Given Merce Cunningham’s lifelong capacity for reinvention, it is no surprise that he is posthumously pushing the Walker Art Center to rethink how and what it collects. The Walker’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s sets and costumes comes at a critical moment when museums are investigating what it means to collect performance. Without dancers’ live bodies, movement, or a durational performance experience, what can these performance artifacts convey? What is gained and lost in this transition?
While we cannot recreate the performance experience, we can use the objects to more deeply explore how Merce’s work intersects with the visual arts and other disciplines, including music, film, theater, and design. With the full range of over 60 years of materials all in one physical location, we have the ability to make comparisons and associations that might have otherwise remained obscure. Many of Merce’s collaborators are already in the Walker’s permanent collection, so that paintings by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, or Andy Warhol can be easily called up and displayed alongside their designs for Cunningham. The aim is not to seal up the sets and costumes like relics in a vacuum, but to treat them as historical objects beginning a new life.
In terms of both materials and scale, the Cunningham acquisition defies the model of a typical museum acquisition. There are over 1,000 objects to be meticulously examined and catalogued, from the largest backdrops to the smallest elastic bands, rhinestone bracelets, and door hinges. Because the museum does not have a history of collecting costumes, textile conservators have been enlisted to advise on how to care for and store things like ’50s-era wool body suits and screen-printed unitards. Even the Walker’s storage spaces are being reshuffled so that rolled backdrops now reside on racks in the painting storage room.
Merce would have taken great pleasure in the mad science aspects of the acquisition, knowing that the bear fur coat from Antic Meet (1958) was frozen at the Science Museum of Minnesota to eradicate any potential fur-loving pests before it joined the rest of the collection, or that upon arrival Rauschenberg’s Minutiae décor (1954/’76) was given a night to acclimatize to room temperature before it was unpacked from its crate (a far cry from the days when it was lashed on top of the Volkswagen bus and trundled on tours across the country).
How do we reinterpret these objects of use as exhibition materials? How do we stabilize the make-up stains, the scuffs, and the patina of performances past so that they will be available for generations to come? How do we balance nostalgia and historical significance with the freshness and relevance that many of these objects still retain today? The Walker continues to weigh and work through many of these questions.
It is undeniably daunting to become custodian of this body of objects representing over a half-century of artistic collaborations. But the challenges and risks are outweighed by the opportunity for developing new ways of thinking about performance, its preservation, and how to share this history with the world. Merce and his collaborators have provided an extraordinary case study.
Merce liked to recall an exchange during a particularly arduous solo rehearsal at Black Mountain College in 1953 when the composer David Tudor said to him, “This is clearly impossible, but we’re going right ahead and do it anyway.” And they did. And we will.
Abigail Sebaly is the Merce Cunningham Research Fellow at the Walker Art Center. She also worked for the Cunningham Dance Foundation from 2003-2008.