Dialogue Summer 2018: After the Storm
After the Storm
Performance studies professor and department chair Ramón H. Rivera-Servera has spearheaded an innovative outreach initiative to assist Puerto Rican artists in the aftermath of last fall’s devastating hurricanes. Organized and deployed with ample University assistance and grant funding, this budding project mines beauty and empowerment amid a disaster.
When Hurricanes Maria and Irma hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, they left a massive humanitarian crisis in their wake. The Category 5 storms leveled towns, decimated businesses and natural landscapes, deprived thousands of their homes and jobs, and left the island and its 3.3 million residents without power for weeks and, in some areas, months—a cruel turn of events for a US territory that was already in an economic crisis. Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, chair of the Department of Performance Studies and interim chair of the Department of Theatre, waited in anguish at his home in Chicago for spotty dispatches from family on the island. When the calls came, they reported on the chaos, water shortages, and lack of medical help and electricity—reports that were unheeded by the federal government. With his mother and grandmother among his stranded relatives, Rivera-Servera departed Chicago for San Juan the first chance he got.
The disarray he found on the island broke his heart— but also inspired a movement.
With a personal and professional foundation in performance and creation, Rivera-Servera homed in on that population: art makers and scholars who because of the storm were displaced, no longer able to work, or suddenly without the financial support that once sustained them. He decided to establish a residency and mentorship program for Puerto Rican artists to create, teach, and research on both the island and the mainland, with Northwestern as one of the program’s pedagogical nuclei. The artists could then return to Puerto Rico equipped with a project commission, a support structure, and a plan to activate spaces and energize communities affected by the storms and other calamities.
And so the Northwestern Puerto Rican Arts Development Project was born.
The plan and the partnerships
Wasting no time, Rivera-Servera got right to work. “My response was to fundraise inside the University,” he recalls. He quickly secured seed funding through School of Communication Dean Barbara O’Keefe and generous matching support from the Office of the Provost and the Office of the President, the dean of Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, the Departments of Performance Studies and African American Studies, the Black Arts Initiative, and the Kaplan Institute for the Humanities—a total of $100,000. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation announced in May that it would contribute an additional $500,000.
As the funding came in, Rivera-Servera and his doctoral candidates and collaborators, José Alvarez-Colón and Arnaldo Rodríguez-Bagué, identified two key San Juan partners for this initiative: La Espectacular, a highly regarded artist residency program, and the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico. Both institutions had created poststorm lifelines for artists—including MACPR’s Regeneration of the Arts Ecosystem, providing psychological support, orientation, practical skill building (such as grant writing), and economic assistance to those affected by the hurricanes. La Espectacular had a particularly strong mentorship program. As these two established institutions were knowledgeable about Puerto Rican artists and keenly aware of the challenges they faced working on the island, Rivera-Servera saw them as fruitful partners. Northwestern could provide financial support for key MACPR and La Espectacular programming; those organizations in turn could help vet the artists and mentors most appropriate for this initial cohort. Additionally, MACPR would serve as base camp for the first phase of the rollout.
On August 1, 10 early- to midcareer artists who work in performance and ephemeral arts (using the body as the primary creative tool) began what will be a two-year commission and professional development process. They collectively took part in an intensive monthlong professionalization training led by Rivera-Servera at MACPR. The artists worked on such tasks as writing artists’ statements, presenting lectures, facilitating workshops, assembling grant and fellowship proposals, and communicating with audiences about their work. Each of these artists will come to Northwestern for weeklong residencies—three this fall, three this winter, and four next spring. On campus the artists will each present a talk, lead a workshop, and participate in a public conversation with the University community about their work, the project they workshopped at MACPR, and their experience as working artists in poststorm Puerto Rico. In addition, they will take part in networking events with Chicago arts stakeholders.
Following their residencies at Northwestern, the artists will spend another week at one of the universities that have expressed interest in the program; these include public and private institutions across the country. “The idea is to expand the set of resources and relationships that may in the long term further the outstanding creative practice and valuable contributions these artists are making to Puerto Rico and the specific communities they’re engaged in,” says Rivera-Servera.
The artists will then return to Puerto Rico, where they will work closely with 10 designated mentors over the following year to execute and present their respective artistic projects. The development initiative will wrap up in August 2020 with a retreat to reflect on the experience and share work. By this point, the artists will have built energy and momentum for arts creation in communities throughout the island. This is what the partners believe will drive Puerto Rico’s reconstruction—in identity and, by extension, in infrastructure.
“The initiative will provide much-needed exposure to Puerto Rican artists, established and emergent, as well as critical insight and professional training for them to make the most of available opportunities and tools,” says Marianne Ramírez-Aponte, MACPR executive director and chief curator. “Through active and continuous joint efforts involving the museum, artists, educators, and community residents, the MAC is working to further contribute to the recovery and socioeconomic development of communities via cultural and volunteer tourism, our ongoing art exhibitions and commissioned projects, the activation of businesses in the communities, and alliances with the business sector.”
Artists on the island have grown accustomed to working amid economic and financial turmoil, but the hurricanes brought entirely new challenges.
