Performance in the Museum | By Maysoun Wazwaz

As performance in the museum is an incredibly rich topic for discussion, I thought it pertinent to first mention that in my responses to the following questions posed by the organizers or Dance Discourse Project #13: Dancing in the Museum, I am primarily referring to the contemporary and modern art/dance world, artists and arts organizations. I recognize that the visual and performing arts communities are varied and diverse well beyond these genres and I hope there will be an occasion to hear from those who represent these communities.

Perhaps it has to do with my background as a dancer and also my experience working with and supporting artists that are actively redefining the contemporary visual arts as we know them, but I tend not to think of dance as a separate art form. This may be because I prefer more experimental dance and performance, which fits easily into the contemporary visual arts world than say more traditional dance. I also think art, and especially the more experimental, has the potential to transcend its traditional role and connect medium, practice and profession of any kind especially here in the Bay Area. I find myself continually drawn to dancers who present work that challenges the medium and what we have come to expect of it and similarly I am most drawn to visual artists who pushing the boundaries of their given medium.

I think the priorities for presenting dance in visual arts organizations––museums, galleries, and alternative spaces––are similar to the priorities for presenting the visual arts. The questions and considerations are often the same: Does the artist show potential? Are they making work that is relevant (historically, politically, culturally, socially, etc.)? Is the institution providing an opportunity that might not otherwise be available to the artist? Does it make sense for the institution to work with the artist? Is the work accessible and provide an opportunity to reach new audiences? In addition, one would also consider the needs of the artist––time, space, materials and funding for example––and discuss the possibilities with this in mind.

I imagine that as more visual arts organizations present performance-based work the question of funding (which is always a priority) will take on slightly new meaning. Working with visual artists towards an exhibition that might be up for 4-16 weeks (depending on the institution) is very different than working with a time based artist (performance, music, dance, etc) whose performance may only be one or two evenings but requires a fairly substantial budget nonetheless. In the first scenario, funding stretches over a longer period of time than in the second. It has unfortunately proved quite difficult for a visual arts organization to receive funding from a performing arts funder even if their programming supports performance-based work. It appears that funders (not all) have yet to adjust their policies based on the growing hybridization of the arts.

Since we’re talking about funding I think it’s necessary to say that artists need to be paid for their time and work. It is all too common in the visual arts community for artists to get paid very little or sometimes nothing for their incredible contribution. There are, of course, many organizations in the Bay Area that recognize this trend and therefore make it a priority to appropriately fund their artists. Hats off to them. I’m not sure how or why this became a trend but it doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue in the performing arts community. It may have something to do with the performing arts presenting work through ticketed events. I’ve seen a lot of budgets in my time as an arts administrator and I am always impressed by how much is budgeted for artist fees in the performing arts world. Something to learn from.

Creative Capital and the Center for Cultural Innovation are doing a great job at providing professional development workshops for artists of all disciplines, in which part of what they learn is how to account for their time regardless of what they are being paid. Practitioners in every other field would never consider working for free and why should they? I do believe in charity but there is a limit and it shouldn’t be the only option. 

There is an incredibly rich history of dance being performed in non-traditional spaces––museums and galleries included. The Merce Cunningham Dance Company performed in school gymnasiums. Anna Halprin performed outside. The Judson Dance Theater performed in the now-legendary Judson Church. Trisha Brown walked on walls.

Event No. 127: Merce Cunningham and Co. perform at the Macalester College gym, with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, 1975

Anna Halprin, Blank Placard Dance, San Francisco, 1967. Photo: Lawrence Halprin

Merce Cunningham performing on the deck at Anna Halprin’s estate.

Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, Word Words, 1963. Performance view, Judson Church, New York, January 29, 1963. Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. Photo: Henry Genn.

“Man Walking Down the Side of the Building” (1970) – Trisha Brown Company, Inc. Choreography: Trisha Brown

Movement is everywhere. It cannot be confined.

I think there can sometimes be the issue of dance being fit to a space but ideally it would be created with the space in mind much like a site specific installation is created. The architecture of arts spaces can provide so much potential to a dancer whether it be a one-room gallery or a multi-floor museum or a sculpture garden or cafe. There is no theater with a stage and permanent seating to dictate movement and direction. Instead there are new spaces and new contexts to consider and take advantage of. A new perspective is presented. A new conversation begins.

The value of this kind of opportunity is immeasurable to me. To experience an art form in a new or unexpected context allows for new interpretation and meaning. It allows our “minds to be blown” which is indeed a unique pleasure.

