Cataloguing performance: Who owns what?
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Cataloguing performance: Who owns what?

What about the notion of ownership – how does that work in the context of performance? It’s a loaded word, to be sure, but one that comes to mind for many in the museum community when you start talking about performing arts, using language like “commissions”, or “collections,” or “acquisitions.” The question arises in the group discussion: Is it even appropriate to use such language in the context of performing arts? If not, then what, exactly, is the museum’s stake in its commissioned works, and what sort of institutional history is tied up in its internal cataloguing of its investments in such performance pieces?

Peter Taub, of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, observes:

 “The notion of individual ownership just doesn’t apply; there are usually multiple commissioning partners behind the development of any given performance work, with shared, vested interests who are all involved in bringing that work to the stage, bringing it to completion. But those commissioning institutions also invest in residency time, in developing contextual material, and building and maintaining a web presence. How do we effectively use all these cohorts, these collaborative partners with a stake in a work, to create a commitment to quality and protocols for consistent documentation of that work? Various museums may have a different valuation for such archival materials and their use; there is no guarantee ‘documentation’ means the same thing to all of them, across the board.”

Chuck Helm of the Wexner Center for the Arts responds, “How then do you position your own investment and institutional history? Your ‘reputational capital’? Is ‘collection’ the way to talk about that?”

Joan Rothfuss, a curator and art historian, clarifies the point nicely, saying:

 “How does any institution actually ‘own’ a commission? A collection includes more than just the objects owned by the museum; an institution’s holdings are not really about collecting and buying, at their heart. ‘Collecting’ works is primarily about preserving and protecting them, presenting them for the public. The process of documenting a performance work for the ‘collection’ provides an institution with the opportunity to delve into what that work is about, to introduce it to people, expand the context to place it in conversation with other objects and projects also important to the museum. ‘Collecting’ a piece is a way an institution declares its commitment to making the work a community resource, something shared –  it’s not a declaration that the work is something to have and hold, separate from that community.”

Sarah Schultz, in the Walker’s education and community programs department echoes that sentiment, saying, “Yes, in my experience, including something in your ‘collection’ speaks of commitment. Given the notion of a museum as a body of people who are producing knowledge around objects and performances, as such when it commissions a piece, its intellectual capital is then dedicated to keeping these works alive. If it’s not in your ‘collection’ you may give these things less attention than those your institution has committed to in that way.”

Ben Harrison of the Andy Warhol Museum then brings up the sticky issue of profit: “Where does packaging and restaging the works in a museum’s collection fit in? Is the work remounted? Beyond stewardship, what about the financial considerations, the revenue generated for an institution by loaning out or remounting its ‘owned’ pieces? At the Warhol Museum, for instance, we generate much of our income through preparing curated packages of work in our collection for touring exhibitions.”

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing "Interscape" (2000), with costumes and décor by Robert Rauschenberg. Courtesy Tony Dougherty

And what about this: Even if you’re unconcerned with remounting a performance piece, what if, as an institution, you simply want to “animate” the pieces in your collection? What sorts of gestures can you use to bring the history of a work to life, in the exhibition of archival information and materials about a performance work after the fact?

Along those lines, Sarah Schultz of the Walker asks, “Do we have the rights to recreate those Rauschenberg costumes (in the Merce collection) for educational purposes, for a program or event? Can we create a facsimile of those materials for the sake of ‘animating the collection’ for gallery visitors?

Trevor Carlson, of MCDC quickly responds, “No, your ownership doesn’t extend that far.”

Bonnie Brooks, the Legacy fellow for the Cunningham Foundation, continues, “This brings to mind George Ballanchine: When he passed, he left his dances to a number of people, each of whom then owned the rights to those dances. What that suggests to me is there’s a precedent we’re not talking about – that particular works could be owned by someone other than the maker. There isn’t a lot of precedent for the situation, granted, but an institution might suggest they want to ‘buy’ intellectual rights to a piece, that they want to actually own every aspect of it. That may be part of what lies ahead in terms of various rights to and ownership of work.”

Philip Bither weighs in, saying, “That’s a very provocative idea, isnt’ it? But right now, a bedrock value [here] is that ownership stays with the artist. It’s written into all our commissioning agreements at the Walker: We don’t own the meat of the performance itself. Maybe, if ‘collection’ as the working lexicon is a distraction, perhaps we should change the vocabulary – call these performance commissions our ‘archive collection’ or something less loaded with connotations of ownership.”

Michele Steinwald, assistant curator for the Walker’s performing arts, goes further, saying “We’re like early investors, entitled to something like royalties if a show turns into a blockbuster, but that’s the extent of our ‘ownership’ to a work.”

