Artists Make Archives Make Artists

Feb 26, 2013 | Events

My SphinxCon presentation laid out a very simple premise: that our diverse arts and culture archives should be considered an important hub in sustainably diverse arts ecosystems. I include my (rough) presentation notes below.

Many thanks to Jaquay “J.J.” McNeal, Columbia College student and former CBMR student worker for his terrific work in designing the powerpoint!


–This presentation is not only about the CBMR. It’s ultimately about what I think is the inherent the nature of diversity in the arts and how we might support it by recognizing archives as an important hub in our arts ecosystems.
–”Always/Already”: It’s an adverb. The “always” describes an ongoing state. The already describes a state of being that is independent of and previous to any of our efforts to “work” on its behalf. Diversity is what the arts do. It’s what they are.
It’s about essence. It’s that the very concept of the performing arts can be fully grasped only through their connection to diversity.
–This is at the core of the awesome power the arts have to inspire, elevate, to mobilize.
–Historically there have been structural, cultural and political challenges and obstructions to everyone having access to that power (and empowerment) in and through the arts. Those challenges still exist and they manifest in ways that we don’t always even see.
–We’ve inherited habits of thought and practice that don’t serve our purpose well.


–Sometimes we talk about and treat diversity in the arts as a rare condition or a limited resource. Precious, attractive, but also, somehow additive and ultimately finite.
–Examples: programming diversity once or twice a season…or during a particular month out of the year.
–recruiting A woman of color to our board to do the heavy lifting
–or when our organizational Statements of commitment to diversity become a kind of public relations or a one time audience engagement campaign. (the document itself stands in for the ongoing persistent action around diversity efforts).
–Critical race theorist Sara Ahmed calls these kinds of acts or language about diversity non-performatives meaning that they don’t do what they say they are doing. That ultimately , they maintain what is supposedly being redressed. Diversity as scarcity or as something only some of us do some of the time.
–Diversity in the Performing Arts is “always-already.”


–I know that diversity is an “always/already” condition of the arts in part because of my time at the CBMR.
–The Center is unique because of its scope. Because it is ultimately concerned with exploring cultural connections across time and space, it actively collects across all genres, styles and idioms of black music.
–So it represents a very rich musical diversity that is barely represented in textbooks, repertoires, and elsewhere.
–I am not saying diversity just happens naturally so we don’t have to work at it. I want to suggest that we shift our efforts from the limited resource model to building the infrastructure that reveals and supports what already is.
–THAT’s what’s going to be really powerful. THAT’s what’s going to be transformative!
–The question is how we, by working together, can expand our means of circulating knowledge of and information about the arts as “always already” diverse.


–Successful arts ecosystems reflect and sustain that condition!
–One way we can do this is by:
–Engaging arts and culture archives in our deep collaborations.


–Engage=understand, activate and build.
–Understand (how archives, research centers and their staffs can support your efforts and serve as resources and collaborators).
–Activate archival materials (bringing them to life in new ways).
–And Build (contribute)
–So it’s  a cyclical process that circulates and preserves knowledge and builds strong foundation for current and future generations to experience arts diversity as everyday.


–When I use the phrase deep collaboration, I mean for us to move beyond simple support across the walls of academia, across sectors, towards collaborations whose results are more than the sum of their parts.
–Not the logo exchange model
–Not the one-time programming partnership model but
–Cross sector and cross platform
–Multifaceted: activate multiple parts of ecosystem
–Leverage serendipitous resonance/ improvisatory
–Long-tail or spiraling effect


–Whether we are talking about the CBMR, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, the jazz archives at Rutgers, Tulane, or the University of Chicago, the archives at our HBCUs, our own organizational archives or countless others—there’s one in your town—we all know what archives are.
–a collection of historical records, or the physical place they are located; normally unpublished and almost always unique
–On last count, the CBMR holds 88 discrete archival collections; material there that does not exist elsewhere.
–Wacky wikipedia quote: archivists understand archives to be records that have been naturally and necessarily generated –more like the “the secretions of an organism” than records that have been consciously written or created to communicate a particular message to posterity.
–Strange way of putting it, but another way of saying that the job of a good arts and culture archive is to represent the “always/already.”
–So, activating, and re-activating archival materials in all corners of our ecologies is a very good way of INSISTING on that state of affairs. Of saying NO to diversity as limited resource or a nonperformative.


–I want to look at two simplified, streamlined ecosystemic processes of archival engagement in relation to the archive as hub. ( I am not a data visualist! But the idea here is that the study of ecosystems is the study of processes that link components)
–Scholar Process: what we usually think of. Do the research. Activate archives  through creation and dissemination of knowledge./Contribute…
–This strand is important because it creates some of the pillars of a diverse arts infrastructure. Trust me. This stuff is not just going to appear in the curricula by itself.
–Archival researchers and the ways in which they create and disseminate knowledge can take many forms. CBMR hosts all kinds of Media makers, educators, students, and of course performing artists, composers, program directors, etc can activate archives as well.
–CBMR gets stronger, more robust ability to document the always already and to support your efforts to represent it.


–Quickly share highlights from two recent CBMR initiatives:
–One of the CBMR’s largest collections is that of Melba Liston: a great but under-recognized jazz trombonist and composer/arranger. We have been working to bring attention to the collection and to her life and work.


–The project is ongoing and continues to be successful.
–By engaging in deep collaborations with our partners, we’ve activated and expanded the collection in a number of exciting ways.


–A core aspect of the Florence Price project has been about making her work more accessible—through score recreation and the production of a high-quality recording.
–These projects are examples of the kind of deep collaboration that were interested in promoting at the CBMR.


–I want to encourage all of you to think about how these two concepts might apply to your work—the “always/already” and engaging archives. How would you use archives to reflect/sustain diversity in the arts. I’m looking forward to talking with you and hearing your ideas for how we. Together, can better support the “always/already.”


–Thank You!



Leave a Reply