Collecting Performance If Tutus Could Talk

Performance is by nature slippery—the work exists only in the moment of its enactment; later, as something remembered or recounted in stories, it’s filtered through someone’s lens. What’s more, performed work itself is inherently fickle. The congeniality of the venue and its relation to the set design, the mood of the performers, the vibe and composition of the audience, and even the weather outside that day are variables that affect the tenor and character of a given show, rendering each iteration of even the same piece as unique and ephemeral as a proverbial snowflake.

So, if you’re a museum that “collects” performing arts—and there are many that have made it a practice to do so in the past half-century—where does this leave you?

In early November, the Walker flew in various experts from around the country to discuss this very question. The timing coincides with the institution’s work on the development of new, open-source cataloguing software for performing arts, and on the occasion of its acquisition of a vast collection of sets, costumes, and props from the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, some of which are on view now in the exhibitions Dance Works I: Robert Rauschenberg/Merce Cunningham and Dance Works II: Merce Cunningham/Ernesto Neto.

The assembled group for a daylong workshop on issues raised by cataloguing and collecting performance consisted of independent scholars and writers, web developers and software wonks, videographers, performers, presenters, archivists, and curators representing the Andy Warhol Museum, the Cunningham Dance Foundation and Merce Cunningham Dance Company, the New York Public Library, Wexner Center for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Ann Arbor’s University Musical Society, and the University of Minnesota. Participants quickly got down to brass tacks: What does it even mean to collect performance? Given its intrinsically fleeting nature, what, precisely, is an institution to tag and catalogue? Who owns this material? If you’re dealing with recordings, where does the notion of authorship, of creative control, and profit sharing come into play?

© Krystian Jarnuszkiewicz, all rights reserved