|I would like to ask you about the situation in the Midwest. Is Minneapolis a cultural center in the region?
Minneapolis is certainly one of the cultural centers in the region. It is said to have the second largest per capita number of theaters among U.S. cities after New York City. They have Orchestra Hall, which is the home of the Minnesota Orchestra, and the Guthrie Theatre, which is an internationally famous regional theater. We also have one of the most significant contemporary art museums with performance spaces in the U.S., the Walker Art Center, which reopened after major renovation and expansion in April 2005. The Guthrie Theater is now undergoing construction of a new building, and the Children's Theater is being expanded, too. There is a tremendous amount of development going on in the city now. Unfortunately, however, not much of this information is probably reaching Japan.
There are several other major cities which are regarded as cultural centers in our region including Chicago, Illinois, and other cities in the states of Ohio and Michigan. For an example, University of Michigan has excellent international programs for their season which is presented by University Musical Society. They presented the Elephant Vanishes, a co-production of Japan’s Setagaya Public Theatre and Britain’s Theatre de Complicite. There are also many other universities and colleges in the Midwest that are playing the roles of major presenters, and we think that there is a great potential of presenting Japanese artists with them.
American universities that have theater facilities are presenting a variety of programs and are playing a similar role of regional public centers in Japan as well. They have significant budgets, they have connections to the community, and they have an audience including their students. A dozen of them are forming a network of “University Presenters” as well.
You have told us that introducing Midwest artists beyond their home states and region is also one of Arts Midwest's functions. How do you go about this?
For example, every year in September we have an arts market known as the Midwest Arts Conference (MAC). This event invites artists from around the country (primarily the Midwest) to participate in the live showcases, and of the 200-300 applications, the selection committee selects about 20 groups to give live presentations. The fee for the showcase application is $60, and the production cost is $650, so only artists that are willing to pay the cost to show their works at MAC apply. More than 300 booths are also set up by artists’ managers to distribute information on their artists during MAC, and more than 1,000 presenters from all over the U.S., some from abroad as well, attend MAC to gather information on and book the artists, many of whom are based in our region.
There are two more regional conferences besides MAC, which are the Western Arts Alliance (WAA) and the Performing Arts Exchange (PAE). These are held in the month of September each year with staggered times of about two weeks in the three regions of the West, Midwest and South in that order.
In fact, before these regional conferences, there are booking conferences in many states, and in January, after the regionals, there is a national gathering of the presenters, artists and their managers, which is the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP). Thus, the professionals in the field meet on state, regional and national levels not just to collect information on artists but also to discuss common issues and visions. I think that this kind of system results in empowering the nonprofit arts sector as a whole in the context of larger society.
What kinds of Japanese performers are U.S. presenters interested in today?
I think it differs on an individual basis, but I would say that there are a good number of presenters who are interested to see what is coming next in the genre of contemporary Japanese dance. I also think there is considerable potential in the field of Hogaku (traditional Japanese music). Hogaku may not be well known among a large number of presenters yet, but there is an interesting possibility of growth here especially with such means as collaborating with American Bluegrass or Jazz musicians.
When introducing Japanese artists, do you think that collaborations are a viable method?
Yes. It is often times difficult to draw audiences for Japanese artists who are not known in the U.S., but if you can arrange collaboration with a known local artist, there are various opportunities for things to develop from there. At the same time, however, it is not very easy to arrange artistic collaborations. We need to think about the best way for the artists to meet each other.
What about artist residency programs?
I think that residencies are very effective and significant in many ways. When asked why you want to invite a Japanese artist over to the U.S., often times it is not convincing enough to simply say that because they are outstanding artists or that because that kind of expression doesn't exist in the States. However, if you also say that the artists will be conducting residency programs to directly interact with and contribute to the community, you have much stronger case and are more likely to get funding as well as more interest from the audience and the community.
In fact, at Arts Midwest we are running a “Midwest World Fest” project and every year since 2003 we have invited “Bamboo Orchestra” from Japan. This is a brilliant program designed specifically for the Midwestern communities where the ensemble stays for one full week each in a number of communities in the nine Arts Midwest states (five weeks in the first year, four weeks in the second). And these are mostly communities least known in Japan, and where the people have little knowledge of Japanese culture, or have never even met a Japanese person before.
The schedule for the week is very well structured and pretty much the same in each community. They arrive in the town on Sunday and there is a welcoming party that night. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday they go to the local middle schools and high schools and conduct workshops. On Thursday there may be a jam session or some special event, and on Friday there is a small concert for the children of the schools they have visited. Finally, on Saturday they give a full evening public performance for the community, then they move on to the next community on Sunday.
For six months before the arrival of the Bamboo Orchestra, the children have been studying about Japan and its arts and culture from a CD-ROM we have produced, so they are really anxious for the arrival of the musicians when the time comes. I once visited one rural community in Wisconsin to observe the program in operation. When it came to the day of the final performance and the children saw the same artists who had come to teach them in their classroom now playing on the stage, they felt a special connection and got really excited. In the rural areas of the American Midwest it is almost inconceivable to have parents and children going together to a concert by Japanese musicians, but it was a full house, and one hundred CDs were sold out during the intermission at a small concert hall that held about 500 people. It was really touching to see how the audience listened so intently to each subtle little sound of the bamboo instruments. At first, our plan was to invite groups from different countries every two years, but the Bamboo Orchestra has been so well loved by the communities and the presenters that we decided to extend their visit for another two years.
International residency projects such as this have a great deal of potential to be developed outside of major metropolitan cities in Japan and in the U.S., incorporating the regional characteristics. There are many American artists who are good at residency and outreach activities, and many of them have great interests and respect for Japanese culture, so, I think it is very feasible to implement wonderful exchange programs. I think that this kind of high-quality grass-roots international exchange programs are especially significant today, in the era of globalization.