A practice-led research collaboration between dance artists, researchers and leading cultural institutions will help establish new industry standards for supporting choreography within museum and gallery spaces.

Precarious Movements: Choreography and the Museum, draws together independent Australian artists and industry experts from UNSW Sydney, the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV), TATE UK, Art Gallery New South Wales (AGNSW) and Monash University Museum of Art (MUMA).

The three-year project, funded by an ARC Linkage Grant, aims to develop a model for commissioning, curating, conserving, presenting and interpreting choreographic work in the museum and gallery context and better support dance artists and art workers.

While dance has occupied gallery spaces since the mid-20th century, it has historically been excluded from exhibitions and relegated to public programs, viewed as not economically viable in the commodity-based visual arts context, says lead investigator Associate Professor Erin Brannigan of UNSW’s School of the Arts and Media.

“It’s taken time for the galleries and museums to realise they were operating on a dual system where dance wasn’t given the value and kudos that the visual arts were,” the art theorist and historian says.

“It goes back to the mind/body split. The visual arts were historically associated with the mind, the subject, the man, and on the other hand, dance with the lesser valued body, the object, the woman.”

This has meant that protocols around its performance conditions in museums and galleries and its curatorial and conservation practices have lagged. However, interest in choreographic works continues to grow as museums reinvent themselves to attract broader audiences.

“[The project will] facilitate more ethical, equitable and transparent processes between the two disciplines, really focusing on the artists’ experience,” A/Prof. Brannigan says. 

dance artist performing in an installation space

Rochelle Haley, The Invention of Depth, 2019, installation and performance commission for ‘Flat Earth Society’ at Cement Fondu. Choreographer and performer: Ivey Wawn. Photo: Four Minutes to Midnight.

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An artist-driven approach

The project takes an approach that puts artists and creative practice at the centre using workshops, keynotes, surveys and artist case studies to capture insights into this growing field. By engaging their first-hand knowledge and experience, the researchers hope to identify the conditions needed so “the best possible work can happen in the best possible way.”

“This area of work is super exciting, and it’s really growing out of the practice that is happening around us,” says chief investigator Dr Rochelle Haley, a practice-led researcher, senior lecturer, and artist from UNSW’s School of Art & Design.

“[But] it’s not as if this is being driven by museums and galleries. They’re catching up on what has been happening as disciplines cross, and as interdisciplinary work becomes more robust and ambitious.”

The project engages a culturally diverse collective of 60 Australian and international associate artists, consulting with a broader network of international artists, curators, archivists, museum educators, theorists and writers through regular dialogues and closed and public events. It involves commissioning new works with its partner institutions to experiment with and explore different protocols in practice.

“If the work is better understood, and if the conditions for working are better for the people working in that space, then hopefully that means some really excellent practice will result,” Dr Haley says.

Addressing pinch points

A/Prof. Brannigan says an assumption that dance falls under the umbrella of ‘performance’ highlights some of the pinch points experienced in contemporary practice.

“Performance art really came out of the visual artists turning to performance, whereas this choreographic-based work has really come from choreographers and dancers,” A/Prof. Brannigan says. “It’s a different lineage with, more importantly, different needs and different practical issues.”

The project aims to address adequate and fair funding for choreographic-based work. It also investigates practical issues such as ensuring floors are fit-for-purpose, that provision is made for change and rehearsal spaces and for the greater number of personnel required for mounting choreographic works as opposed to showing objects in space.

“The research will consider things like duration: how long a dancer can dance for. It’s like an elite sport. It’s different to most performance art in that sense. It can be very rigorous and draining,” A/Prof. Brannigan says.

Addressing these specific issues will assist artists with negotiating what they need and institutions with ensuring they know how to care for the artists.

dance artist in an installation and performance commission for a gallery

Rochelle Haley, The Invention of Depth, 2019, installation and performance commission for ‘Flat Earth Society’ at Cement Fondu. Choreographer and performer: Ivey Wawn. Photo: Four Minutes to Midnight.

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Educating the public

“Internationally [right now], there is an appetite for collecting choreographic, dance-based works,” Dr Haley says. However, more work needs to be done around archive practices, another research focus.

“[There is] not necessarily the know-how or the processes or guidelines [around conservation] … so that the work doesn’t suffer and it’s possible for it to be re-performed again,” Dr Haley says.

The research will culminate in a toolkit outlining best practice protocols to be made publicly available for institutions, curators and artists.

“We’ve been very upfront with our intention to leverage the power of the big institutions to provide a toolkit that will benefit everyone, including independent, private galleries,” says A/Prof. Brannigan.

The project will also produce an anthology on such choreographic work within the museum context in collaboration with NGV. The publication will explore contemporary artists and new critical understandings of dance and the art institution to develop this emerging field further.

Precarious Movements is led by Associate Professor Erin Brannigan, with research partners Senior Lecturer Rochelle Haley, UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture; Hannah Mathews, Senior Curator, Monash University Museum of Art; artist Shelley Lasica; Carolyn Murphy, Head of Conservation, and Lisa Catt, Senior Curator, International Art, Art Gallery of New South Wales; Louise Lawson, Conservation Manager, Time Based Media Conservation, Tate; and Pip Wallis, Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria.

Associated Australian artists on Precarious Movements include Agatha Gothe-Snape, Lizzie Thomson, Matthew Day, Jo Lloyd, Deanne Butterworth, Helen Grogan, Latai Taumoepeau, Brooke Stamp, Victoria Hunt, Sarah Rodigari, Jess Olivieri, Alice Heywood, Rhiannon Newton, Brian Fuata, Amrita Hepi, Ivey Wawn, Angela Goh and Adam Linder