In this interview, Tiffany Rea-Fisher the responsibility that artists have to their community.
Opening question, of course: where in your career do you see yourself?
I would say I am solidly a mid-career and emerging artist in one, which I know is not really a place, but mid-career in the sense that I’ve walked into something that’s very much established. The company that I’m walking in on is established, not mid-career, but I think my approach is that I’m not looking at it. I’m wanting to take a mid-career approach because I think it’s a little bit more flexible, a little bit more nimble, a little bit more able to react to change than something that’s a little bit more institutionalized. But as far as myself and the bigger scheme of the field, I would definitely say that I am emerging in my own personal process and journey.
This series has very much been a collective of art, [however] you interpret the word. I’ve noticed that those from the dance profession will say [just] that, or “I feel like I’m emerging even though I’ve been doing this for twenty years.” It’s very interesting to me— that theme that’s been happening.
It’s one thing to know something, but it’s a completely different beast to teach it. And you’re in an [additional] position where there’s a language barrier. I would [think that the language barrier] breaks down those walls. [Is] teaching really as complex as we make it seem, or does it add a wall? [Teaching] forces you to be innovative when there’s a language barrier.
It definitely does. That’s why you’re giving yourself time in being patient with yourself and students. But at the same time, you have to think about it differently and be so hyper-specific in your body. Because if they don’t understand what you’re saying, they need to be able to see with your body. That’s why that hyper-specificity is key in your body—when you’re teaching anyway, but especially if you’re teaching in a language that’s not your own.
Do you feel that [teaching abroad and having the experience of a limitation like a language barrier has made you more conscience of your teaching methods]?
My very first job was in Spain and I didn’t speak Spanish, so that’s been a part of [my finding] another entry point into the work outside of just [technique]—opening up to make sure you’re not missing details. That’s been something I’ve been thinking about and striving for from the very beginning—also just being hyper-aware that people learn differently. I have no problem saying the same thing ten different times to ten different people in the room. Some people are visual learners. Some people are auditory.
I think because one of my very first professional experiences was in Spain, it always stayed with me, and I’ve been doubling down on that since I was nineteen. I’ve been grateful for that experience because I’m not lazy with language when I’m explaining myself. But also I’m rigorous with myself about the clarity of my body because everything is a tool. All of this helps people find entry points into your work, to ultimately give you what you're asking. They want to give you what you’re asking for—that much is clear; that’s why they're in the room. So [my goal is] just being able to set them up for success that way.
I did want to focus a bit on Inception to Exhibition (ITE), so I’m just going to shift really quickly. First question: what motivated you to establish that organization? What concerns in the arts did you feel weren’t being addressed?
I wanted to establish [ITE] because I came from a conservatory, and when you [needed] music [or costumes or lighting] you could just go next door. When everything is so readily accessible to you as an artist to put on a show, it seems that all the elements you would need were right there. After you graduated, it was absolutely impossible to find these places. I also felt there wasn't a place for people to come and kind of play and try things. I really wanted to create a safe space to allow artists to play and create in a low-risk environment, while also having access to resources.
It is an art service organization that our board grants. It’s a one-page application and it really goes where it is needed. There’s not a whole lot to prove. If the board is looking at it like, “Wow, this $3000 is going to change this artist’s life,” you’re gonna get it. There is a level that we’re looking for in the application, but it’s not based off my personal aesthetics.
We’re always struggling for resources as it is, as a field. And most people don’t have a grant writer; they don’t have this other person to field the back end of their company. They’re doing [it] all at the same time. I was trying to find a way to streamline that process and just say, “Look, this field has been very generous to me and I want to be very generous to it.” Those two things—being able to find [and] create a community that was a safe haven for artists, while also [providing] access to resources, while also making sure I feel like I’m paying forward the support that was given to me as I was coming up...it seemed that it was necessary for me to do this.
There are a lot of nonprofits of different calibers. [How did you navigate] in building ITE’s reputation?
I like to think of myself as a generous person in my life, but I don’t do favors when it comes to curating. You know what's quality work, and you know what’s not. Even if it’s not my aesthetic, if it’s quality work, it deserves a place here. And that’s something that I'm unapologetic about. If I don't feel it’s of the quality or caliber that you seek, it does not get considered. Even though we stylistically range all over the place, I feel very confident of the caliber of the work because I feel solid in [knowing] what I deem to be good, valued, researched work. The thing that I didn't want to do was make it the Rea-Fisher Show. These are not just my favorites out there. I really do push myself to look at something, especially if it’s not my personal taste. Do people need to see it? Does this hold water? And if the answer is yes, then I throw my full support behind it.
The public can easily not take into consideration the amount of prep work that goes into development, as if it was just always there. How much time elapsed between creating ITE and opening your doors? And really, what did it take for you to be ready to open your doors?
The process took about two and a half, three years—and that’s outside the germination phase. So once I was like, “I feel I need to do this,” it [took] two and a half to three years. First I went to people that I respected and asked if they would sit down with me for coffee, [then I asked] them about the issue they were running up against. I knew from being a dancer what I [thought] to be the issues, but I wanted to speak to visual artists, I wanted to speak to musicians, I wanted to speak to actors, and I wanted to speak to other dancers and choreographers and content makers to see what they were coming up against.
Once I had an idea of where the holes were, I knew that I needed an additional [person] to chair my board. We don't have a product; we don’t have anything to sell. I just had an idea and a vision. So we needed [someone] who was going to make that leap [who was] able to speak convincingly about this leap and convince others to take it with us. Creating an advisory board and an executive paying board were the next steps, and then getting a roster together that we felt good about, that would make a splash.
For our very first event, I had Kyle Abraham there. [He] was exactly [what we] needed: a name that, at that time, was still emerging but had enough buzz around him that we could get the attention, like we’re legit and we’re here.
The other thing before opening was being very, very clear with what our goals look like. If we’re successful, we’re going to become part of the community in the sense that we can’t be irresponsible because people are going to start relying on this money; they’re relying on these services; they’re relying on these opportunities. So if we do this, [it] is not going to be this cute thing for three years. We need to commit to this because success for me means that we are fully interwoven into the fabric of arts and culture in New York.
That definitely scared some board members away, and that’s great. They became angel donors because whoever [was] gonna roll out with this really needed to understand what success meant for me. And I was thrilled. It was worth all the time it took to do the research, find out what’s what, [and] get the right people on board so that it felt very solid when we did open.
The application’s [only] one page, and that kind of throws people off because they’re expecting these intricate, detailed [applications]. Do you feel that organizations are actually deterring artists or stifling their growth?
I think there is something freeing in the sense that the money that we get is not public money: we are not federal, we are not state, we are not city. We raise funds separately to fund grants. There’s something freeing in that I can get less information and really just get caught up in someone’s application, so if it doesn’t work out, the backlash is not going to be like, “Oh my God, public funds [were used for this].” There’s less parameters around it because it’s for everyone, but it’s not for everyone at the same time. When you have money that’s tied to a government there’s a lot of rules and red tape that you have to get through.
It’s also just very daunting. I do feel like a lot of the grants out there are geared towards more mid-career artists. If you’re a mid-career artist, then it’s not daunting. If you’ve been doing this for 25 years, then you’re able to give your last five-year history and audits are nothing. But if you are three years [into your career], you’re asking for an impossible task. So we wanted to give a bump up. This is not an impossible task. You’re already doing the work; let us help you support that work.
Tiffany Rea-Fisher is the co-founder and artistic director of Inception to Exhibition, an interdisciplinary arts non-profit focused on creating a rounded support system for their artists through monthly performances and exhibitions; networking events; and grants for space rentals and artist stipends.