Why do we make art and who do we make it for? | In discussion with Wendy Martin

As part of their Creative Hub, Performing Lines WA are inviting key arts leaders to big picture conversations and interactive group discussions.

In the first week, Perth Festival former Artistic Director, Wendy Martin explored the essential relationships between artists, producers, presenters and the public, and pondered why we make arts and who do we make it for?

Wendy has twenty years experience in creating compelling multi-artform festivals, commissions, events and public engagement programs driven by a commitment to place, context, community, diversity and inclusion.

Her session was so inspiring that we asked her permission to share it with you.

 

 

Art is what makes us not only human but humane

CONTEXT is everything – who we are, where we are, what’s happening in the world around us.

This year we’ve been faced with challenges of Biblical proportions.

Bushfires, Pandemic, the urgency of Black Lives Matter;

And all of us are struggling with the bitter blow of knowing that our leaders do not see the value of the arts.

Some of us were with international colleagues at the Performing Arts Market in Melbourne in February – trying to figure out our collective future in the context of climate change and the looming pandemic.

Artists who depend on international gigs, and Presenters, who make the invitations, were questioning the ongoing viability of international touring.

Now we’re reconsidering everything – the way we live, the structures of our societies;

Amidst all this, there is one INCONTROVERTIBLE fact, and that is:

That artists and the work they make are essential to our humanity and our hope.

The words of Indian author Arundathi Roy remind us why the vision and skill of an artist is so invaluable:

 

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging behind us the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

 

Big thank you to the wonderful women of Performing Lines WA – Rachael, Zainab, Jen and Cecile who’ve so thoughtfully and carefully developed this Lab.

Like all great arts producers, they’re nurturers.

They’ve offered us the gift of being in the room together because that’s the thing we’ve discovered we need most … CONNECTION, with all the implications it has right now for us to be breathing the same air.

I acknowledge that being an artist can be a daily struggle, especially for independent artists.

What I love about artists, what I love about working in the arts is that we all bring our whole being to everything we do.

As a producer and curator my work is to ‘pay attention,’ (Mary Oliver)

I’m driven by a sense of curiosity and wonder. A passionate commitment to create and present experiences that lift everyone together and expand our sense of what it is to be human, to be alive.

The questions of WHY we make art and who we make it for is, of course, different for all of us.

I’m able to trace the experiences that have shaped the WHY & WHO FOR.

 

Working on the cultural program of the Sydney Olympics

I commissioned a poem from the late Dorothy Porter to mark the occasion of the Olympic Torch arrival in the city.

It was the first work I’d ever commissioned.

As she read the poem it was beamed to millions of television viewers across the world.

It was a joyous experience to invite an artist to respond to a provocation and to receive something back way beyond anything I could’ve imagined.

Dorothy Porter’s Torch Song for Sydney ends like this:

For once
we welcome fire –
not the stink black fire
that rears like a snake
in summer
and goes for our throats –

we welcome bright fire
that has run like a song-line
through this fierce
and sacred land

passed as a spirit-torch,
glittering
from hand to hand.

 

In May 2000 as part of the public conversation around Reconciliation, Sydney Opera House CEO Michael Lynch proclaimed “this big white house is not just for white people.”

Five months later I arrived at the Opera House – Week One, I was asked to produce an Indigenous Arts Festival.

I’m a white woman – What to do?

I went to all the exciting young aboriginal artists working in Sydney and invited them to curate the festival.

It was their festival, their community came. It was a genuine takeover ‘of the big white house.’

 

Ten years later, I moved to London to work at the Southbank Centre, an organisation with inclusivity and education at its core.

Week One, I was asked to produce a Disability Arts Festival for the 2012 Paralympics.

Again, as a complete outsider, I sought the guidance and partnership of the artists, activists and producers making work in this sector.

The first work I saw was by brilliant Scottish performance maker Claire Cunningham.

Menage a Trois explores Claire’s twenty-year relationship with her crutches and asks if it’s possible to find love when there’s already three of you in a relationship?

Menage a Trois was a work of such profound beauty, honesty and insight, I could not leave my seat at the end. I’d been invited into the intimate and singular world of a person living with a disability.

Claire’s generous offering was the beginning of an ongoing relationship of trust between artist and presenter.

I’ve co-commissioned three works from her and she continues to make provocative work that invites empathy and understanding informed by her life experience and her uncompromising politics.

When I arrived in Perth, I invited Claire to be the festival’s first artist-in-residence, so artists and audiences could have the opportunity I’d had to experience the world through the eyes of someone living with disability.

I wanted to make a festival that was inclusive, a place of deep and lasting engagement.

