Community Profile: Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX)
August 12, 2016
Jaime Shearn Coan in conversation with Marya Warshaw, June 17, 2016
Brooklyn Arts Exchange (BAX), supporting the fields of dance, theater, and performance, is located at 421 5th Ave in Brooklyn. It’s open 8:45 – 11:00 pm, seven days a week. In its four studios, including one theater space, you will find, on any given day: children and teens taking movement classes, working artists rehearsing, community meetings, curated performances—and usually all of these things at once! The office of Marya Warshaw, BAX’s Executive Director, is a popular destination. I sat down with Marya to talk a bit more about what sets BAX apart from other organizations, including its status as an organization that focuses on supporting artists rather than presenting them, and the history and current status of two of its distinctive programs: BAX’s Artists-in-Residence and the Creating Space initiative.
– Jaime Shearn Coan, Danspace Project Curatorial Fellow
The Distinct Work of a Supporting Organization
It is not uncommon for an artist participating in one of BAX’s program to return in another capacity, whether Artists-in-Residence, Space Grant Recipients, Teaching Artists, Artist Advisors. Often, if an artist wants to develop, they can do so with BAX. Marya estimates that stays of 1 day or 5 years are common. Teaching artists turn into faculty. Faculty turn into Creating Space facilitators. Space Grantees turn into Artists-in-Residence. And so on. Not being a presenting organization, BAX does not need to compete for audiences, leaving them wholly free to focus on supporting the continuing research and authentic investigation of their artists. Marya sees this as making things more human. In her role as a mentor, she wants her artists to know that their knowledge is valued whether they can articulate themselves or not. She encourages them to be seen when they are strong and not so strong—to see that they are still accepted either way. Beyond their time at BAX, Marya for BAX artists that “they bring those experiences on their back when they leave.” It’s important that they take it on the road, she says.
In 1993, BAX welcomed its first two Artists-in-Residence (AIRs): George Emilio Sanchez and Reggie Wilson. Since then, and continuing into the present, BAX’s AIRs are widely recognized leaders and participants in New York’s various dance, performance, and theater communities. AIRs are selected through a juried process, and offered a year-long residency with the possibility of a second year. Cohorts are composed based on the selection of specific people and areas of interest.
In additional to working independently, AIRs meet every six weeks to discuss their work and find out what else is happening at BAX. A guiding question for Marya in working with AIRs has been: “How can we support this investigation?” She is also quick to point out that, just as AIRs have benefitted from their time at BAX, so has BAX benefitted and shifted as a result of its AIRs. AIRs, along with the projects that they have begun or continued to explore while in residency have often left lasting impacts, whether through their return in another capacity, the implementation of permanent programming, or the introduction of new collaborators and community members.
Creating Space Initiative
It’s no surprise then, that many of the Creating Space workshops offered at BAX have emerged from the work of former AIRs. Creating Space is a program that “provides opportunities to support and develop artists of all races, backgrounds, cultures, sexual orientations, gender identities, and aesthetic traditions.” Extending out of the working practice of AIRs, teaching faculty, and others, these programs are free or have a nominal charge, but no one is turned away for lack of funds. It is a stated goal of Creating Space that BAX becomes visible to new participants as a result of this program. Here is a brief description of some Creating Space projects:
- Adult Ballez was initiated by Katy Pyle and Jules Skloot. It began as a space grant, but they needed more time for their exploration. An idea for a class emerged, and the class has now become something of an institution, continuing to expand its exploration of “the gender-binaried, exclusionary culture of ballet, radically re-imagining the whole scene as a site of joyful, liberatory queer play.”
- Needing It: After completing his time as an AIR, Dan Fishback began facilitating Needing It. based on the pedagogical techniques of performance artist and original Split Britches member Deb Margolin. In this workshop, participants develop their own solo performance material while studying the history of queer performance in NYC.
- Dancing While Black Fellowship was initiated by Paloma McGregor while in residence as an AIR to “offer a cohort of Black emerging dance artists free master classes and platforms for developing work.”
- Dance to the People: Maria Duarte, a member of the dance faculty at BAX, noticed that trainings occur frequently occurred during the day when many people work, and had the idea to offer classes on teaching methodology. So many people showed up, ithas turned into “an open collective of dancers looking to generate opportunities for training, research and choreography.”
- Submerge Festival: A month-long festival of performance, theater, and visual art by LGBTQPOC, co-presented with the Helix Performance Network. Submerge was begun by Dan Fishback and the 2016 festival is curated by Naimonu James.
- ACRE (Artists Co-creating Racial Equality) “is a monthly meet up for artists, cultural workers, and cultural advocates working to understand and undo racism in our field and in our daily lives.” It started as an offshoot of the Undoing Racism Workshop at The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. BAX hosted meetings in 2015-2016 on the 1st Sunday of each month.
Marya, a self described “64-year-old white lesbian” spoke to me about the need for her to “catch up with herself” in order to relate to and understand contemporary conversations around queerness, race, gender, sexuality. When she mentioned that BAX senior staff have all been through the Undoing Racism workshop; that it was “important as an organization to share language,” it struck me that BAX is really setting a significant precedent in being an artist-centered arts organization that is taking steps to structurally address systemic racism. The ability to understand the societal conditions and worldviews of the artists she works with is crucial: “You need to understand it to support it,” she says.