Welcome to my World

Globe-trotting curator Philip Bither gives audiences what they didn't know they wanted

On a recent Saturday evening, Philip Bither was surveying the half-full auditorium at the Walker Art Center and lamenting the fact that more people hadn't braved a truly miserable spring hailstorm to come see arty jazz composer/saxophonist Greg Osby. Bither's evening had been stocked with such worries: a misprint in the program that had the band's bassist playing drums, and vice versa; uncertainty over how to mix Osby's idiosyncratic sound (he'd brought along a string quartet); and a polite disagreement with the band over the length of their set. (Bither wanted them to play for 90 minutes; they preferred 70 minutes; after a chat, they compromised by playing for 90 minutes.)

It was the sparseness of the crowd that bothered Bither most, though; he regarded it as a mark of personal failure. "It's really an anomaly for us," he says. "I'm pretty sad about it. I feel like I owe it to the artists to fill the house."

What can I do to send you home with this dance troupe from Burkina Faso? Pitchman for the international avant-garde, Philip Bither
Richard Fleischman
What can I do to send you home with this dance troupe from Burkina Faso? Pitchman for the international avant-garde, Philip Bither

When Bither talks about filling the house--a task he has done with admirable consistency for the past five years as the Walker's curator of performing arts--he occasionally adopts an evangelical attitude. (Curator does, after all, share a Latin root with curate, the term once used to describe a clergyman responsible for the care and feeding of parishioners' souls). "When I say I think of myself as a missionary, it's because I feel like it's my job to convince and cajole people, 'There's this thing you'd love to see, this thing you need to see. There's something here that's going to change the way you think about the world.'"

Bither has certainly developed a proselytizer's wanderlust. His interests include, but are not limited to, Japanese butoh theater, Cuban son music, free jazz, experimental puppetry, postmodern American choreography, electronica, European cirque nouveau, and Indonesian dance. Bither's exploration of these and various other cultural fringes has taken him to the antipodes, from South Africa to meet puppeteer William Kentridge to Brazil to see choreographer Lia Rodrigues. A single scouting trip later this month will take him to Montreal, Belgium, Madrid, Prague, and Istanbul. Occasionally, Bither worries about becoming a cultural dilettante. "The critique one could make," he says, "is that it's as if curators are going off on safari and bringing back jeweled treasures from far-off lands."

In delivering the world's art to the Walker's doorstep, Bither finds little time for sleep, and he usually spends at least one night every two weeks or so in his office, scrutinizing grainy videotapes, tapping out e-mails, and placing calls to radically different time zones. The demands of producing across national borders are endless and occasionally Byzantine. In the case of the Burkina Faso-based dance troupe Salia Ni Seydou, which Bither is bringing to town this week for a three-day engagement at the Southern Theater, a skeptical immigration official in Egypt demanded that they dance in order to prove the authenticity of their visas. "It was disgraceful," Bither says. "But that's what artists have to go through to perform in this country."

Such hurdles notwithstanding, Bither manages to produce between 40 and 50 shows a year, from the popular annual "Out There" series, to one-off showcases like 2001's "Adventures in New Puppetry," to ongoing series like the "Longitude/Amplitude" global-music festival (which continues on Saturday with a performance by jazz-hybrid guitarist Bill Frisell). Among his art-world peers, Bither is regarded as a bit of a prodigy.

"I consider Philip a visionary," says Joseph Melillo, executive producer at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (and Bither's former boss). "The Walker is an epicenter, both because of its specific geographic location, and the way it's married its program to the visual arts. It stands as a beacon for a lot of other institutions."

Indeed, during Bither's tenure, attendance at performing-arts events has increased substantially. The program's budget, meanwhile, has grown from $479,700 to over $1 million. In part this reflects income from a new $1.5 million Doris Duke Foundation endowment. By most accounts, the Walker's program is now the largest and best-funded of its kind in the country. That Bither has overseen such success during a period of apparent flagging interest in, and support for, avant-garde art makes him both a role model for aspirant impresarios, and, perhaps, something of an anomaly in the art world.

 

When Bither is in North America, he works out of an airy upstairs office with a prime view of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden. The walls are papered with programs from previous "Out There" series, along with the occasional crayon-on-canvas contribution from Bither's two school-age children. Bither himself is as outwardly conventional as his habitat (Boyish and enthusiastic are two words that get tossed around a lot by those who know him, though he's not as milquetoast as that might imply). Looking much younger than his 43 years--"cute as a button," as one acquaintance calls him--Bither is a laid-back, if exceedingly politic, conversationalist.

He can also be an exceptionally persuasive one. In the summer of 2000, for instance, when San Francisco-based site- specific choreographer Joanna Haigood proposed performing an aerial ballet while hanging from the side of a towering West Bank grain elevator, Bither was able to convince the elevator's managers--presumably unschooled in the niceties of postmodern dance--that the performance wouldn't feature a lawsuit as its encore.

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