Performing Policy: How Contemporary Politics and Cultural Programs Redefined U.S. Artists for the Twenty-First Century by Paul Bonin-Rodriguez

Bonin-Rodriguez, Paul. 2015. Performing Policy: How Contemporary Politics and Cultural Programs Redefined U.S. Artists for the Twenty-First Century. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 146 pages; Cloth $75.00.

In 1996, at age 22, I slid (head first) out of a U.S. undergraduate degree program (B.F.A.) in dance and plunged into a radical sea change in federal arts resourcing. I did not know then, but I now know that this change was conditioned, in part, by the late 1995 defunding and agency-wide restructuring of federal philanthropic support for artists at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), the lone philanthropic arm of the U.S. federal government. As with many college-bound dance and performing artists, my curricular experiences had produced in me unbridled enthusiasm and painfully little historical understanding of my own infrastructural inheritance. To survive, I did what many artists do, across communities and cultures: I flailed. But, I struggled adaptively, swimming while swallowing a ton of water and the sinking suspicion that any physical preparation in Euro-American modern dance, ballet, and or conceptualist training in modernist dance compositional tools would not do much to help me to perform the many non-dance roles that working artists were being asked to assume in the nonprofit field at the turn of the 21st century. Such adaptive maneuvers, Michel de Certeau (1984) reminds us, constitute tactics, or critically embodied workarounds through which historical subjects who lack institutional control often circumvent strategic constraints, Certeau’s term for the “norms” or “laws” imposed by those with power to control institutions or resources. So, while my feeling of flailing in 1996, as a fledgling dance artist, was not entirely caused by a lack of curricular attention to the changing roles that artists were performing at the turn of the 21st century in U.S. culture, the absence of any critical and historical attention to the restructuring of arts philanthropic programs at this time occluded a clearer view of the role of funding programs in steering artists’ comportment, aspirations, and resources.

What Paul Bonin-Rodriquez wants arts practitioners, organizers, and researchers to understand in his book, Performing Policy: How Contemporary Politics and Cultural Programs Redefined U.S. Artists for the Twenty-First Century, is that a longstanding neglect of the history of U.S. arts policy has blinded us to the new and generative ways that artists are being hailed to participate in 21st century arts philanthropic discourse. His optimistic performance analysis of six post-1997 arts funding initiatives and programs seeks to repair gaps in understanding how public and private philanthropic programs steer the vocational maneuvers of U.S. nonprofit artists and organizers. He invokes Diana Taylor’s (2003) conceptual understanding of embodied repertoires of action as constitutive but under-recognized dimensions of political struggle and applies this framework to credit artists who participated in various ways “at the policy table.” Rather than situate artists as passive or powerless cogs in contemporary policy and philanthropic mechanisms, Bonin-Rodriguez uses a performance lens to cast artists on the strategic side of de Certeau’s strategies/tactics binary to argue that 21st century philanthropic funding mechanisms hail all artists as “artist-producers” or co-strategists invested in the production and practice of art as a public good. The first performance studies text that attempts to intimately assess funder-artist-organizer relations and decisions, the book rejects the structuralist view of institutions as disembodied power centers and hones significant attention to the translational flexibility that arts agents bring to bear on their circumstances of production.

His brisk, 146-page cultural analysis offers six case studies from 1997-2014 that each detail how artists convene, produce, advocate, and otherwise “perform policy” by making instrumental decisions during the 92nd Assembly (1997) “The Arts and the Public Purpose” (chapter two), The Austin New Work Now! Theatre project (chapter three), the Creative Capital Foundation (chapter four), the author’s theatre program at the University of Texas at Austin, Performance as Public Practice (chapter five), Leveraging Investments in Creativity (LINC) (chapter six), and the Creative Placemaking philanthropic platform (chapter seven). These disparate institutions lend Bonin-Rodriguez’s idea of the “artist-producer” critical traction as a multi-faceted role that he links to Homi K. Bhabba’s (1994) notion of hybridity as dynamic code-switching. Methodologically, his formidable index of policy grey literature is a vital contribution in its own right, archival territory ripe for future performance criticism and analysis. While readers hoping for a materialist critique of philanthropic programs will not find one here, Bonin-Rodriguez’s use of testimony from various philanthropic front liners and his own experience as an advisor to featured programs extends Taylor’s repertoire framework to new and unprecedented practical and institutional lengths.

As a researcher similarly invested, as Bonin-Rodriguez clearly is, in bolstering a more equitable and robust support structure for nonprofit artists in the U.S., what I long for and sometimes miss in Performing Policy is a more culturally contingent account of the asymmetrical effects of 21st century U.S. policy and philanthropic mandates on the “artist-producers” that his project profiles. Such sociocultural and class specificity might help us to understand why, as research by the Helicon Collective has shown, post-1997 arts philanthropic resourcing in the U.S. remains disproportionately distributed among the wealthiest five percent of nonprofit institutions in the country, organizations that overwhelmingly work to preserve or advance Eurocentric aesthetic guided works, workers, and ways of working.[1] Those seeking more depth of inquiry into the internal hierarchies at play in contemporary philanthropic systems may also question Bonin-Rodriguez’s narrow selection of artist insiders as his primary policy performers, a decidedly unrepresentative group. Still, these under-examined details do not shirk my appreciation of Bonin-Rodriguez’s participatory call to artists, organizers, funders, and academics to notice how they are being hailed to participate in what he calls a “social movement” moment in U.S. arts policy organization. The first book to tether policy and performance studies, Performing Policy hails a wide readership to critically consider how they practice policy norms daily. Future studies might follow Bonin-Rodriguez’s traversal of institutional participation and belonging to contend further with how arts supporters practically form and re-form the infrastructural tempest in which they swim.

Sarah Wilbur is a choreographer, dance researcher and an Assistant Professor of the Practice of Dance at Duke University. She studies dance institutions and infrastructures as discursively embodied struggles and is working on a book-length history of the first fifty years of fund engineering and restructuring in the Dance Program at the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). web: email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


[1] For details on these statistics and the implications of such class and culturally specific policy inequities, see: Sidford, Holly. "Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change." Philanthropy at Its Best, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, 2011.