Anne Pasternak talks to Alia Al-Senussi

Anne Pasternak, President and Artistic Director of Creative Time, is known for her killer legs, although a wicked sense of humour, sharp intellect and keen artistic eye doesn't hurt either. Pasternak has taken the New York organisation from local to national to global, putting on a number of impressive productions. Notably, Waiting for Godot in New Orleans, a project by Paul Chan, co-produced by Creative Time and The Classical Theatre of Harlem. Pasternak and Al-Senussi debate pessimism versus optimism and discuss undiscovered pockets of art in the world.

Alia Al-Senussi
 The British media is currently obsessed by the idea of politics and media being in bed with one another with this News Corp. scandal. The art world has also been talking a lot about politics and art. Have you been as consumed by this drama in New York as we are here?
Anne Pasternak The Rupert Murdoch situation isn't as big news in the States as it is in the UK but it's certainly important. However, I'm glad the American media has increasingly covered stories in which artists are in conflict with power simply by exercising their fundamental human right to free expression. Obviously, 
Ai Weiwei's arrest got the most attention by all types of media. My hope is that it helps promote awareness around the causes of other intellectuals who are unlawfully detained by government authorities. There was also some news coverage about the assassination of Juliano Mer-Khamis, a theatre director working with children in a Palestinian refugee camp. Then there are petitions from Abu Dhabi to Sharjah… 
So, yes, interesting times..

AA-S How do you feel about senior figures in the art world being involved in this and commenting publicly on it? Artists have been detained yet a very cosy relationship exists between art and, say, Chinese government officials. As someone who is the head of a non-profit institution, how do you regard the whole issue of donations and partnerships?
AP A lot of people are thinking about this now. In the '80s and '90s we in the non-profit art world used to ask ourselves: Do you take Philip Morris money or not? Is it any worse than taking federal government money? Or are we asking private individuals, or board members, where they're investing and where their philanthropy comes from? These are very complicated questions that are not easily answered. I believe we have to look at them on an individual basis. For example, we live in a globalised world - there are different cultural traditions, different social norms, different political realities and there is no, one-size-fits-all answer to these situations. Take a look at Ai Weiwei's detainment in China. There will be many who say we should keep our outrage to ourselves as China has a fragile social system. Those who are understandably fed up with the west imposing its values on other countries - countries we may have little understanding of. Others say these are human rights concerns and therefore global concerns. These all represent important philosophical and practical concerns. I don't believe there is a single right approach; rather, many approaches may have collective impact. And I suppose each of us has to thoughtfully and responsibly exercise our own moral directives as best we can.

AA-S At the Venice Biennale, someone commented there was literally one person of colour at one of the events. No matter how much people talk about the art world recognising Africa and the Middle East, 
a lot of the time you just don't see it.
AP Many like to believe the art world is a place of higher ethical standards than the corporate and political worlds. But let's not kid ourselves - the arts are also largely driven by commerce and even mirror the realities of the corporate world. We sadly even uphold the same problems of class, race, sexism, etc. Diversity in the arts is something I'm keenly aware of and it worries me that there's little talk and even less action. Those of us running arts organisations are more often than not limiting the potential for broad, diverse audiences, true conversation, and awareness. It's a very real and serious concern.

AA-S What are your impressions of nascent economies entering the art world? Are they equipped to create their own revolutions, artistic or otherwise?
AP Absolutely! In many regions of the world, just expressing one's self is an act of serious defiance and being an artist is a fundamentally dangerous act. From Wisconsin to Greece, from Spain to Sharjah, artists are participating in social change movements. Even in Israel, arts professionals would like to see themselves as part of the peace process. We know that Ai Weiwei exercised his fame to build dialogue and right wrongs. To quote painter and UN Good Will Ambassador, Ross Bleckner: "There are many ways for an artist to be a citizen." So, for example, one could see Cai Guo-Qiang's gunpowder drawings as deeply political and artistically revolutionary. After all, Cai grew up across from Taiwan where there was always war. He intentionally turns an inherently violent medium, gunpowder, into something of true beauty.

AA-S The Sharjah Bienniale opened in March, and the Arab Spring started in 
Jan/Feb. However a lot of the work seemed to comment directly on these uprisings yet a lot of that work was created before the Arab Spring began so obviously these issues were fermenting in people's minds.
AP Absolutely. The region has gone through tremendous upheaval, whether from dictatorships to war and terrorism. I went to the Sharjah Bienniale and really found it fascinating to experience the issues these artists face from a non-Western bias. I also found their work intelligent and brave. It is much more difficult and seriously risky in countries with repressive governments to critique leadership. I'm also interested in ways that artists are not just pointing at problems but participating in solving them.

AA-S Yes, you're right…In the US, there has been a huge discussion about funding cuts for the National Endowment for the Arts and many artists are politically active and have campaigned to protect the NEA. Do you think that direct government funding of the arts is something that is necessary worldwide?
AP When I came to Creative Time 16 years ago, it was a time of serious demise at the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, the NEA is a small fraction of what it once was. There's a great deal of misinformation about the role of government funding the arts. Often I hear artists stating there would less censorship if there wasn't public funding. That's absurd. Or, recently, HBO talk show host Bill Maher said that Democrats should just give the Republicans what they want by getting rid of the NEA. He referred to it as an elitist organisation. The NEA is anything but elitist. Any time one of us walks into a public museum or gallery, goes to a symphony or modern dance, chances are we have the NEA to thank. The NEA works to make sure the arts are an important and robust part of American life, and they do so with minimal intervention. Have you ever worked with a corporate partner? Talk about interventions! 
No, federal funding of the arts would be a serious disgrace and contribute to the lack of creativity, innovation, education and joy of our nation.

AA-S What about you? Creative Time is a non-collecting art institution working with public bodies and a cosmopolitan population. How do you bridge that gap between government and private and look for funding in creative ways?
AP While we are now a global organisation, our home base is NYC and it's 
a blessing to be able to work here. We have a populous that's used to being challenged; that embraces new ideas and appreciates having public spaces utilised for sites of free and creative expression. We have a mayor and city administration that is incredibly supportive of using public spaces for people to come together and be creative. And you have wonderful philanthropists who truly value the arts. But to answer your question, I'm not so sure our funding strategies are that creative. Instead, we rely on building strong relationships with those who believe the work we do is important and meaningful.

AA-S Mayor Bloomberg is very involved, even in London - look at his support of the Serpentine.
AP New York City is going to have a major wake-up call when Michael Bloomberg is no longer mayor because he has done a lot to support organisations like Creative Time, and has helped our field flourish. He's personally generous. Plus, we have a city administration that says, "Yes, make NYC wonderful and great."

AA-S What's your next big project?
AP Our next big project opens on September 23. It's about this intersection of art and social justice. It's an exhibition curated by Nato Thompson with nearly 25 advising artists, scholars and curators. Called Living as Form, this exhibition and its public projects attempts to raise both awareness and questions about so-called social practice art. The show opens with our third annual Creative Time Summit, as well as the Leonore Annenberg Prize for Art and Social Change. There's also a website with a searchable database of 400 artists' projects from around the globe.

AA-S It doesn't sound like you're busy at all!
AP (laughter) There is so much innovation in the arts happening right now and I find it an inspiring moment to expand horizons and think what it means to run an organisation.

  • Anne Pasternak