"I'm really proud that [the Walker] was a vehicle for artists who became flash-points," says Bither's predecessor, John Killacky, now director of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. "It was a hopeless time. Their work was filled with anger because that's what was happening on the ground."
In comparison with Killacky's programming, which often tilted toward politically charged theater and performance art, Bither's has proven both more eclectic and more welcoming. Gone, for the most part, are the freewheeling cabaret evenings. Bither instead has turned his attention abroad, particularly to the international music scene--thus a season that can accommodate old-school performance artist Laurie Anderson, Baryshnikov's White Oak Dance Project, and a virtually unknown band from the mountains of Cuba.
What can I do to send you home with this dance troupe from Burkina Faso? Pitchman for the international avant-garde, Philip Bither
The shift in the program's tone certainly has something to do with the Zeitgeist--identity art seemingly having run its course (or become absorbed into mainstream thinking). But this change also has something to do with Bither himself, who, if he can't exactly be pigeonholed as a populist, still manages to walk a tightrope between the accessible and the radical. Given that "safety first" increasingly appears to have become the mantra of the American curator--witness the impressionism exhibits that have been propping up every museum west of the Hudson--Bither's balance becomes especially laudable. "It's still experimental in the broad sense," says Bartlett. "It's just that artists are experimenting with form, versus making art that's obscure, hard to understand, possibly not very good."
"I felt there were some dead ends reached in the Eighties," Bither explains of his curatorial preference for formally inventive work. "People needed to go there, but some of what was happening didn't serve the long-term development of the forms. There was this great pressure among funders to make art that was relevant. I'm a big fan of making art relevant, but a lot of what's happening now is more focused on lyricism and formal beauty. There's a much greater fluidity now between genres and national boundaries.
"At the same time," he continues, "on a certain spectrum art needs to be meaningful, instead of just some obscure, opaque, self-indulgent thing. The danger is that we get too comfortable and think, 'We're ahead of our time, nobody gets us.'"
Which isn't to say that Bither has broken faith with "difficult" art--or his ability to convert audiences. Turning the conversation to a recent torturous deconstruction of King Lear by the Brussels-based experimental-theater troupe Needcompany, he reveals that during one performance, nearly a third of the audience deserted. "It was the World Saxophone Quartet all over again," Bither says. "I had one of those moments of doubt, where you think, 'Is there something I'm missing here?' It was one of those moments where you're tested. I thought there was value in it, anyway."
From his tone, you can tell he's already plotting a return engagement.