Tim Wilson from Western Arts Alliance

Western Arts Alliance’s annual conference is heading to the Bellagio in Las Vegas next month. Executive director Tim Wilson tells IAM what delegates can expect from this year’s event, and why Las Vegas has more to offer than quick thrills on the Strip.

IAM: Why did WAA choose Las Vegas for this year’s event?

Tim Wilson: First of all, we selected Las Vegas because the WAA conference hasn’t been in Las Vegas since the mid eighties. Las Vegas and Nevada are a part of the West and we felt that it was overdue as a location.

Second, when people imagine Las Vegas, they think of the Strip and I think that does a disservice to the community that is Las Vegas. It’s a minority-majority city so it’s far more ethnically diverse than people realise.

Further, because of the Strip, Las Vegas has one the highest concentrations of performing artists per capita of any city in the region. They’re not just performing on the Strip but they’re actually making work in and interacting with the community in ways that are really exciting. It’s a far more vital and active arts community than you might imagine. There’s a lot of collaboration between artists that perform on the Strip and other artists. In the community, they are able to make work with a broader, more expansive palette, creating work that they couldn’t possibly do in their “night” jobs.

IAM: Does the WAA programme address any issues that are local to Las Vegas?

TW: In terms of content and events that capture and represent the region, there’s a number programmes that we’re excited about. First of all, Jerry Nadal, who is the senior vice-president for resident shows at Cirque de Soleil, will be our keynote speaker. He is responsible for all the resident shows worldwide that sit in a particular area site. It’s a massive job. Jerry will be speaking about how you keep a brand or identity fresh when it is so widely known. I think this is a part of Cirque de Soleil’s genius that can really help inform and shape the work that we do as producing artists, presenters and agents.

In terms of in-conference programmes, we also have a number that relate to local issues. One is that we’re doing a workshop around crisis communication that really is drawing on the horrible shooting in Las Vegas and looking at how the arts community was very much a part of the community response and the ongoing healing process.

WAA members meeting in the 2017 Exhibit Hall in Seattle © Lisa Monet
WAA members meeting in the 2017 Exhibit Hall in Seattle © Lisa Monet

IAM: How about your showcase programme – what can we expect to see?

TW: We’re doing a really featuring extraordinary showcase programme. Performances are obviously a big part of our conference and always are. But this year in Las Vegas, we’re creating a programme around a new, state-of-the-art performing arts centre, the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. The Smith Center is just a remarkable facility with multiple venues.

We’re partnering with the Smith Center to create a programme of thirty juried, independent, and sponsored showcases all under one roof. It’s the kind of event that we can do in very few places because we need a certain size facility. The programme will also feature a showcase of Indigenous performance. It’s going to be a fun night.

IAM: What themes have emerged in the lead-up to the conference and what do you think will be the key topics under discussion?

TW: There’s a couple programmes that we’re creating that I think that reflect what’s going on in the region right now. The first is we’re doing a pre-conference workshop called ‘Creating Safe Spaces’. This is our response to harassment allegations and improper conduct that we’re seeing from men of power in the entertainment field and the arts. We’re working with Akia Squitieri who is the former production manager for the New York company of the Blue Man group. The particular needs of arts organisations, whether they’re producing companies or presenting companies, make this really challenging work.

In the last few years race has become an increasingly charged and divisive issue confronting Americans. So we are partnering with Women of Color in the Arts to offer workshop will address bias that’s implicit and embedded in our organisations and field. Participants will learn exercises and strategies that arts leaders can implement, particularly inquiry and dialogue as tools to address implicit bias.

In terms of what’s going be under discussion, I think given the site of Las Vegas and the mass shooting there, and the history of violence, mass shootings at festivals and arts events in the United States, this will be an issue that will be one that we’re looking at as a field and as a community.

Finally I think we’ll be addressing how we, as artists, arts leaders, and organisations, can help communities come together. How we can engage broadly across racial, economic, cultural, political, and social lines to bring our communities together in ways that are positive, healthy and affirming?

WAA members in a professional development session © Lisa Monet
WAA members in a professional development session © Lisa Monet

IAM: What makes WAA’s conference unique?

TW: WAA reflects the aesthetic, people, communities, and artists of the West. The West is very different aesthetically than the other regions. Plus, WAA was founded by universities, and they are still the backbone of our network. Colleges and universities are very influential in terms of what’s presented, the types of work, the actual artists being presented and how we engage with our communities.

Universities are now about 30% of our programmers. And so the relationship between the institution, academic life of the university, and the community at large, has profound impact on programming and gives WAA its unique flavour.

Further, being on the Pacific coast means that we see a wider array of work from foreign artists and community-based artists from cultures around the Pacific Rim. As part of our Performing Arts Development programme, we’re inviting programmers from around the Pacific Rim to attend WAA. This year, we’ll have about nearly 15 programmers from around the Pacific Rim including Mexico, Australia, Korea, Taiwan, China, New Zealand. The goal is to connect international programmers to artists and agents at WAA to create new tours and performances across the Asia-Pacific region.

This year we’re launching a new national programme called Advancing Indigenous Performance (AIP). AIP will work to build capacity of Indigenous arts who want to tour and as break down barriers that prevent presenters from engaging Indigenous artist and communities. This year in Las Vegas, AIP is offering a Native-led pre-conference symposium for Indigenous artists and a showcase of Indigenous performance.

WAA’s 2018 Annual Conference runs from 27-30 August at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.