Julie Akerly on the State of the Arts in Metro Phoenix
Julie Akerly weighs in on the state of the arts in Phoenix.
When Jackalope Ranch issued a 10-question survey asking Phoenicians (and anyone with an opinion of Phoenix) to sound of on the state of the arts in the Valley of the Sun, dozens provided insights on what's happening in the city's creative realm. We'll present a selection of survey responses here over the next three weeks. Up today is performing artist and [nueBOX] co-founder Julie Akerly.
What are three words that describe the arts in Arizona? Emerging, incomplete, safe
Describe your role in the Arizona arts scene (including "observer" -- a very important role!) and how it came to be. I attended graduate school at ASU for Dance and Interdisciplinary Media. I currently choreograph on an individual project base, and in collaborative teams of engineers and dancers. I also play the role of arts administrator, and recently launched [nueBOX], a residency program to support local performance and installation artists. This project was developed as a possible solution to many of the problems, particularly within the dance community, in Phoenix. I noticed many peers planning to leave Phoenix after graduating ASU because there is not a respected dance scene here and/or because there were no programs in place to support the emerging dance artist. So, I decided to create an affordable program that would support them to continue their artistic lifestyle after graduation. I also noticed a lot of people mentioning a deficit in quality professional dance work compared to other cities in the United States. I think that creating more dialog and creative investigation while creating work will help to increase the level of professional dance-making. I hope to start this dialog through [nueBOX] by providing workshops to discuss works-in-progress, and a safe forum to present works-in-progress to peers. I also started a blog that reviews dance in Phoenix, to further create a dialog, and hold people responsible for how they are presenting dance to their "non-dance" audience members. Furthermore, it benefits emerging artists to have a strong review of their work when applying to festivals, residency programs, or professional jobs to have a good review about their work. This is not really something that I want to do, but until someone else steps up and starts doing it in Phoenix, I am going to keep doing it.
Who is making the biggest impact on metro Phoenix's art scene and how are they doing that? I can really only speak to the dance scene since that is my area of knowledge. I think Epik Dance Company has done the greatest job thus far bringing in new audience members, going out into the community and gathering support of Phoenix youth. They are a company that is relevant to Phoenix Urban culture, and do a decent job of introducing various dance styles to their audience members. They are partnering with larger organizations to spread urban dance knowledge and their "Be Kind" project. Most importantly, they just always seem to be a positive group of individuals with a high level of energy that attracts others towards them.
Where has metro Phoenix made the biggest strides in the arts in the last 10 years or so? Creating more grants opportunities for small organizations in Phoenix has been really important. I know as a small organization, it is challenging to get the "big guys" to even have a phone conversation with you. Many organizations that claim to support non-profits and arts organizations list larger organizations like the Children's Hospital, Phoenix Art Museum, Scottsdale Center for the Arts, etc. as organizations that they help match with donors, patrons, and interest only grants in Phoenix. I have tried to have conversations just to inquire about what they do, and perhaps set up a 5 or 10 year plan with such organizations several times with no response.
Fortunately, AZ Commission has been able to provide more grants to smaller organizations, and other programs have been able to provide more opportunities to pay individual artists such as Art Tank, inFLUX, Mesa Arts Festival to name a few.
What are Arizona's most underused arts resources? The greatest resource is that if you have work you want to show, you can generally find a business willing to let you show it in their space for free. There are plenty of festivals and events that are willing to include any performance artist who wants to participate, and as performers and choreographers, you are guaranteed an audience. #showyourwork is not more true anywhere else than in Phoenix.
How can artists and institutions better connect with audiences? Artists need to invite the audience into their creative process, and make the mystery of art-making (especially dance) less mysterious. Dance audiences seem to like it when their program comes with a description of the work, which is amazing, but taking it to another level, invite public to company classes, company rehearsals, workshops that they can participate in exposing the art of dance-making.
Another way is to let the audience be more involved in the art-making itself. I have heard from several large arts organization board members that they thought they were asked to be on the board because of their artistic knowledge, only to end up feeling like they were only wanted for their annual donation. I am not saying the board should make artistic decisions for the artists, but let them be part of constructive feedback sessions, let them see the artistic work that goes into the making of what they are supporting, and find ways for them to ARTISTICALLY not only administratively and financially contribute. The same goes for all audience members.
What are the biggest roadblocks in metro Phoenix's art scene and how can we get past them? The greatest hurdle in Phoenix's dance scene is underpaid dancers. Many dancers are asked to rehearse MANY hours out of their week for free, and then are paid a large hourly rate for performances that does not equate to the rate/hour of overall time spent with the company. Some will argue that dance is a hobby and dancers should not get paid to entertain, that would be like saying NFL players should not be paid to play football, or servers should not be paid for serving you at a restaurant (because in 2015, there is no need for a server other than for entertainment and ease of experience).
The lack of pay for dancers results in several things. If the dancers are not financially supported to be dancers, they must fill their time with other full-time jobs that prohibit them from an appropriate continuation of their training. A contracted dancer (such as Center Dance Ensemble) is provided income and company classes at least 3 times a week, Ballet Arizona provides daily classes. This keeps their dancers in shape, healthy, and overall prevents risk of injury. The result of under-trained dancers is under-skilled dance technique (this is all in comparison to other cities, that remember, my graduate peers left Phoenix for after graduation for their high-quality dance scene). But Ballet Arizona and Center Dance Ensemble are older established companies in Phoenix, what about younger and new companies where some company members have under-skilled technique because if there is no need to regulate the number of dancers a choreographer or company works with when they do not need to pay them at a regular rate.
There needs to be an infrastructure in place to help choreographers in Phoenix pay their dancers (this is my next big project). An organization that provides grants to choreographers specifically for the purpose of paying their dancers, support in creating contracts, educating choreographers on the importance of quality and regular training for their dancers, and most importantly providing them with average wage resources, so that they are aware of how many hours they can ethically rehearse their dancers.
I should also note that dancers are willing to do things for free, personally I perform and rehearse with many people who are unable to pay me, and I do it gladly. However, this should not be a regular mind-set! Rehearsal is work, and there should be a reward for it monetary, discounts to fitness or yoga memberships, or free company classes.
Metro Phoenix's art scene needs __________. Support for the emerging artists, and critical dialogue about the work being made. (This does not mean critiques or negative feedback, but honest conversations during the process of art-making)
City support for small non-profit organizations to aid in rentals/leases of nonprofits, neighborhood development grants, etc.
Partnering large organizations with smaller organizations could be useful. There are many empty buildings and unused rooms around Phoenix that small organizations would love to fill with community engaged activities.
What can metro Phoenix's art scene learn from other parts of the state -- and country? Other cities support the emerging artist. The place does not need to be hip or fancy. Pittsburgh, PA and San Francisco have neighborhood renewal projects of Penn Ave. and the Community Arts Stabilization Trust. These programs create affordable rent/lease/rent-to-own programs for arts organizations to move into urban renewal neighborhoods, and fill empty buildings owned by the cities (and we know Phoenix has tons of empty lots and buildings, that are continuously trying to be filled with more apartments, more businesses, more restaurants. Although these plans are profitable, they will eventually return to empty buildings as well, because it takes more than food and housing to bring people to a neighborhood, it takes activity and it take entertainment.
In three years, what three words do you hope describe the state of the arts in Arizona? Supportive, risk-taking, stable
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