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Broadening Access to the Creative Process

In 2016, the University of Washington received a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to support Meany Center and the UW’s arts academic units in a brand-new program intended to support professional artists in their creative research. Over three years, Meany Center, the Schools of Music and of Drama, the Department of Dance and the Department of Digital Arts and Experimental Media invited artists practicing across multiple disciplines to participate in the first cohort of the Creative Fellowships Initiative. Each Fellow visited the UW campus numerous times during their residencies, and though some developed work that they premiered on the Meany Stage, others focused on research without worrying about creating a final product.

In 2019, the University received a second award from the Mellon Foundation that broadened the scope of the project beyond just visiting artists to include faculty in the UW’s arts academic units as well as to support curricula development that would introduce creative process to students who are not majoring in the arts.

The goal of the new Arts & Creativity Initiative is, again, to support professional artists’ creative research — but this time among a cohort whose work as artists is often overtaken by their responsibilities as faculty members to teach and to publish. As Faculty Fellows, there is no requirement to make their research public, or to involve students in any way in the projects. The fellowship is explicitly in support of their individual identities as artists, and to honor their need for time, space and attention to their creative work.

In addition to giving the Faculty Fellows time and space for their creative work, this project had a second though equally important goal: to provide Fellows an opportunity to build camaraderie around their work as artists, a supportive community, and continuing relationships across disciplines that will last beyond the terms of this fellowship.

Six faculty members were chosen in the first round. Partnering with each other and with artists outside of the UW, the cohort developed three distinct, interdisciplinary projects that daringly breached barriers between their separate fields — and incorporated unexpected elements into their work.

For example, Professors Audrey Desjardins (Design), Afroditi Psarra (DXArts) and Bonnie Whiting (School of Music) were fascinated by how the introduction of artificial intelligence into everyday life via voice assistants such as Siri or Alexa is rapidly and fundamentally changing how humans interact. In short order, these assistants have come to be considered “part of the family” while their surveillance capabilities are forgotten.

Combining their diverse specialties in interaction design, digital arts and percussion, Desjardins, Psarra and Whiting created a series of performative works that integrated design, data-driven art, digital crafting, percussion and performance that sought to demonstrate the implications of our encounters with artificial intelligence.

Professors Rachael Lincoln (Department of Dance) and Jeffrey Fracé (Drama) used their fellowships to continue a collaboration that had begun in 2018. 11 Comets, a performative duet that equally engages movement and text to co-author a narrative, began life as a collaborative research project on the intersection of dance and theater. As part of their fellowship, the two invited a third artist, New York City-based composer/sound designer Christian Frederickson, to join them to expand and refine 11 Comets, and to begin creation of a companion duet for two different performers.

Creating new work was only part of their goal; at the heart of this project was their joint research into the nature of narrative, playing with the revelation and restraint of information that forms story. They explored how two distinct aesthetics can coexist and how they can find a balance between literal and abstract. Other questions informing their research included: What is specific and what is universal? What is ours and what isn't? What happens when we take our process to two different people? What will be unique to them?

The final first round Fellow was School of Music percussion professor Ted Poor. During his fellowship, Poor began an ambitious multi-year project committed to furthering the capabilities and function of the drum set in modern music. Some of the questions Professor Poor brings to his research include the “power of suggestion” in music — i.e., what do listeners need in order to feel a sense of completion —  what does the audience bring to musical experiences via their own imaginations and experiences vs. what it is necessary for the performers to provide while leaving space for listeners to interact with and perhaps unwittingly complete the work in the moment to their liking.

“To have such robust support and the occasion to focus on process is something I’ve never before experienced,” Poor commented. “Interestingly, that focus and the lack of a deadline to ‘make something’ has led to a very productive time for me. I also greatly appreciate how this program has further strengthened the ties between my life as an artist and as a professor.”

Fellowships offered time for each of the artists to work on their own, but also frequent opportunities for the cohort to meet together and share their processes and progress in meetings facilitated by Meany Center executive director Michelle Witt. The plan was for the artists involved in each of the three projects to present their work to the group twice over the course of the fellowship.

But no story that takes place in the year 2020 is complete with the introduction of COVID-19.

By mid-March, the University had closed down, travel was strongly discouraged and live performance was forbidden. Four of the six scheduled cohort meetings had already occurred, but two of the three groups had not yet had an opportunity to present their work for the second time. This was problematic for everyone since each project demanded a range of “live-ness” both in how the collaborators worked together to develop the work and how it could be presented.

Ted Poor had already completed his research and presented it twice to the group; however, he had planned a final live public performance as the culminating event that had to be canceled.

Audrey Desjardins, Afroditi Psarra and Bonnie Whiting were able to adapt fairly readily to the limitations created by COVID and continue their work with minimal disruption due to their project’s emphasis on technology and recording. Live performance was, of course, one aspect of their work, but could be worked around. This group also chose to collaborate with students on their project, an experience they found enriching:

“Our collaboration with students was fruitful both for us, as artists and designers, and also for them, as an integral part of their learning experience at UW. It has shown them first-hand what research-through-art/performance/design might look like and how to navigate the ambiguity of such spaces.”

The shutdown had its greatest impact on Rachael Lincoln and Jeffrey Fracé, whose project combining dance and drama had the greatest dependence on face-to-face interaction. Their inability to rehearse in person, to perform together or to present before a live audience created a deep sense of loss for these artists and required some time to accommodate and adapt. “What we originally imagined as 50 minutes of material in two companion pieces may become that by December 2020,” they report as they currently adjust to a new reality, “or may become a hybrid live/video/online performance.”

The length of the first cohort’s fellowship has been extended to December 2020 to allow everyone time to finish their projects.

In the meantime, a new cohort begins in September 2020. They will be welcomed with a virtual dinner party — a catered meal will be dropped at each participant’s house—hosted by Meany Center executive director Michelle Witt and Divisional Dean of the Arts Catherine Cole.  The new cohort will share their proposed projects with each other — and the previous cohort will each give a 6-1/2 minute Pecha Kucha presentation (a storytelling format where the presenter shows 20 slides for 20 seconds of commentary each) of their research.

The Arts & Creativity Initiative is just the latest example of Meany Center’s scope beyond just the visiting artists we present on our stage. In supporting the work of UW's arts faculty, in the creation of new curricula that shares the creative process with non-arts students, and in strengthening ties between Meany and the arts academic units, we are fulfilling our mission to advance public engagement, cultural exchange, creative research and learning through the arts.