Curatorial savant and innovator Philip Bither exudes an infectious enthusiasm for the performing arts, fueling a passion that has spanned more than 25 years. Commissioning a range of artists from the emerging playwright Young Jean Lee to such stalwarts of the art scene as Laurie Andersen and Philip Glass, Bither has established a name as one of the most progressive curators of the interdisciplinary arts.
Surrounded by a shared love of jazz while growing up—his grandfather was a jazz banjo performer—Bither cites music as a catalyst for his devotion to the arts. After graduating from the University of Illinois, Bither made the great leap to NYC and landed a fortuitous position in the fundraising department of the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). “I went to BAM specifically because I was so interested in the large-scale avant-garde theatre, dance and music productions that they were supporting. The producer, Harvey Lichtenstein, was brilliant at making commitments to artists who he loved.”
Equally committed, Bither’s dedication placed him at the forefront of BAM’s hallmark event, The Next Wave Festival, where he served as both associate director and music curator, producing “a lot of music shows that lived somewhere in the in-between land of downtown noise and rock and pop and avant-garde jazz and contemporary classical music.”
Drawn to the dynamism of small venues that think big, Bither became assistant director of the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts, a homespun sensation in Burlington, Vermont. “I thought that I could translate some of the ideas and passions around the downtown dance and music scene that I was so involved with in New York into a smaller city and more community-based setting,” explains Bither. Under Bither’s tutelage, the Flynn Center’s burgeoning three-day jazz festival evolved into “one of the great small city jazz festivals in North America,” which continues to run, expanded to a two-week clip.
In 1997, Bither accepted a coveted opportunity to head the Performing Arts Centerof the internationally recognized Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. An amalgamation of art, the Walker Art Center hosts a variety of art events and exhibitions that offer an “intellectual ferment” where attendees “can simultaneously walk and see a French New Wave film, look at current trends in graphic design and watch a postmodern dance movement.” Named one of the nation’s “big five” museums of modern art, The Walker Art Center is dedicated to finding the “newest of the new” in art trends and talent. “We try to stay attuned to the next generation of innovators and artists who are combining art forms in new ways and even changing the whole relationship between audiences and live art,” enthuses Bither. Upholding the museum’s mission to “select works that have an intrigue and freshness,” Bither travels extensively in search of new and, often, international talent.
To showcase its provocative and engaging roster of performers, the Walker Art Center offers a range of unique programs including the annual Out There series, an event that “creates a framework for brand-new hybrid art forms.” Entering its 23rd year, the still-innovative event gets creatively “reinvented” each year. The Walker Art Center further promotes artists with the “SpeakEasy” program, an informal post-performance bar-side chat for audience members. Engendering an environment that both informs and intrigues, Bither hosts an interview series that has amassed “an amazing library of conversations with artists who are now written up in the history books of dance, theater, performance and music.”
Motivated by the diversifying climate of performing arts, Bither and his team are also involved in pioneering an academic initiative to train a new generation of curators. Bither explains, “We’re helping to evolve a half dozen of initiatives or networks, some of which we helped start. The leadership role that the Walker plays is something that spans the visual arts and film. The Walker is very ambitious and inspired to work way beyond its own state lines or national boundaries.”