“In Puerto Rico there is a precarious infrastructure for artistic production, especially in the performance field,” says dancer and choreographer Nibia Pastrana Santiago, codirector of La Espectacular. “The few venues and innovative projects from recent years have either come to an end or continue to struggle for survival. And when I say survival, it is exactly that. To be an independent artist or collective on an island that is threatened by debt and budget cuts in its educational and healthcare systems is a huge challenge. This of course was made more visible posthurricanes, and like the rest of the Puerto Rican community, artists were and still are affected by the political disaster following the storms.”
José Alvarez-Colón, one of the Northwestern doctoral candidates working on the project, knows this all too well. Before moving to Chicago in 2016, he was a freelance artist in Puerto Rico, trying to eke out a living while reconciling the complicated relationship between the island and the mainland—something he sees as one of the bigger issues this cohort will tackle.
“I am convinced that this project will be helpful for asking broader questions regarding the role of performance with climate change, environmental crisis, and disaster capitalism,” he says. Additionally, it can help elevate Puerto Rico’s standing on the world stage, which would go beyond the US’s historical assessment of the island as a “colonial laboratory” for the pharmaceutical industry, military bases, and now, disaster recovery.
Each of the 10 participating artists, alongside their assigned mentors, will find unique ways to approach these issues. The project’s first cohort was assembled to represent the island’s demographic and geographic diversity, which is essential to permeating the culture and positioning the artists as key voices at a critical moment in Puerto Rican economic, political, and cultural history. The 10 mentors (see page 22) were selected in a similar fashion.
“Key to our strategy is an attempt to stabilize and strengthen networks of care and mentorship already central to sustaining the arts ecology in Puerto Rico, especially amongst artists whose primary instrument is their bodies,” says Rivera-Servera. “We have assembled a cohort of mentors, not selected by longevity necessarily but by their key roles sustaining the performance art scene, be it through their practice as teachers of embodied techniques, as scholars and critics, or as producers. All of these mentors are artists in their own right and equally struggling to sustain their practice.”
Although designed to be comprehensive, the two-year process is still a preliminary step toward self-sustainment and continued cultural ownership. These artists and mentors are accustomed to being nimble, resourceful creators. But with this development project, their work may sustain them and their peers.
“Support from the Mellon Foundation is allowing us to invest in artists whose work shares beauty and criticality with communities in great need of both pleasure and generous debate about how to intervene in this crisis,” says Rivera-Servera. “This is a kind of insistent utopianism that believes in what art can manifest as possible, not in a flight from the reality of this crisis but as a result of understanding the conditions upon which creative practice and life endure in contexts as challenging as this one.”
Arts in Puerto Rico: Rich Traditions, Sizable Challenges
Puerto Rico’s arts scene has always been a thriving one amidst limited institutional support, scarce arts criticism in media outlets, and the absence of graduate arts programs. The number of excellent artists actively working contrasts with a small market for their work marked by an ever-changing number of galleries and limited access to museum programming and other work opportunities to help them sustain careers as professional artists.
But it is important to state that crisis in Puerto Rico is not new to the culture sector and has not come about solely because of Hurricanes Maria and Irma, although they have certainly aggravated it. Trying circumstances and limited resources associated with the politics and economics of colonialism are a given on the island both for artists and for most cultural institutions. For artists, the multiple crises that Puerto Rico faces—political, financial, social, cultural—far from debilitating arts production, spur it and entice artists to look at other paths to self-sufficiency. These include undertaking graduate studies and participating in residency programs abroad, living and working between the island and abroad, and grouping themselves and establishing alternative exhibition spaces to carry out their projects.
The Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico is sensitive to these circumstances, which is why, in part, it is conceived as a hybrid institution: a space of production and creation as well as of research, exhibition, and conservation. The museum’s leadership believes that an interdisciplinary focus is essential for a museum dedicated to contemporary art and that our audiences should participate directly in the process of art to consolidate their contemporary art education, as contemporary art is characterized by its emphasis on process and on the construction and exhibition of artworks and interventions.
For these reasons the MACPR has been actively commissioning art since 2009. Through our intra- and extramural residency programs such as Taller Vivo (Live Workshop) and El MAC en el Barrio (MAC in the Barrio), we have given continuity to our commitment to act as an observatory of new aesthetics and to encourage the systematic study and analysis of convergent artistic disciplines. Through both these programs as well as through our exhibition and education programs, we consistently (in spite of limited funding) provide work opportunities for artists through commissioned projects and by engaging them as workshop facilitators, speakers, and more.
For the MAC and the general community, the contribution made by Northwestern University will help us give continuity to MAC in the Barrio, Live Workshop, and other core programs. Through active and continuous joint efforts involving the museum, artists, educators, and community residents, the MAC is working to further contribute to the recovery and socioeconomic development of communities via cultural and volunteer tourism, our ongoing art exhibitions and commissioned projects, the activation of businesses in the communities, and alliances with the business sector.
In the weeks after Hurricane Maria, the MAC became aware that it had moved beyond the role of an unusual art institution with intensive community engagement programming or a storage location for important artworks and archives. It had become a home—a community center and major resource for those seeking aid after the storm. It was a center for relief distribution and a place where people gathered to fill out FEMA forms. It offered an Artist Emergency Fund providing financial assistance. It offered programming to students who had lost their academic routines because of power outages and destruction caused by the hurricane, as well as art therapy and other services for families and seniors.
Further, the MAC opened its doors to arts organizations and performers slated to perform at venues that had been closed as a result of the storm.
—Marianne Ramírez-Aponte, executive director and chief curator, Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Puerto Rico