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Decolonizing the Performing Arts:  Anchoring (non-western) Culture

Updated: Sep 22, 2022

There is a particular moment at the outset of negotiating an artistic engagement where the is the opportunity to frame the cultural context of the interaction as non-Eurocentric. This becomes important when working with institutions and communities that are predominantly white and who have never effectively welcomed communities of different cultures into their spaces (and given them a seat at the table). In the context of my work and the work of the Indigenous performing artists that I work with this is obviously a Native context.

In negotiation there is a term called anchoring that is used as a psychological tool to create a perception of value. By putting forward your ideal terms for an exchange in a negotiation, you can gain an advantage where they are now working to walk you back from a higher point than they normally would have been. In a negotiation around framing a performance residency this manifests by having a fully fleshed out plan for the time spent on the ground, including how much time (multiple visits over the span of a year, or even multiple years), where the time is spent (starting all residencies be visiting the local Native community center for instance), who is brought into the engagement (retaining/paying local Native artists, elders and culture bearers to enrich the activities of the visiting Native artist) and even where the performances themselves art located (in part or in whole.)

When attempting to create a cultural anchor in an upcoming negotiation, it is important to do your homework prior to talking. Take a look at the venue: what have they programmed in the past few years? Also see if you can get a sense as to how this programming was receive through reviews in the art blogs or paper. If the venue has hosted residencies by artists working within cultural context see if you can get information on exactly how they structured the time spent by the artists. Then look at the program staff themselves, what background do they have? Have they done any work in the past with culturally anchored artforms or events? After you understand the context of the programming take a look at the capacity of the organization to engage with community. What can they support? Look at the size of the venue and capacity of spaces. Then take a look at the diverse communities that surround the venue in the neighborhood and beyond. Are there community centers or service organizations that you can tap into? Consider how you might connect with these communities and what investment in relationship building would be necessary for an effective partnership to be formed.

Once you have done your homework, the next step is to write up your plan. This is what you will be proposing, this will be your cultural anchor. When you do a writeup, define everything as well as you can without encumbering the process with too much detail. Work to understand the context, the reason for the fashion which you frame the engagements. Is it protocol? Are you making an artistic choice that aligns with your cultural values? How do you intend for community outside of your culture to engage? What are the avenues of connection? Intentionality is key here. What are you willing to compromise on and how much are you willing to compromise? Most modern theories around negotiation hold up transparency in negotiation as the key to achieving the best outcomes for all parties.

Remember that the best outcomes from any negotiation are ones that both parties are happy with. The ultimate goals is to build relationships and create a long term, sustainable partnerships which will both support the artist, the venue and the communities that they serve. In short, if you work together, the engagement will work better.

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