Western Arts Alliance

Portland’s Western Arts Alliance (WAA) celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and with that milestone comes a whole new strategic plan to help US artists gain international recognition.

The organisation recently received a grant to the tune of USD25,000 (€21,100) from The Andrew W Mellon Foundation to help further its work with the NEA Performing Arts Discovery (PAD) programme. This was further bolstered by a two-year USD100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

What this funding means is that, over a 12-month period, WAA now has the pulling power to recruit and host performing arts presenters from Australia, China, Colombia, Mexico, New Zealand, and Taiwan to build relationships and solidify exchanges with United States WAA agents and artists. A cohort of invited delegates from these regions (expected to number around 14), will get to experience what American artists have to offer – even better is that WAA can offer bursaries to support travel (so get online quickly to see if you are eligible).

WAA’s ambitions for PAD will come together at its flagship conference, due to take place in Las Vegas in 2018 (an edition also takes place this September in Seattle, for which applications are now closed). For executive director Tim Wilson, PAD is a timely opportunity to initiate formal exchanges to really push international opportunities for US artists. Via PAD, WAA intends to fill a gap in the market by helping regional arts organisations (RAOs) facilitate trusted curatorial networks and learning opportunities abroad.

Explains Wilson: “The project is trying to address the issue that, for a long time, the US has done very little to promote American artists overseas generally. Most established American artists are working in the field of popular culture: there hasn’t been any effort by the government, or at a national level via the NEA, to promote opportunities for American artists from other genres. When you get down to the next tier of US artists, even the very accomplished struggle to find work overseas. This programme at WAA is really about promoting opportunities by piquing international interest.”

Wilson says the dearth of promotion of US performing arts abroad is because – compared to most European countries – the US government’s budget for the arts is underfunded. Earlier this year the NEA famously dodged President Trump’s axe, and instead bounced back with a paltry USD2m increase to its budget of USD150m.

“Funding issues have always been part economic and part political,” says Wilson. “Historically, some programmes have been there to help support engagement in communities through a number of programmes, but there isn’t that support for international opportunities for US artists. For many in the profession, once they receive an offer from a festival, for example, they must then go to a mix of agencies and organisations in order to secure public funds for international travel.”

Chinese delegates at the 2015 conference in Vancouver © The Photo Group
Chinese delegates at the 2015 conference in Vancouver © The Photo Group

Unfortunately, the PAD fund doesn’t stretch to financing tours for the lucky few to secure bookings, as WAA’s main objective is to improve visibility for as many groups as possible.

“Our focus is really on the Pacific Rim: so we are most interested in creating opportunities for US artists in Asia and Latin America,” Wilson adds. “We’re looking for programmers, presenters, venue managers and festival directors from these regions to come to WAA. “We really want to attract the widest possible variety of candidates and we can support professionals coming from those regions.”

Theoretically, this all sounds noble. On a practical note, however, hasn’t the free movement of artists coming into and out of the US been under attack? “It’s our responsibility in the arts to make contacts,” says Wilson. “Yes, things are certainly a little more difficult at the moment, under the Trump administration. But nonetheless, we are committed to this ideal and it is important to develop and maintain international relationships.”

The 50th Annual Western Arts Alliance Conference takes place from 5-8 September in Seattle, Washington. The 51st Conference takes place in Las Vegas, 27-30 August 2018.


This is an extract of feature in IAM Volume 13, Issue 8. Subscribe to IAM to read the full article.