clements argues that

Live performance has always provided people with novel experience, and as visual arts spaces with frequently static collections and exhibitions seek to maintain audiences in the face of fading subscription and membership models, engaging more with live performance is a natural, if sometimes cynical or easy, choice.[12]

In a 2012 interview with the New York Times, performance curator Jenny Schlenzka has echoed Clements’ position by suggesting that

The exhibition is in a crisis…the object that doesn’t move, in a show for three months, in a white cube: that format is also 150 years old, and it doesn’t really work anymore. The magic got lost. That’s why we as curators look to performance.[13]

It is for these reasons that, according to Spangberg, the very idea of a ‘coming together’ of art and dance in contemporary museum practice is erroneous.[14] Spangberg maintains that the museum’s current interest in dance is motivated entirely by economics, a business infatuation driven by the need for expansion and variation; its presence fulfilling key objectives that might secure the institutions survival in the face of a new experience seeking economy.[15] He argues

Once and for all, I think we should wake up from the illusion that there is anything together in this set up and remember it is not visual art that is involved; it is certain institutions predominantly identified with visual art… Dance is competitor of market shares. Pardon, but this is business and every dime that’s spent on dance is not spent on visual art or another painting exhibition.[16]

Parts 2 and 3 to follow


[1] Gia Kourlas, “Serious Choreography For Whitney Biennial”, New York Times, February 24, 2012
[2] Claudia La Rocco, “Museum Shows With Moving Parts”, New York Times, August 31, 2012
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] ‘Coming together’ here referring to a question posed as part of the Critical Correspondence project initiated by Movement Research in New York City addressing issues related to dance and the museum.
[8] Yasha Wallin, ‘Why dance in the art world?’, Performa, (n.d)
[9] Alexis Clements, Marten Spangberg, ‘Alexis Clements Responds’, ‘Marten Spangberg Responds’, Critical Correspondence, December 6, 2013; January 9, 2014.
[10] Ibid.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Clements, Critical Correspondence, 2013.
[13] Jenny Schlenzka 2012, as cited by La Rocco, New York Times
[14] Spangberg, Critical Correspondence, 2013
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.