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Creating stability in Puerto Rican arts

Mellon Foundation awards will help stabilize community-based artists after devastating hurricanes

A year after Puerto Rico was hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria, 10 emerging and 10 established artists from the island will kick off a two-year arts development project spearheaded by Northwestern University that aims to stabilize the financial security of community-based artists and jumpstart arts activity on the island.

The Puerto Rican Arts Development initiative is made possible by a $500,000 grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The project begins in August with a summer professional development retreat at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The 10 artist and mentor pairs will participate in training sessions on resourcing and sustaining a practice, portfolio development, artist talk presentations and workshop leadership. The initiative also includes artistic residencies at Northwestern and other colleges and universities, a commissioned project in Puerto Rico and a final project presentation.

The 10 emerging artists selected for participation in the project are early- to mid-career Puerto Rican artists working in performance and interdisciplinary community engaged art.  The artists include Alejandra Martorell, Mickey Negrón, Kairiana Nuñez-Santalíz, Pó Rodill, Awilda Rodriguez-Lora, Edgardo Rodriguez, Felix Rodriguez-Rosa, Llaima Sanfriorenzo, Noemi Segarra and Lionel Villahermosa.

Mellon grant

The 10 mentors are established artists active on the island and include Eduardo Alegría, Petra Bravo, Teresa Hernández, Karen Langevin, Nibia Pastrana-Santiago, Chemi Rosado-Seijo, Gisela Rosario-Ramos, Awilda Sterling, Bernat Tort and Viveca Vázquez.

The Mellon Foundation grant furthers the work seeded by a $100,000 post-hurricane investment by Northwestern in 2017 that paid the stipends for eight San Juan community-based artists, funded a workshop series and restarted a month-long performance art residency program.

The project lead for the Puerto Rican Arts Development initiative is Ramón H. Rivera-Servera, professor of performance studies in the School of Communication at Northwestern.

The September 2017 hurricanes resulted in the most damaging environmental disaster in the history of Puerto Rico. In the six-month period following the summer storms more than 400,000 Puerto Ricans left the island territories. Significant infrastructural, agricultural, environmental, health and economic challenges remain. The cultural and artistic sector was especially hard hit as theatre, exhibition and workshop spaces went dark and artists who depended on employment in the service sector lost jobs at closed establishments.

Strength in Northwestern arts

Northwestern has nationally recognized programs in performance studies, theatre, dance and art, theory and practice, as well as faculty members with a depth of expertise in Puerto Rican contemporary art and performance. Northwestern also houses a signature master’s program in Leadership for Creative Enterprises.

Barbara O’Keefe, dean of the School of Communication at Northwestern said, “We are thrilled that because of this project, Northwestern will be instrumental in the preservation and recovery of Puerto Rico’s arts programs. We have a very strong commitment to interdisciplinary and community-based art enterprises, and that makes our university an ideal hub where artists from Puerto Rico and scholars from across the U.S. can come together to formulate appropriate ways to stabilize and preserve artistic practices. We hope this project will not only aid the artists and cultural institutions currently working in Puerto Rico, but also prepare us to support any creative community that is struggling with environmental and climate challenges.”

San Juan-based dancer and choreographer Nibia Pastrana, one of the mentors participating in the project, said the support was gratefully received.

“To be an independent artist or collective on an island that is threatened by debt and budget cuts in its educational and healthcare system is a huge challenge. This of course was made more visible post-hurricanes, and like the rest of the Puerto Rican community, artists were and are still affected by the political disaster following the storms,” Pastrana said.

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Since 2015, Ramón Rivera-Servera (pictured above) has been developing efforts to support contemporary performance practice and research in Puerto Rico, including a series of developmental residencies at Northwestern for artists engaged in the decades-long debt crisis on the island, in which the Puerto Rican government issued bonds to cover the deficit between government revenue and spending, and recently led to a “junk status” rating of the bonds and the largest bankruptcy case in the history of the American public bond market.

Rivera-Servera is the doctoral advisor for two Puerto Rican scholars, José Alvarez-Colón and Arnaldo Rodriguez-Bagué, who came to Northwestern in 2017 and 2018 to develop research and creative projects concentrating on Puerto Rican performance and community engagement. Rivera-Servera, Alvarez-Colón and Rodriguez-Bagué will serve as co-principal investigators of the initiative.

Artistic exchange

This month, Rivera-Servera directs the Summer Institute in Performance Studies, hosted annually by the Northwestern Center for Global Culture and Communication. The Institute hosts intellectual and artistic exchange amongst graduate students and faculty from across the United States and the world on the most pressing issues in the field today. The topic for this year’s institute is “Political Climates/Performance Ecologies.” The insights generated at the institute will lay the groundwork for the Puerto Rican Arts Development initiative training session in August.

“Over the course of the week, we are thinking rigorously together about the ways performance may advance useful frameworks and understandings for communicating the urgency of our environmental predicament, the relation of this situation to our mismanagement of natural resources and the economic, political and cultural consequences of our actions or inactions,” Rivera-Severa said.

He notes that the current environmental, economic and social crises in Puerto Rico are not an isolated example.

“As we turn to creativity and the arts, along with scientific and philosophical thinking, to navigate the scalar range relations — from the microscopic to the planetary — we ought to account for thinking about environments, ecologies and climates. These are the issues already being addressed by many of the artists we will engage next month and over the next two years and we hope to learn from them as well.”

When the Puerto Rican Arts Development initiative concludes in August 2020, the project will have provided critical financial stability to the participating artists, advanced their creative practice and equipped them with the necessary skills to succeed professionally.

The project will also allow the communities at Northwestern, the greater Chicago region and the U.S. to learn about the issues affecting the lives and practices of artists in the both post-hurricane disaster and the debt crisis, and help this network of support to identify best practices for living and working under the current conditions on the island.

The Mellon Foundation grant counts toward We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern. The funds raised through the “We Will” Campaign are helping realize the transformational vision set forth in Northwestern’s strategic plan and solidifying the University’s position among the world’s leading research universities.

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