I was asked to write a vision for my four festivals.

I agonized over it, but it became an important road map for me and my colleagues.

It gave us clarity of purpose in the stories we told, how we told them, and the invitations we made to artists and to the community to enter the world of the festival.

The RELATIONSHIPS between artists and producers, presenters and audiences ARE EVERYTHING.

TRUST and KNOWING is everything.

I’m very aware that I’ve had powerful platforms on which to operate, which in a sense have made me a gatekeeper.

The straight-forward aspect of my responsibility as a curator is to see work and decide if I should present it.

In addition, I see myself as a kind of matchmaker between artists and audiences

Every time I sit in a theatre, I have a set of questions I ask myself:

  • Do I like the work? What is it that I like?
  • Who else would like it? Who would the audience be?
  • How would I talk about the work to encourage people to see it?
  • What are the stories for marketing and media?
  • What layers does the work offer for deep engagement?

 

No Guts, No Heart, No Glory is an exhilarating production.

We brought Five young Muslim women from Bradford in the UK to a boxing ring in a Perth city gym.

They told us the stories of their lives and showed us what it means to be young, fearless and doing the unexpected.

Created by two amazing young artists, Evie Manning and Rhiannon White, on a mission to make theatre for people who don’t usually think it’s for them.

As part of the Education Program we created an exchange between the young women from the UK and students at BALGA SENIOR HIGH

Evie and Rhiannon led a workshop with 19 refugee women.

For a week the Festival offered child-care and transport; and provided meals so the women could work together sharing stories and the food and song and dance of their cultures.

No Guts, No Heart, No Glory offered great storytelling and possibilities at every level.

 

With every programming choice I’ve made over the course of twenty years I’ve had to justify the financial investment; bring the whole organization on board and develop compelling stories to enable us to sell the work.

If I see your work and it speaks to me, I want to understand everything.

  • I want to know who you are?
  • what matters to you?
  • where your ideas are sprung from?

So that we can figure out the stories to help your work find its audience.

 

Commissioning is another thing altogether … it’s a leap of faith.

One of the biggest challenges for artists pitching to presenters is to clearly articulate your ideas and ambitions.

I’ve been in many uncomfortable conversations when artists just couldn’t find the words to explain a new work.

I appreciate what a challenge it can be when you are yourself on a journey of discovery.

Your producers are often your best ally because they believe in you and your ideas.

Sometimes, it’s easier for them to encourage a presenter to discover your work.

As a presenter, every email request for a meeting brings with it the possibility of a new relationship. What incredible artist and brilliant idea might be behind the words?

We must be always looking and always open to the unknown and the unproven.

We must make safe spaces for risk to happen.

Exactly what Performing Lines WA has done with this CREATIVE HUB.

I’m very aware we’re all sitting now with so many unknowns.

We’re feeling vulnerable. What are we fighting for?

A return to how things were, or a fundamental reset?

I leave part of that question hanging for the next session about decolonising art spaces.

TO NOW

I haven’t read or heard any tangible solutions to the massive threat that Covid poses to the RELATIONSHIP we all thrive on between artists and audiences.

Sure, we can consider work for the digital realm. We can make work for the camera. We can take work outdoors.

I wish that I had some genius idea to offer as a way forward;

Instead, to finish I’m going to indulge in a moment of nostalgia.

June 2018

A full house. The Royal Court Theatre in London

The show – Notes from the Field

In a virtuosic two-and-a-half-hour solo the astonishing American documentary theatre maker Anna Deveare-Smith depicted the personal accounts of “broken people” living in a “broken system” that fast tracks black men, and Latinos and First Nations people into a pipeline from school to prison. (all too familiar in Australia).

A harrowing journey inside the American justice system, a recurring motif of young black men being stalked by police or running for their lives.

In the final monologue – delivered at a memorial service Anna Deveare-Smith inhabited the voice of Congressman and civil rights leader John Lewis.

He recalls the Selma march of 1965 speaking of forgiveness and brotherhood as Smith invokes the audience to sing.

With her lead, the entire audience rose to its feet and sang AMAZING GRACE. We were that congregation.

And then no one left the theatre.

That memory, for me, is a reminder of WHY I do what I do.

And I leave you with the words of philosopher and author Iris Murdoch:

A deep motive for making… art is the desire to defeat the formlessness of the world and cheer oneself up by constructing forms out of what might otherwise seem a mass of senseless rubble.”

In everything we do, we acknowledge that we live on Aboriginal land and constantly learn from the wisdom of our First Peoples.

Where we are and the history that precedes us informs how we work and how we move forward.