Tonight marks the opening of “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” at the Walker Art Center, and the museum is calling it a groundbreaking survey of the last 50 years.

Curated by Valerie Cassel Oliver with the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, the Walker has added works from its own permanent collection to the exhibition, which runs through the end of the year.

It includes the work of Dread Scott, who writes about his “I Am Not a Man” performance in Harlem.

Performance Still, “I Am Not a Man” by Dread Scott, 2009

Scott writes:

Making reference to the 1968 Memphis Sanitation workers strike where the iconic “I Am a Man” sign originated, the performance inverted the sign’s statement, pointing to the importance of the Civil Rights protests as well as to their limitations.

Along with this historic resonance, the performance simultaneously addressed our era—racism is foundational to America and has not abated.

Despite assertions that America has entered a post-racial period, reality contradicts this: 1 in 9 young Black men are in prison; predatory lending policies have caused the greatest loss of wealth for people of color in modern U.S. history; Henry Louis Gates gets arrested “breaking into” his own home; etc. I Am Not a Man resides in the uncomfortable space between a race-free fantasy world and the lived experience of millions.

Oliver says she was inspired to assemble the exhibition after working on a retrospective of the art of Benjamin Patterson.

“When I came across Patterson’s work, I wasn’t really thinking about performance work,” said Oliver. “That set off a ten year odyssey to construct this exhibition. A lot of the work was oral history, talking to artists who led me to other artists. Strangely enough these artists were hiding in plain sight. They’ve always been here, they’ve just never been presented or recorded in this way.”

The galleries are filled with both documentation of performance pieces — photographs and films — as well as sculptures and other physical artifacts. But this exhibition is not just about events gone by. Tonight’s opening will kick off with several performance pieces, and artists will animate the galleries several times throughout the show’s run.

The works highlight the legacy of older performance artists such as Patterson, Terry Adkins and David Hammons, and the influences they’ve had on younger generations.

Lorraine O’Grady created the persona “Mademoiselle Bourgeoise Noire” and used the character to protest a lack of black artists in a New Museum exhibition. Her dress is made of layers of white gloves. Photo courtesy of the artist and Alexander Gray Associates, New York

“Radical Presence” includes more than 100 works by 36 artists, and themes emerge among them.

“The schism of the binary between black and white is a recurring theme,” said Oliver. “And the pushing away from those binaries into other areas is another theme. Guerrilla actions, the idea of the spectacle in the streets, audience participation – all of these things get teased out over generations.”

While documentation of performance art in the 60s and 70s was usually of a more journalistic nature, Oliver says people are now looking at the documentation as its own sort of art object.

She says it’s important that the Walker Art Center is presenting the exhibition.

“Within the contemporary art landscape the Walker has always presented itself as the zenith of progressive thinking and scholarly practices,” said Oliver. “It really is an honor to have this show presented here. It says that these artists are undeniably a part of the performance art dialogue.”

Maren Hassinger (second from right) leads artists in a performance of “Women’s Work” at the Contemporary Art Museum Houston. Photo courtesy the Walker Art Center

Artist Maren Hassinger is in town for the opening weekend of the exhibition; she’ll be performing “Women’s Work” on Saturday at 4pm.

Hassinger says the exhibition offers incredibly interesting ideas for everyone, regardless of where they come from.

“Some people are black, and some people are white; the fact that they are divided is unfortunate,” said Hassinger. “I would hope in the future that we should have more quality and more diversity in our shows. This show is in the vanguard, and the next step is to take the black and white out of it.”

Minneapolis artist Beverly Cottman will be joining Hassinger in her performance of “Women’s Work.” She found “Radical Presence” eye-opening.

“This is a show where I am not at all ashamed to say, most of these artists I was not even aware of,” said Cottman. “And I was also not aware that this movement from the visual arts, putting performance art in the forefront. It’s collaborative and integrative – it’s fantastic.”

Untitled (RSVP) by Senga Nengudi, 2013 Photo courtesy of the Walker Art Center

A performance artist herself, Cottman says she doesn’t separate her performance work from her visual work, but understands that audiences often expect things to be broken out into categories. She said seeing photographs and films of performances presented as art in their own right was inspiring, and made her think more about how she documents her own work.

But Cottman longs for a day when such an exhibition wouldn’t need the label “radical.”

“I would like to feel that my presence as an African-American artist is not so radical,” said Cottman. “It’s a big deal because I’m doing great creative work, but it’s not a big deal because I’m black. This show is probably a step toward that.”

The Board of Directors of the Guthrie Theater is conducting a search for its next Artistic Director. We asked people who they think should replace Joe Dowling, and here are the results, in alphabetical order.

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1. Bain Boehlke: The founder and artistic director of The Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, Boehlke has been active in the Twin Cities theater scene for more than half a century. On Monday, Boehlke announced he’s retiring from The Jungle in June of 2015, which means the 75-year-old would be available if he were interested.

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2. Timothy Bond: Bond is the Producing Artistic Director of Syracuse Stage and Syracuse University’s Department of Drama. Actor Sid Solomon says of Bond “He has a strong classical background (11 years as Associate Artistic Director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival), is known to Guthrie audiences (as director of CROWNS and the sensational INTIMATE APPAREL), and has experience fostering young talent and running a training program at Syracuse. Plus, it would be terrific to finally see an artist of color at the helm of the Guthrie.”

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3. Shanan Custer: Custer is a longtime Twin Cities actor, writer and director with a specialty in comedy and improv. Actor Paul Reyburn says that she has “a great sense of history. Plus, wouldn’t that just be a ton of fun?!?”

