Welcome to my World

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

"The logistics are always incredibly complex," Bither says. "You really have to be able to think with both sides of your brain. A lot of curators are frustrated actors or musicians, who are producing because they aren't performing anymore."

Bither himself is neither. Though he developed an early affinity for music--playing drums in various Fab Four tribute bands while growing up near Chicago--he realized at an early age that his enthusiasm had outrun his aptitude. Instead, he devoted himself to promoting music, deejaying for his college radio station at the University of Illinois and organizing rock concerts for the likes of the Talking Heads. "I guess I always wanted to press my taste on the rest of the world," he says.

During college, he continues, he got his first lesson in the esoteric art of curating. In order to subsidize edgier fare, he made a practice of booking commercial acts, and in one case invited Kenny Loggins to campus. "We thought we'd get that show to pay for Little Feat. But then no one came to see Kenny Loggins. Standing outside, I knew I'd made a mistake. It taught me the importance of not pandering. A lot of programmers don't have high enough expectations of their audiences. They approach audiences with timidity, and that's the quickest death of interest."

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

After graduating, Bither and his college sweetheart (later his wife) gravitated toward New York City, where Bither landed a job with the Brooklyn Academy of Music, helping to organize its then-embryonic Next Wave music festival. It was the early Eighties, just past the height of the downtown art scene, and Bither spent his nights trolling P.S. 122, the Kitchen, and the then-new Knitting Factory. "That was when [John] Zorn and his cohorts were going," Bither says. "There was a lot of free jazz. And the downtown performance scene and the dance scene were really vital. For someone with an interest in experimental music, New York was the place to be."

In 1988, with Next Wave established as a major festival and with a child to raise, Bither relocated to relatively bucolic Burlington, Vermont, where he took a job as artistic director of the Flynn Theater, a converted vaudeville house that had been showcasing mostly touring mainstream musical acts. Bither set out to bring the Village to the village. "I was really intent on proving that the avant-garde could be embraced in a smaller city, that not everything interesting had to come out of New York."

To make his point, Bither regularly hosted artists like composer Steve Reich, Vermont's own Bread and Puppet troupe, and the Kronos Quartet. Under Bither, the Flynn became a magnet for new art: Savion Glover performed there when he was an unknown 16-year-old; Philip Glass was a regular; and it was during a residency at the Flynn that choreographer Bill T. Jones put the finishing touches on his monumental work, "Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/ The Promised Land."

"The American Family Council actually tried to get the attorney general to shut us down," Bither recalls. For his part, Jones calls Bither an "elegant and sophisticated administrator, with a firm grasp of the 'big picture' and yet right there with the artist in finding spontaneous, sometimes risky, solutions to problems."

"I felt like part of my job was to be curator for the whole town," he continues. "I remember telling my friends in New York I'd sold out the Flynn for the Bill T. Jones performance. They were like, 'Oh, that's nice.' They didn't understand that Burlington's a town of 40,000 people. Selling out a 1,400-seat theater is the equivalent of selling out Shea Stadium for nine nights straight."

Of course, Burlington audiences didn't take to everything Bither produced. During one Saturday-night concert by the World Saxophone Quartet, close to half the 1,000-person audience jumped ship in the first 20 minutes. "There was some rhythm in the cacophony," Bither says, still sounding slightly wounded by the defection. "I actually thought it was pretty mainstream."

 

When Bither arrived in Minnesota, in mid-1997, the Walker's performing-arts program was at ebb tide. Though the museum had been sponsoring dance and music since the Sixties--supporting pathfinders like Merce Cunningham and Lee Breuer--attendance and interest seemed to be waning.

"Audiences had been falling off for a couple of years," recalls Chuck Helm, who booked music for the Walker until 1991 and who now works at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. "There was this sense that the Walker's programming just wasn't delivering very interesting work."

Jeff Bartlett, artistic director of Minneapolis's Southern Theater and, for the past 14 years, a co-presenter of the "Out There" series, adds that in some quarters, the museum was viewed as elitist. "Twenty years ago, the Walker had an extremely ivory-tower reputation. There was no attention paid to local artists, with the exception of [a] choreographers' evening, and that was a token carrot."

Moreover, in the early Nineties, the museum had become entangled in a national controversy over government funding for the arts, set off in part by the Walker-sponsored appearances of transgressive performance artists Karen Finley and Ron Athey. "Jesse Helms was the pimple," Bartlett says. "He was just the gross external manifestation of an imbalance that was going on inside." In any case, when the smoke of the so-called Culture Wars had cleared, the Walker's performing-arts program had lost $150,000 a year in NEA support--nearly a third of its budget.

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