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Tonight, Performa celebrates its 10 year anniversary with an annual gala entitled “Paradiso: A Tribute to the Renaissance” in Brooklyn. The evening is hosted by Stefano Tonchi and Francesco Vezzoli and will honor 13 Renaissance women: Maria Baibakova, Melva Bucksbaum, Toby Devan Lewis, Wendy Fisher, Shelley Fox Aarons, Maja Hoffmann, Joan Jonas, Pamela Joyner, Wangechi Mutu, Shirin Neshat, Yvonne Rainer, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons. In the days leading up to the gala, we spoke with Performa’s director and founder RoseLee Goldberg about the biennial’s past and future, Jennifer Rubell’s third time creating a food performance for the gala, and the importance of performance during the Renaissance and today.
WHITEWALL: The theme for this year’s gala and Performa 15 will be the Renaissance. How did you arrive at that theme?
ROSELEE GOLDBERG: With each biennial we select an historic theme. This year, when it came to what we were going to look at, I said, “Renaissance, of course.” I’ve often described Performa to people, and one thing that suddenly gets people going “Aha!” is I say, “You know, even Leonardo Da Vinci did performances.” It’s been around for a long time. Artists have, in fact, always created live performances. It was only in the 19th- and 20th-century that things got separated. But before that, artists were expected to create events, celebrations, and ceremonies.
The 10th anniversary is interesting because Performa really created a way to put performance back into art history and created a way to commission new work for the 21st-century to really support artists. Performance has such a tough, complicated place in the economy of the art world. To give an artist a commission and to say, “We are going to help you all the way, we will find the funds and the right space,” is a really different way of working with the artist.
WW: Do you think part of the excitement around Performa is in reaction against how focused the visual arts are on the market?
RG: When we started in 2004 I thought the art world was so focused on the art market, and it’s even more so now. The first series that we did was called “Not For Sale” and it really was about going back to the world of ideas, leaving the financial conversations at the door. It is still something that gives enormous freedom to an artist, not to be confined to thinking of the project as how it will go on the market or sell at a fair.
Most work during the Renaissance was commissioned. Artists didn’t produce in their studio and then go out and find a gallery. Until the 19th-century, a lot of work was commissioned; you had a benefactor. The idea of the commission is very strong and it builds relationship with artists and patrons over time. I’m trying to also encourage the collector to think of themselves more as the patrons and to get more involved in the making of the work because it will be enlightening for them.
WW: For the gala this year, you’re honoring 13 Renaissance women. Was that to turn the tables on the commonly used title “Renaissance Man?”
RG: Immediately it popped into my head, look at all these extraordinary Renaissance women living among us. Artists like Cindy Sherman, who has really changed 21st-century art. There is an extraordinary group of women contributing to the art world. There is enormous generosity and selflessness in the way each of these artists consider their work.
WW: This will be the third year you’re working with Jennifer Rubell on the gala. What’s great about the food experiences she creates is that she creates an accessible entry point for people who may be timid about participating in performance art. Everyone’s got to eat, so why not introduce someone to performance as a way to get dinner or a drink.
RG: Jennifer’s imagination, as with all the artist we work with, is so rampant and so absolutely fantastic. She loved the idea of the Renaissance, and the idea of women and their sense of generosity, admiration, and how to use that in a banquet style event. We wait with excitement to hear from her about how she’ll respond; she always comes up with a completely different way of thinking. A lot of it will be a surprise and I try to leave sections of it as a surprise for myself.
That’s another thing about Performa, once we work with artists we keep working with them. There is something about the continuity of working with artists over time…there is a real understanding of what a person needs, when they need support, and even when they need to be left alone.
WW: Anniversaries give you the chance to look back at what you’ve accomplished in the last 10 years. But you also must be looking ahead at the next 10 years.
RG: We are set up to be both a powerful think tank and a historical repository and research wing of what I would call looking at performance history in very broad terms. Because we are this very fluid organization, there is no limit as to what we can do in the sense that we have the flexibility to respond to contemporary shifts. At that research level we are really exploring how culture is shifting internationally.
For the next three to five years our goal is to grow the next generation of curators that can move across disciplines and produce, as well. And with that is building on what we have: real knowledge about producing work for artists at many different levels, scales, and media internationally.