Performance and the new cultural democracy

The economic recession has had one weirdly positive effect on the art world: democratization. Increasingly, museums and symphonies find that they can no longer get by on the generosity (or lack thereof) to an elite minority. Large cultural institutions need new audiences to justify their existence and to qualify for public dollars. Venues that once couldn’t care less about attendance now anxiously await busloads of kiddies and seniors. “Education” and “outreach” programs have exploded in recent years, with many places literally giving away tickets to boost admissions. Aside from benefitting “social practice” artists who have always occupied the fringes of art world, the is move to larger and more democratic approaches to audience has favored genres that are more friendly to the public.

Enter performance art. In the old days, performance was a marginal affair because it was edgy and conceptual––but also ephemeral. Based more on events than objects, performance was practically impossible to sell or collect, and hence performance never benefitted from the enormous wealth and publicity of the art market. But now things are changing, evident most recently in an article in the New York Times entitled “Once on the Fringe, Performance Art is Embraced.”  As the article states, “ While performance art may once have been considered fringe or marginal, this type of live, interactive exhibition is increasingly a staple of mainstream museum programming. Performance art is being embraced in a whole new way,” said Philip Bither, the senior curator of performing arts at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. ‘We’re seeing much more of an institutional commitment to artists who are making ephemeral work.’

“Seeing performance art in museums isn’t new. In 1969, Meredith Monk presented the first part of “Juice: A Theatre Cantata in 3 Installments” at the Guggenheim Museum, turning the entire museum into a stage. The work of choreographers like Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown has long been performed in museums. And institutions like the Walker, the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater contemporary arts center in Los Angeles (known by its acronym, Redcat) and the Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University in Columbus have largely made their reputations on visual, performing and media arts.

“But in an age of participation-oriented entertainment and social media, performance art has recently gained momentum and legitimacy — perhaps most noticeably among prominent institutions in New York. People want to be taken to a new place,” said Donna De Salvo, the Whitney’s chief curator and deputy director for programs. “In the age of the digital and the virtual and the mediated experience, there is something very visceral about watching live performance.”

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