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4. Oskar Eustis:  Eustis is at the helm of The Public Theater in New York City. Mary Finnerty writes “He commissioned ‘Execution of Justice’ to help San Francisco heal after the murders of George Mascone and Harvey Milk. He believes in building community with theatre . He also did beautiful work as the artistic director at Trinity Rep. He has the scope of experience and has run a huge organization.” Beth Cleary writes “He knows the Twin Cities, and he’s ferocious about smart work, new work, work by people of color, and local work. The Twin Cities deserves him, or someone like him.”

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5. Wendy Goldberg: Goldberg is Artistic Director of the National Playwrights Conference at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut, and has directed on Guthrie stages multiple times in addition to several other high profile stages nationwide.  She’s known for her work developing new plays for the stage.

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6. Tom Isbell: The Duluth theater professor has been a member of the University of Minnesota Duluth faculty since 1994. He has taken two UMD productions to the Kennedy Center as part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival.  A graduate of the Yale School of Drama, Isbell has managed to balance teaching with his professional acting career. Anne Klefstad writes “He searches out newly written work and has an exceptionally open mind.”

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7. Wendy Knox: Knox is the Artistic Director of Frank Theater, based here in the Twin Cities. Randy Wylde writes “In addition to being a force in Minnesota theater for years, her commitment to innovative works, compelling theater, and challenging artistry would bring some exciting life to the Guthrie, which has seemed increasingly less-relevant with each passing year.”

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8. Suzy Messerole: The co-creator of Exposed Brick Theater, Messerole has directed at numerous theaters in the Twin Cities, including History Theatre, Theatre in the Round and Theatre Unbound, among others.
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9.  T. Mychael Rambo: The Twin Cities performer is known for his roles in several Penumbra Theatre productions as well as his commitment to arts education.

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10. Noel Raymond and Faye Price: The co-directors of Pillsbury House Theatre have created a model for infusing all aspects of the community center’s work with the arts.

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11. Ralph Remington – The original director of Pillsbury House Theatre, Remington also served on the Minneapolis City Council from 2006-2010. He has since moved on to work both for the National Endowment for the Arts and for Actors’ Equity Association.

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12. Amanda White Thietje Levi Weinhagen writes that the managing director of Mixed Blood Theatre in Mineapolis has “a deep passion for theater, understands the value of classical and historical theater, but isn’t afraid of creative risk. She also knows how to manage lots of different needs and wants.”

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13. Lisa Wolpe: Wolpe is the artistic director of the Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company, a company she founded in 1993. Katrina Hawley writes  “She has the passion and artistic integrity needed, and would bring such an inclusive/diverse breath of fresh air!”

So who would you pick to lead the Guthrie Theater?

Bain Boehlke, founder and artistic director of The Jungle Theater in Minneapolis, announced today that he plans to retire from his post in June 2015.

“I’ve been here a quarter of a century and I think that’s a good number,” Boehlke said. “I’m not by any means stopping directing, acting and designing, but I’ll do it in another fashion. I’m not sure what that is yet but I trust in the fates. I’m still healthy and still running around, so I look forward to the next incarnation of my career.”

Bain Boehlke in “The Gin Game” at The Jungle Theater in 2008.
(Photo by Michal Daniel)

Boehlke, a native of Warroad, made the announcement just two days before his 75th birthday.

“I would hate to overstay my welcome, to get aged and not be able to do my job,” he said. “I’m still in good health and I can still do my work. In fact, I’m at the top of my form. I just think it’s wise to leave an organization when it’s at an apex and it’s healthy and strong, rather than wait until things start to fall apart.”

Five years ago, Boehlke took a sabbatical, fueling speculation that he might be preparing to step down. Joel Sass, then associate artistic director, was believed to be the heir apparent. While Sass no longer has that position, he still directs regularly at The Jungle.

“The assumption that I was stepping down was an assumption by others,” explained  Boehlke. “That was never my assumption, and it was never our intention. Joel Sass’ name will definitely be in the running for the new artistic director but I think the search may be a little broader. That’s up to the board.”

The theater’s board of directors has stated that it will appoint an interim director while it searches for a permanent replacement for Boehlke. Executive Director Margo Gisselman will remain in her position. Boehlke said he will retain the title of “Artistic Director Emeritus” and will continue to be involved with the theater company in a less formal way.

Boehlke, who has been recognized for his commitment to theater by both the Ivey Awards and the McKnight Foundation, has been active in the Twin Cities theater scene for more than a half-century, including a 13-year stint at the Children’s Theatre Company. When he first came to Minneapolis there were just a handful of theater companies, but he said the 1960s brought with them a cultural renaissance.

“I think the Guthrie Theater was a catalyst in a way , but I think the city was just burgeoning, bubbling with creative talent,” Boehlke said. “Within a decade there were close to 100 theaters here.  It was so exciting for me as a young artist to be involved in that movement.”

Today, Boehlke sees a whole new wave of young theaters in the Twin Cities. Despite a tidal wave of electronic devices that offer entertainment at the touch of a finger, theater continues to play a vital role in the cultural life of the Twin Cities.

“I think the scene is really quite strong,” he said. “I’ve great hopes for it. I just think it’s going to continue to be very exciting.”

If he could ask for anything, Boehlke said, it would be for a greater respect of the craft of theater.

“You have to pay attention to the details – the acting, costume design, the marriage of the elements of theater, the music, the soundscapes, the settings – to create a whole world the audience can enter into,” he said. “I’m in no way critical of anyone’s endeavors because it’s a real bear; it requires a tremendous amount of faith in the art. Theater will lead and guide you if you have the courage to surrender.”

Boehlke’s last day as The Jungle’s artistic director is set for June 30, 2015. This fall, he will star in The Jungle’s production of “On Golden Pond” beside longtime acting partner Wendy Lehr.