Meet the 2016 Panelists: Thomas F. DeFrantz

Meet the 2016 Panelists: Thomas F. DeFrantz
04/26/2016 Kim Savarino

We’re thrilled with the 36 new live performance works selected for MAP support this year — these projects will receive a total of $1.1 million in direct support for development and premiere. Thomas F. DeFrantz (Duke University / SLIPPAGE:Performance | Culture | Technology) served as an adjudicator on this year’s dance panel, reviewing project applications in the final stage of MAP’s application process. I asked Tommy to reflect on their experience and share what they observed during the process. 

Kim Savarino: What did you expect, and what surprised you about the panel process?

Thomas F. DeFrantz: Over the years I’ve been fortunate enough — or presumptuous enough — to serve on a couple dozen funding panels for artists. Artist funding panels are group affairs and arranged marriages; the funder knows all of us, but we meet each other in the crucible of making urgent decisions that will affect people we know or have never met. I expected friction, disagreement, and wildly inappropriate comments from some or all of the panelists or representatives of the funder; these are standard happenings in these circumstances. Surprisingly, this process for the MAP panel was not ridden with ethically-suspicious behavior or intentionality. SURPRISE: there are ethically-engaged people trying to make a difference in the world, and sometimes we meet each other and get to work together.

Kim: What themes or ideas stood out as “timely” among the proposed projects?

Tommy: The themes that speak to black corporeality or the lives of African diaspora people dominated the proposals as I read them. Timely, because in the context of the US we continue to try to understand legacies of slavery, cultural appropriation, asymmetrical access to resources of artmaking and performance as a practice, and blank racism and homophobia. White privilege, as something that needs to be scrutinized and dismantled, seemed to bubble through most of the proposals. There were many unusual collaborations or ‘workings alongside each other’ that seemed urgent to imagine new circumstances for creativity; this seems timely as we figure out how to share a more resource-poor planet as best we can.

Kim: What do you believe the final list of grantees communicates to the field of live performance?

Tommy: Well, the final list is dominated by female-identified lead artists. This communicates an ecstatic truth to our field: that women are in majority stakeholdership and participation in live performance and dance and need to be supported in suitable manner. It’s sad to realize that this rarely happens. The final list of grantees makes a statement that assumes leadership for the field will continue to be created by female-identified people making change through performance.


Building a Better Fishtrap: From the River’s Mouth by Paloma McGregor. Photo by Charles R. Berenguer Jr.

Kim: Beyond the field that currently exists, what field would you like to see manifest? Do you think anything about the selection process, the applicants, or the final list of grantees is a symbol or a beacon in that direction?

Tommy: Many projects were not all that concerned about being in theater spaces; this is terrific news for a future for live performance.  How about a category that isn’t ‘site specific’ in that colonizing, and somewhat paternalistic, designation, but rather ‘live art in public spaces’ or better yet, ‘live art in public?’ Live art in public made by people who want and need to communicate with people local to our homes — this is surely one future for performance and its sustenance in our changing world. Less traveling and touring; more live art here and now.

Kim: You brought up the idea of a project answering its own questions as a replacement metric to artistic excellence — can you talk more about this concept?

Tommy: Oh that. The ridiculous conversations around ‘artistic excellence’ on funding panels. These conversations are actually driven by fear, as the critics and cultural gatekeepers try to claim a service to form as being more important than a service to relationship and other people. ‘Artistic excellence’ is code for white privilege that thinks art should somehow speak to itself, and not to us. There is no life outside of experience, and experience depends on relationship, not on abstract, formal qualities. But art can do both of these actions (at least) simultaneously: serve the ‘form’ it references, and serve the possibility of communication here and now.  Talking about artistic excellence as a singularity across difference is born of a fear of talking about experience and possibility.  Excellence in dancing in the church basement looks different from excellence in the street festival or in the experimental dance theater space at the university. There is no ‘singular standard’ of life or experience, or of art and its excellence. So I wonder, what if the question becomes, ‘How does this work realize its potential?’ There might be excellent ballets made by young women of color that never arrive at BAM; that doesn’t make these works or experiences less valuable as live art in circulation. Yes, we need better questions, and we need to get over being afraid to talk about experience as a way to understand art. ‘Artistic excellence’ is a silly, abstract nothingness; how have we let this weird metric exist so long in our field without rising up and overturning it? Puh-leeze.

Kim: Any final thoughts or questions you’d like to share?

Tommy: I just want to say ‘thank you’ to the panel facilitators and the other panelists. I was lucky to learn so much about commitment to ethical possibility from our time together, and our careful, loose-limbed, and provocative conversations. I was actually enlivened by this labor!

Of course there were many projects I personally found to be terrific that didn’t land in the final funding pool. But we artists all know that we keep going anyway; we fall to the ground in order to demonstrate how to get up and try something else. Keep dancing to transform the space and inspire something unexpected. Yes?

Read more about the 2016 MAP Fund Projects here.

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