“The desire to monetize the investment around commissioning work is a controversial one,” responds Bither. “And it’s something we, as the commissioners. have mixed emotions about it. You hear about the occasional blockbusters, which offer dividends to their investors (like, say, A Chorus Line). But the fact is: most of the artists we work with will never see commercial benefits, or any sort of big compensation for their work. Even if they do, our contract still doesn’t really stipulate hard details about ‘royalties,’ just that we’ll have a conversation about profit sharing if the situation arises.”

Bonnie Brooks, with the Cunningham Foundation, says, “Commissioning performance isn’t acquisitive, though. As you describe it, it’s a transactional relationship between the artist and the institution. In that case, you can discuss the trail of the performance, the tracings left behind – but the work and its documentation is simply not a collectible, as such. With regard to performing arts and visual arts: you just can’t compare the two; it’s apples and oranges.”

What happens when those categories between disciplines aren’t so neatly defined?

Robin Dowden points to an example: “Tino Seghal was commissioned by the Walker as ‘performance art’, and his work is catalogued and marked as part of the visual arts collection. Eiko & Koma were commissioned also, but Naked is not in the catalog because it wasn’t formally acquired in that way, but rather served as a kind of ‘performance’ in the galleries. How do we mix these very different sorts of projects the institution’s supporting together in a meaningful way, a coherent way – regardless of whether they came in through door #1 (visual art) or door #2 (performing art).”

And this brings the conversation in the group down to brass tacks: Assuming the artist and institution are on the same page about documentation, its contents and aims and end users – What is the best way to keep track of the information?

Merce Cunningham Dance Company performing "Minutiae" (1954) against the backdrop of Rauschenberg’s work of the same name. Photo by Herb Migdall, 1976, courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation

This is where the grant from Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) comes in. Three partner organizations, funded by IMLS, are working on a new project to develop open source innovations to help with such institutional information gathering and preserving, CollectionSpace. Those partnering organizations – the Walker Art Center, Museum of the Moving Image, and University of California-Berkeley — are each working in a difference “community of practice” to build cataloguing software that might be seamlessly integrated into the working lives of museum professionals working with a variety of objects and information. For its part, the Walker is in the process of developing such cataloguing software for performing arts. The larger interest, by CollectionSpace and IMLS, is in establishing common tools for museums and institutions to use to change how we manage, care for, and store collections information.

Angela Spinazze, our workshop leader, closes the day’s conversations by inviting a group critique on some of the Walker’s initial forays into that new way of classifying and storing performing arts information; Robin Dowden presents a series of “wireframes” to give an idea what various cataloguing ‘pages’ might look like.

Spinazze raises this issue to the group: “At CollectionSpace, we’re trying to move in a direction that keeps true to record-keeping practices that we already know work, while also taking advantage of new software tools so that adapting to changing technologies isn’t such a burden.” She goes on to ask, “Why do our software applications feel so clunky to use? As we develop these common tools, we want to make our respositories for information more intuitive to use, because the cumbersome applications we’ve been using thus far have resulted in unhelpful silos of information, separated by department and which can’t easily be cross-referenced with one another.”

She says further, “This IMLS Grant gives us an opportunity to talk about ‘communities of practice’ – that’s why we’re talking with you, the people who work in these fields of practice, because you know best what you need to make your work flow more smoothly. We hope to share tools, share technology, and in so doing come up with common practices and interfaces that make all your jobs easier. But first, we’d need to settle upon some shared definitions of terms and establish some common goals for our ‘collections’ information.”

“Ultimately,” she says, “with a new way to gather and store information that’s more in keeping with the way your institutions and artists need to use the material gathered, we want to change the paradigm for the catalogue – not how you do your work. We’re building a new foundation, a framework on which to build what’s common across your institutions. Then, maybe we can also offer a way to configure an open-source software application to help toward that end, something any institution with similar concerns can access. This is a community-sourced approach that will always be freely shared and at no cost to users – it’s a public, not private good.”


Related links:

Read the first post in this series on cataloguing performance – “How to Catch Lightning in a Bottle.”

Read the second post in the series – “How Do You Keep Both History and Magic Alive?”

Read the third post in the series – “Opening the Kimono – How much to reveal and to whom?”

Susannah Schouweiler serves as editor for the weekly updated arts writing and criticism published on, as well as the site’s twice-monthly e-mag access+ENGAGE. She has also written for a number of outlets, including Ruminator magazine,, City Pages, The Rake, Minneapolis Observer, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts blog.

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