Democracy Dies in Darkness

Music | Perspective

When artists take over programming, do audiences benefit?

August 30, 2018 at 5:05 PM

Dominic Johnson, left, and Mason Bates performing at KC Jukebox at the Kennedy Center. (Scott Suchman/)

The St. Louis Symphony has one. So does the New York Philharmonic. The Chicago Symphony relies on one. And the Kennedy Center is fairly bursting with them. We’re talking about artist-curators. Whether the title is artist-in-residence or “creative partner,” the trend these days is to tap a promising artist and get him or her to take over a large chunk of the responsibility for your contemporary music programming.

Last year, I challenged the Kennedy Center for taking on so many artist-curators. I was certainly bucking a burgeoning trend. Institutions are increasingly bringing in artists to create series in their fields of expertise — be it Renée Fleming’s VOICES series at the Kennedy Center or John Adams’s various activities in his post as creative chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In August, the St. Louis Symphony named the flutist Tim Munro its creative partner; his duties include helping plan four contemporary concerts. Earlier this year, the New York Philharmonic created the same position for violist Nadia Sirota; she will oversee two new contemporary series this coming season. And the Kennedy Center is trumpeting a host of artist-curators, including Fleming and Q-Tip, Jason Moran (who has come up with a host of ideas) and Yo-Yo Ma (who is not even appearing at the Kennedy Center this season).

Performing arts institutions are recognizing they need vision to make it in an increasingly tough market. And artists have vision. But just going out and hiring artists is no replacement for the kind of institutional mission that makes vision work. And putting artists in these positions without thinking through their role in the larger organization risks undermining all their efforts and, in some cases, ghettoizing contemporary music still further as something that lies outside the organization’s main mission.

“I think the notion of curation is often thought of as too narrow,” says Thomas W. Morris, the artistic director of the Ojai Festival, which features a different artist-curator as music director every year. “When an orchestra hires a composer-in-residence, what’s the context in which that composer-in-residence is functioning? What’s the relation of that to the overall institutional artistic point of view?” The likelihood of success is slim as long as those questions remain unanswered.

Related: [Kennedy Center seeks creativity. Making artists into administrators may not be the answer.]

There are some good things about the trend of hiring artists as curators: mainly, hiring artists. Large performing arts organizations, like orchestras and opera houses, do not have a particularly good track record, historically speaking, of supporting artistic exploration and innovation. New music has all too often been presented as the 10-minute piece that the audience has to sit through at the start of a concert, or the opera in the small space that doesn’t sell tickets. Bringing in an artist to curate a new series is a way to redefine the artist’s role in a way that artists cannot help but welcome.

“I know we always want to throw grenades at big institutions,” says Mason Bates, the Kennedy Center’s composer-in-residence, “but it’s a really cool development, letting people like Paola Prestini, Missy Mazzoli, Anna Clyne or me have a way to impact the field.” Mazzoli’s foray into curating is the newest; she starts this fall curating the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series as the CSO’s composer-in-residence, a post that Bates and Clyne jointly held for five seasons. Prestini is a main artistic force behind National Sawdust, the funky new performing arts space in Brooklyn.

Mason Bates. (Kate Warren for The Washington Post/)

As for artists departing from their main work to curate: “Everybody does something else,” Bates points out. “Even [preeminent American composer] John Adams conducts 15 weeks a year. People teach. People do all kinds of things. I don’t think there’s any danger of a composer being sucked away. I think anything that gets composers interacting with Planet Earth is good.”

These days, curating has come to seem like an important part of a composer’s professional portfolio. “I think composers in general are doing more curating as part of the DIY aesthetic,” Mazzoli says, “starting their own ensembles and series and record labels.”

For Mazzoli, programming dovetailed well with her own composing process. “Every time I sit down to write a new piece,” she says, “I start with a long research period. Curating was an excuse for me to dig into composers I’ve been meaning to listen to.” In short, not a departure at all.

Related: [Missy Mazzoli is a composer for her generation.]

Letting artists be creative is good. What’s bad, for an institution, is thinking that creativity solves your problems.

Many large orchestras and opera houses have a documented problem with the cynically termed “vision thing,” and nowhere more than in the area of contemporary music. But hiring an artist is no replacement for doing your job — which, for institutions, means helping to figure out how to present work, and how it reflects the institution’s overall mission.

“Curating has implications slightly beyond ‘programming,’ ” says violist Sirota, “in that there’s an added layer of responsibility for the audience’s experience from the moment they walk into the venue.”

“Everyone thinks the definition of curation is basically selecting pieces,” says Ojai’s Morris. “But the real need is broader than that. It’s not just what the pieces are, but how do you develop some kind of narrative; how do you create an experience for the audience; how do you produce the event?”

Every curator, artist or not, needs a lot of support to turn a vision into reality. Without this support, even the best-programmed events can result in half-empty houses, performances that never really gel, and long, awkward pauses between sets.

“Support” doesn’t just mean putting resources at a curator’s disposal. It means giving a curator an equal partner in an administrator who can advise, counterbalance and even veto. It means challenging a program to make sure that it fits in with the institution and deciding what the criteria are by which one will measure success. It means looking on new initiatives as a kind of research and development, nurturing those that are slow to take off but eliminating those that clearly aren’t working; and it means supporting those initiatives with marketing and development muscle. What it doesn’t mean is throwing a lot of time, money and effort at a project and seeing what sticks.

I look forward to seeing what some of the musician-curators come up with, and how many of these institutions will prove to have the support and wisdom to make their programs work. But the Kennedy Center has served as a warning example of some of the risks of the practice: a surfeit of names attached to each program, without, in every case, that much of a difference on stage. In the absence of administrators with strong voices and clear visions, curating risks being marginalized: another patch on a system that isn’t working well to begin with.

Anne Midgette came to The Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She can be found online as The Classical Beat.

Post Recommends

We're glad you're enjoying The Washington Post.

Get access to this story, and every story, on the web and in our apps with our Basic Digital subscription.

Welcome to The Washington Post

Thank you for subscribing