A divide between art and activism reverberates in the world of performance
At a performing arts presenter conference in January 2020, Jedediah Wheeler, executive director of Peak Performances at Montclair State University in New Jersey, introduced choreographer Emily Johnson. Wheeler called himself “the luckiest person in the room” for asking him to do some work.
Johnson, 44, an Indigenous artist of Yup’ik ancestry, is known for her performances that draw on her heritage, ceremonies that could last all night under the stars, gatherings seeking healing and change social.
Wheeler, 71, founded Peak Performances in 2004, making Montclair State an unlikely home for the avant-garde. The series garnered attention by producing and presenting works by artists such as Robert Wilson and Italian provocateur Romeo Castellucci before reaching New York.
But Johnson did not join that list. Shortly after the conference, Johnson asked Wheeler in a telephone conversation about his “personal commitment to a process of decolonization,” she later wrote. She suggested that Peak Performances begin a land reconnaissance by taking a series of steps to recognize the original inhabitants of the area, forge relationships with other Indigenous artists, and engage First Nations students on campus, among others. Wheeler, claiming that Peak Performances could not set policy since it was only a small part of a larger university, reacted with contempt and then, under pressure, anger.
The dispute came to light earlier this year when Johnson severed his connection with Peak Performances and wrote about his decision in “A Letter I Hope In The Future Needs Not Be Written,” which ‘she posted online Jan. 22. she likened Wheeler’s behavior – what she relates to his screams, his inability to apologize, his use of power – to “white rage.” She has linked it to “colonial violence by the settlers”, the murder of indigenous women and, more personally, rape. She said Peak Performances was “a dangerous and unethical workplace”.
Wheeler said he was “shocked and hurt” by the letter. He admitted to having mismanaged the situation, but “white rage?” He asked. “It’s so inaccurate. Look at the artists I have supported. “
“What happened is that I made a mistake,” he added. “I didn’t really know what Emily was asking for. I take full responsibility for not hearing it.
Their breakup has become the talk of the nonprofit performing arts world, inspiring declarations of solidarity, demands for reform and canceled contracts. The letter, and the responses to it, reveal accelerating changes in the way people in the arts think about and talk about the roles of artist and presenter, standards of behavior and power at work, and how it all comes down to. is linked to the deep wounds in American history.
Johnson’s job isn’t just about performance. This is linked to its activism and defense of indigenous peoples, its engagement in slow processes of community building and institutional reform. It is inseparable from decolonization, a global movement, both political and cultural, which has also been adopted by many universities and museums.
Decolonization initiatives can range from training and staff discussions to quotas, reparations and land restitution. One aspect is land recognition, an increasingly common practice of formally honoring the original inhabitants of a place in speeches, ceremonies and publicity before the performance.
Johnson’s letter presented his experience with Wheeler as symptomatic. She linked it to other recent calls for systemic change in dance and theater – calls responding to the pandemic, theaters shutdowns and Black Lives Matter protests last summer.
It was in this broader and unstable context that his letter exploded. More than 100 nonprofit performing arts presenters, including some of the largest, have signed an online solidarity statement, calling for “responsibility and redress, not only in this case, but in our domain in general ”. And more than 1,000 arts workers have signed a similar call to action (“we’re all involved”) with a long list of proposals to address both Johnson’s experience and broader issues – of contracts and funding – which it raises.
Montclair State issued a statement defending Wheeler, noting that Peak Performances “intentionally seeks emerging artists, artists from under-represented backgrounds, and artists whose work challenges established norms and practices.” He said Wheeler, as head of “only one of the hundreds of units and programs” at the university, had no authority to accept Johnson’s proposals. He said the university’s “strong” social justice and diversity policies had been established at the institutional level.
“The University does not formulate or adopt important political decisions by means of a contract with a particular performing artist,” he said.
WNET All Arts, which broadcast the Peak Performances projects, has severed its ties with the university. The Wet Ink Ensemble, which had worked with Peak Performances on an opera production, ended this collaboration. And other artists planning to work with Peak, including Bill T. Jones, have released a statement about their intention to “influence change from within.”
What happened? In the interviews, Johnson and Wheeler disputed some facts, but the differences in their stories lie more in the interpretation – what the other side meant, who should have understood what and when, what is and is not acceptable. .
