Raising Support for Local Performing Artists
Choreographer, poet, and performing arts curator Alya Howe has an “umbrella.” What she needs now are additional rainmakers.
Over the past five years, Howe has curated three different performing arts series: Writ Large, the Poetry Brothel, and The Salon in Aspen. The Salon celebrated its fifth anniversary this past September with a huge gala, one that for the first time took place at the Wheeler Opera House. It also moved downvalley to run in Carbondale.
On the heels of that success, Howe reflects, “I’d like to have performance homes for these series both up and down the valley—a home base where I can meet with artists to create, collaborate, and cultivate new material. And I’d like to encourage and develop ways to pay local performing artists, especially poets and dancers, who typically are underpaid.”
Feeding arts and artists in the Roaring Fork Valley is the mission of Howe’s new venture, one she calls “Under Alya’s Umbrella.” To that end, Howe recently convinced some local philanthropists to underwrite subscriptions. The generosity of Alan and Alicia Sirkin, Harris Clearfield, Shana Gregory, and Terry Paulson not only helped defray the cost of The Salon’s fifth anniversary show in Aspen, it also enabled the series to offer shows in Carbondale. Gena Buhler and her team at the Wheeler, Amy Kimberly of Carbondale Arts, and Peter Gilbert of Dance Initiative are all arts leaders who became the rainmakers who helped realize Howe’s dream of producing the Salons both up and downvalley.
“I would like to build a performing arts circuit,” says Howe. “And now, with two Salons in Carbondale, it’s starting to happen.”
While continuing to develop new work, Howe has been the recipient of multiple local grants. In 2015, under a residency from Dance Initiative, she created a performance called “Vacuum” that combined dance, film, and poetry. In 2016, Dance Initiative awarded her a commission to create “HEaRD.” This year, Howe created “Nature in Translation” as a Wilderness Workshop commission, funded in part by a grant from Colorado Creative Industries.
As a choreographer and dancer who has performed nationally and internationally, Howe knows what it’s like to make a living in the arts—and to hit the big time. She has performed with modern dance greats including the Jose Limon Dance Company and Kei Takei, and she has improvised for tabla legend Zakir Hussein. But she has had concerns about the impact major artists have on struggling locals when they drop in to perform. “For many years, I was a guest artist who received international commissions. I would fly in to stay for awhile, to choreograph, teach, and perform. I would go to local events to see artists that the local community wasn’t funding. I was happy to get the gig, but aware that I was taking money that could have funded the local artists.”
“That’s why I now live in Carbondale,” Howe continues. Carbondale Arts steered the town to certification as an official Colorado “Creative District” in 2016. According to Creative Vitality Suite, a Denver-based data-tracking company, Carbondale’s 81623 zipcode gained roughly $17.1 million in creative industry earnings since 2013.
But arts funding is notoriously uneven, and at the end of 2016, underwriting for all three of Howe’s performance series ended, along with her own residency grant. That posed a conundrum: Should she allow the popular performance series to dissolve? Stop creating her own works? Or see whether the broader community would defray costs, moving the support away from reliance on Dance Initiative and on Michelle Kiley, who funded all three programs at Justice Snow’s in Aspen?
Hence the formation of “Under Alya’s Umbrella.” It’s a shelter not only for Alya’s own dance/theatre work and the three existing performance series, but also for other artists. Many who have envisioned new projects have come to Howe asking, “Can I do this work under your umbrella?” The organization’s mission, as expressed online at AlyaHowe.org, is “to provide mentorship, support and regular performance opportunities for up-and-coming as well as established artists in our valley.”
Howe says, “When we perform, our voice and craft becomes more potent. I want to cultivate value for performing artists, to foster a community that pays artists, whether it’s money, donations in kind, help with advertising and social media, mentoring…”
This is, of course, what Howe has been doing while curating those three series. As performance arts programmer at Justice Snow’s, as founder of the Poetry Brothel, and as curator and director of Aspen’s Writ Large, Howe has continually mentored local dancers, musicians, poets, and storytellers.
The author of this article was surprised to be handed a check after storytelling at a Writ Large event in Aspen. Financially underwritten by Michele Kiley, Writ Large was a collaboration between Justice Snow’s, Howe, and the Isaacson School for New Media at Colorado Mountain College. Howe was in charge of finding local talent, individuals who told personal, non-fiction tales to a live audience. Before doing so, the storytellers—some of whom had never before spoken on a live microphone—received mentoring and coaching. After performing, they were treated to dinner—and featured poets and Salon artists were paid for their work.
“Writ Large explored some of the more insightful moments in people’s personal lives. I had no idea it would be one of the most touching series I have done,” Howe reflects. “And for some of the storytellers to have a professional editor working with them is huge! Professional editors get between $30 to $200 an hour!”
Howe has experimented with various methods of raising money for local arts. One of her more innovative ideas was “Pillow Talk,” which involves buying a poem. As she explains it, anyone can buy a poem for $10-$15, and then present it as a gift to a friend. “I tell people, buy a friend a poem; it’s a cup of coffee to you!”
Recently, four Poetry Brothel patrons bought “A Little Bit Nervous,” a poem written by local youth poet Alyssa Szczelina, who has been a participant of the Youth Poetry Slam and who was a featured poet at the Poetry Brothel in Aspen last February. Talking about why she writes, Szczelina said, “The catharsis of pouring my heart out from the page to the stage lifted me to a level of empowerment and honesty that I never thought I could possibly experience… I write poetry so I can bask in the beauty of vulnerability. I write poetry because the rawness cuts away the superficial facade that life is draped with, even if for just a second. I write poetry to show others that truth can destroy, but it is also the best teacher and healer.”
Howe concurs, and adds, “In a country that doesn’t have a long history, or a culture of art funding, or even arts education, the arts are essential as the heartbeat of the community. The arts are essential voice—in relation to politics, relationships, social problems, racial relations, the environment—the human condition. We need artists to provide a voice for people to react to, to invite reaction and accountability.”
Arts lovers and potential rainmakers can learn more about “Under Alya’s Umbrella” online or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or phoning 970.309.2582.