Meet the Curator – Chuck Helm

ChuckHelmName: Chuck Helm
Title: Director of Performing Arts
Affiliation:  Wexner Center for the Arts at The Ohio State University

1. Where did you grow up and how did you end up where you are now?

Born in Council Bluffs, Iowa but we left when I was very young and I grew up in Dallas, Texas.  My path to my present position was sort of circuitous and somewhat via the backdoor.  I got a degree in Art History and went to work in museums, first at the St. Louis Art Museum then at Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, specializing in producing multimedia presentations that provided information about exhibitions to visitors.

At the Walker, this led to working with video and media artists like Nam June Paik and Peter Campus for their gallery installations.  Then, with the time-honored principle of “other duties as assigned”, I was drafted into helping out with the Walker’s nascent performing arts program….literally, it happened like this:  “Chuck, this is Merce Cunningham and this is John Cage…you’re going to run sound for John tonight.”  Cage had a quadraphonic speaker system with the speakers controlled via a joy stick  (the vogue in the Seventies)  and he used an IBM  computer print out cue sheet for audio changes that he derived from throwing the I Ching while he mystically intoned on the mic a similarly scrambled recitation of artistically fractured syllables pulled from James Joyce’s Ulysses….Merce appeared on stilts….OK…..this is cool.  Then the next week it would be Mabou Mines, then Grand Union, Joan Jonas,  etc. and this went on for years.  Basically, I ran off to join the circus of performing arts (I was also frustrated by the kind of insider discourse that was gaining unstoppable momentum in the visual arts world that I still find wanting). I also volunteered to write press releases for music shows and was part of an in-house kitchen cabinet lobbying Suzanne Weil (legendary arts force then leading Walker’s performing arts program) for concerts like Roxy Music, Bob Marley and Patti Smith.  Later I wrote a weekly music column for a local arts paper and eventually got tapped to book new music, jazz, art rock and world music concerts at Walker for the last eight years I worked there.  This, in turn, led to the opportunity to run the performing arts program at the Wexner Center in 1991 (Wexner Center opened in 1989) which was a terrific chance to build a full range theater, dance and music program with a strictly contemporary focus at a new place from the ground up.

2. What do you look for when you’re seeking out new work?

Work that rings true and reflects the energy and values of the current scene.

3. What was your most remarkable moment as a curator/presenter/producer?

This is a current project (it closes here on July 26), but, this spring I curated William Forsythe: Transfigurations the first exhibition in the U.S. of the video and installation based work of the vanguard choreographer.  The show featured 20 free performances of his performance installation work Monster Partitur in our gallery during its opening week alongside several other of his pieces and also features the new web project Forsythe created here at Ohio State with our Department of Dance and Advanced Computing Center for the Arts and Design.  Bill Forsythe is an artist I’ve long admired and it was a dream come true to work on a project with him and his team from the Forsythe Company.

4. Which performance, song, play, movie, painting or other work of art had the biggest influence on you and why?

Way too many to name just one, but, there were so many early events when I worked at the Walker that shaped my world (I had never seen any dance or theater prior to being at the Walker).  Mabou Mines’ B-Beaver Animation and their production of Beckett’s The Lost Ones….seeing Laurie Anderson perform “O Superman” before she first issued it as an indie 45…Trisha Brown Company’s series of Judson era pieces performed in a park, seeing Frankfurt Ballet for the first time and knowing that this was something altogether of another order.  Then when I first began presenting music concerts with artists like Astor Piazzolla, John Zorn, Arthur Russell, Steve Tibbetts, Last Exit, Ray Kane, etc, etc.  All of these—and many more—were eye opening experiences that revealed new worlds of possibility to me.

Going back further when I was a young kid in Dallas learning to draw, being “good at art”, and enamored of the work of Stanley Mouse, Big Daddy Roth and Rick Griffin, one of my neighborhood friend’s older brother was Barron Storey who was away studying art in LA at the time.  Barron is a great painter and illustrator who has since influenced scores of artists.  Seeing his student work, that was at such an accomplished high level even then, coupled with his family’s very non-mainstream immersion into hot rods, motorcycles, cool jazz and Beat literature showed that there were alternatives to the expected and common route even in conservative Dallas.

5. What skill, talent or attribute do you most wish you had and why?

To surf like Joel Tudor.  His deep aesthetic of optimal glide, catlike grace and soulful style is rooted in classic values but is also forward focused.  Surfing (when I was a teenager) and skateboarding were very important to me in growing up and developing a sense of dynamic aesthetics in action and independence….of choosing your line and going for it…with style.  It’s great to see the global impact of surf and skate style today and its relationship to the art scene.  As a long time landlocked Midwesterner, I have to concede that I’m a failed surfer…even though I’ve done alright in my chosen field…but to ride a curling point break like Joel Tudor would be sublime.

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