In 2011, the Mills College Art Museum, in collaboration with the Mills Music and Dance departments, presented a restaging of John Cage’s Credo in Us (1942)within Los Angeles-based artist Frances Stark’s solo exhibition. Stark’s exhibition, the whole of all the parts as well as the parts of all the parts, was an eight-part video installation that unfolded one part and one wall at a time. Prompted by a flashing arrow after the end of each segment, the viewers moved on through the darkened gallery space in an unexpected, participatory performance of their own.

Frances Stark, the whole of all the parts as well as the parts of all the parts, 2011. Video installation, Mills College Art Museum. Photo: Phil Bond

Frances Stark, the whole of all the parts as well as the parts of all the parts, 2011. Video installation, Mills College Art Museum. Photo: Phil Bond

With eight walls at 10×16’ apiece we did not have the option to move them for the performance of Credo in Us so New York-based dancer and choreographer and Mills dance faculty, Molissa Fenley created a piece that would take advantage of all the walls and the spaces in between. The 12 dancers were dispersed throughout the gallery space. Live feed of the performance was projected on the walls where Stark’s video installation would have been projected. The audience sat in chairs against the permanent museum walls and the backside of the movable (not really movable) 10×16’ foot walls. It was quite the production and without the creative genius of Fenley and our leaning towards experimentation it never would have been as successful as it was.

Credo in Us, 2011 Courtesy of Mills College Art Museum

In May of this year, Mills dance graduate (and Fenley’s student) Heather Stockton performed her final performance in the museum’s defunct tower amidst Mills studio art graduate, Michael A. Mersereau’s final video installation of an entire feature length film’s averaged light levels as viewed through the shifting brightness of an 100 watt light bulb.

<p><a href=”″>Light Study: (Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 201minutes, 1975), 2012</a> from <a href=”″>Michael Mersereau</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Michael A. Mersereau, Light Study: (Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, 201 minutes, 1975), 2012

Heather Stockton, 2012, performance stills

Heather Stockton, 2012, performance stills

Heather Stockton, 2012, performance stills

Heather Stockton, 2012, performance stills

“What happens when vital bodies introduce new and thoughtful ways of moving into a space where people are perhaps least aware of their bodies and how they are moving?”

<p><a href=”″>Dancing 9 to 5</a> from <a href=”″>fritz haeg</a> on <a href=””>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

Fritz Haeg, Dancing 9 to 5 (Sundown Schoolhouse at the Whitney)

Incorporating more of the arts under one roof certainly encourages the idea of “museum” as gathering place. Placing the arts under one roof provides an incredible opportunity for a truly enriched experience for all involved. Artists (visual artists, dancers, musicians, architects, designers, planners, educators, scientists, etc.) are exposed to one other, audiences are exposed to new forms of art, and institutions get pushed and pulled and challenged to mold, bend, and grow in order to support this level of engagement. The institution becomes a greenhouse in which all dynamic processes are supported and encouraged. As long as these spaces (museums/arts organizations) continue to foster this kind of growth and change there is no end to the possibilities.

There is so much more to say on this topic of dance in visual arts spaces and I can only hope that the panelists in the Dance Discourse #13 panel in September will take the conversation deeper.

To note:

Sasha Petrenko’s Instructions for Movement with Furniture

Jamie Venci: The Cries of San Francisco

Laura Arrington

Zaccho Dance Theater

Portland Institute for Contemporary Art


SFMOMA: Stage Presence exhibition and performance series

Maysoun Wazwaz, Program Manager of the Mills College Art Museum (MCAM), has been involved in the Bay Area arts community for 8 years as an arts administrator, curator, dancer, and writer. Prior to her position at Mills, she spent five years as the Exhibitions Program Manager at Southern Exposure, one of San Francisco’s longest-running non-profit visual arts organizations. To date, Maysoun has worked with over a thousand artists through solo, group and juried exhibitions as well as performance events, artist residencies and public art projects. She has worked on numerous artist publications including Alison Pebworth: Beautiful Possibility and the forthcoming Dance Rehearsal: Karen Kilimnik’s World of Ballet and Theater. Maysoun has served as a selection panelist for the San Francisco Arts Commission, California College of the Arts and the San Jose Institute for Contemporary Art. She also serves on the Curatorial Committee of Root Division, a San Francisco based non-profit arts and education organization whose diverse programs provide access to the visual arts through the cultivation of individual creativity and community engagement. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Maysoun holds a BA in Art History from Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. 


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