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.

"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."

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.

"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.

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.

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