Wheeler first became interested in Johnson in 2018 when she wrote an essay for the organization’s publication, The Peak Journal. “She asked a question that to my ears was deep and courageous,” he said, “which is, ‘Whom did you steal the earth from? (In fact, she wrote “Do you know what earth you are on?
“Could this force be captured in a performance?” he said he was wondering.
In October 2018, Wheeler offered Johnson a commission – potentially the largest of his career in terms of scope and fees. But as of January 2020, the contract was still under negotiation. Among the sticking points was the scope of the project outside of performance.
At a meeting of Indigenous artists in January, Wheeler read Johnson’s contractual endorsement requiring presenters of his work to consult with local Indigenous leaders and include land recognition in all advertising. “I thought, ‘It’s brave, but it’s not going to fly,’” he said. “Nobody is going to sign this.”
In the February phone call that prompted the split, Wheeler made his position “incredibly clear,” he said: his ministry could not make policy.
“My idea of social justice is on stage,” he said, adding that in a 2018 Peak production, “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” a land reconnaissance was done as part of the work. This, he said, was much more powerful than a pre-show speech. “If Emily Johnson came to me with her public letter and said, ‘Here’s the script,’ I would say, ‘Go for it! “”
For Johnson, social engagement is not a supplement. “There is no separation between the process of creating dance and the processes of decolonization,” she said in an interview.
“The United States is built on extracting indigenous peoples,” she added. “Jed wanted the effects of my work, but not do the work. “
The way Wheeler did his job was, in Johnson’s view, the crux of the matter. She said he shouted “I’m taking the lead” on the phone and gave him 24 hours to decide whether the project would go ahead on his terms. Then he hung up.
“I do call the shots, ”Wheeler said in an interview. Did he scream and hang up? “Sometimes I don’t hear what I’m saying the way others hear it,” he says. “It’s not unusual for me. I was frustrated that I didn’t recognize the limits of my office and left the call.
Talking about the call a year later still made Johnson tremble. At the time, she says, she wanted to walk away from any relationship with Wheeler – “that’s exactly what white supremacy looks like,” she wrote in her public letter – but decided that “facing the rage was part of the work of decolonization. “
The next day she sent Wheeler an email (quoted in her letter) explaining that she did not have all the answers on “what decolonization looks like”, that it was a “living process. and creative ”and that she was looking for“ a commitment in good faith ”, not necessarily described in a contract.
Negotiations continued – between Wheeler staff and Johnson’s producer. For Johnson, Wheeler’s inability to acknowledge his behavior (he did not respond until after his public letter) was another abuse.
Then came the pandemic, bringing more complications and confusion. At the end of March, Peak Performances informed Johnson that his project had been postponed. Still, negotiations continued until Johnson ended the relationship in January.
In response to Johnson’s public letter, many former Peak employees said in interviews that they have regularly witnessed and experienced similar behavior from Wheeler. Older employees saw him as a recognizable type: the intimidating and abrupt impresario whose outbursts had to be accepted. For younger people, the behavior fits with characteristics of what they call the white supremacist work culture, as highlighted in articles their friends and colleagues have been sharing lately.
“If I hurt someone because I criticized their performance on the job, I’m sorry,” Wheeler said. “I’m learning, as everyone likes to say.”
But the conversations Johnson’s letter sparked go beyond Wheeler and Montclair State.
“Everyone on the ground is talking about it,” said Colleen Jennings-Roggensack, executive director of Arizona State University Gammage, an presenting organization. “The situation was mismanaged and Emily was wronged.
“I’m an African American woman,” she added, “and I think it’s a teaching moment. Now is not the time to throw someone under the bus – we don’t have enough buses, there will be too many bodies. But how do you look at it from the front? How do artists, presenters and funders work together fairly? “
Johnson, for his part, continues to do his job in its broadest sense. At institutions like Jacob’s Pillow, Santa Fe Opera, and the Field Museum, most of the processes she lists in her expanded “Decolonization Rider” are already underway.
Johnson also continues to develop the project she was doing with Peak Performances, called “Being Future Being”. It started, she said, before the pandemic, before her experience with Wheeler, as a vision to “embody a better future for all of us,” work that would change consciousness and engage people in a process of change. This work may have already started.