Raucous Caucuses and Imaginary Needs

Montauk & Orcas w-stars

Two conferences about creative support for artists

We had some brunch, then we had some lunch,
Then we talked some more until we tired.

We cursed and we swore, then we talked some more,
Following the shoals of salmon.

A stanza excerpted from “The Orcas Anthem”
Based on music & lyrics from “Shoals of Herring” by Ewan MacColl
New lyrics by Terry Dimmick, written on Orcas Island, 1988

In the late 1980s, several hundred people met twice at remote locations on two islands, one on the U.S. east coast and one on the west, to consider “the creative support of the creative artist.” Sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA), the first conference was held in May 1986 at Montauk on the eastern tip of Long Island, New York and the second in November 1988 on Orcas Island near the Canadian border in Washington state. These two gatherings brought together artists, arts funders, and dedicated people from organizations that serve artists. For a day and a half (Montauk) or three full days (Orcas) they talked, performed, argued, ate together, played together, and tackled critical concerns within and beyond the arts. They also built life-long friendships and professional relationships and provoked questions that remain today.

I chose to be an artist. I had no choice. My parents thought I did. They said I should get a job.” – Trisha Brown, choreographer, letter to the conference 

In addition to the relationships and knowledge that remain long afterward, a physical record was also created. Participants in the Orcas conference were given custom-designed three-ring binders and received four installments of materials to fill them: commissioned papers from both conferences, background readings, conference proceedings, as well as letters and reports received from participants afterward. Complete notebooks contained almost 500 pages.

I have run a very successful small business for over 25 years. But I forgot to be paid. Well, I didn’t ‘forget’ – it would have been impossible.” Robert Ashley, composer, letter to the conference

With an interest in tracing the emergence of a national conversation about the place of artists in the system of arts support, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) commissioned me to write about these two conferences. My perspective was undoubtedly colored by the fact that not only did I attend both events, I was in the whirling center of the second as its coordinator. My essay was published in the winter 2015 issue of the GIA Reader, and it’s also posted on an archival website I created for materials generated by the two gatherings. (A link to the site is here.) My essay is one of the pieces in the archive. I’ve begun posting materials from the conference notebook – some are interesting historically, others remain pertinent today – but the going is slow because the documents don’t exist digitally. All of this happened before the widespread use of personal computers and the internet. The notebook’s table of contents is posted on the site, though, and gives a sense of what the book contains.

A valuable lesson for me from these two conferences is the importance of creating opportunities for us to connect with each other, to talk and argue together, and to feel equal as participants.

From one perspective, the experience proved to David Mendoza* how important artists are to a democracy. Living now in Indonesia, a nascent democracy, he sees how important gatherings like these could be. In retrospect, I recognize in them some traits essential to a democracy: a forum that allows all voices to be heard and one where differences can be expressed.

Long Island, New York
Long Island, New York
Orcas Island, Washington
Orcas Island, Washington


*David Mendoza was a founder and, at the time, the first executive director of Artist Trust.


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