Duke Dang, GM of Works & Process at the Guggenheim

Talks about creating covid-free artist bubbles in the Hudson Valley
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Robert Altman

Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: That’s dancer Omari Wiles in an excerpt from the docu-series: Isolation to Creation….and this is Art Works, the Weekly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed.

Before the pandemic shut down performing arts venues, Works & Process —the performing arts series at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum was one of the hottest tickets around. Begun in 1984, Works and Process did just that—it attempted to unveil the creative process of performing artists. Held in a 283 seat theater beneath the rotunda of the Guggenheim, Works and Process produced approximately 60 performances a year. Each performance would begin with an excerpt of a work in process, followed by a discussion with the artist. It served as a laboratory of sorts for artists to test their ideas and for audiences to take a deep dive into the artist’s thinking. And then the pandemic hit…and Works and Process had to innovate if it was going to continue its mission of supporting performing artists and their work. Let me jump to the chase: Works & Process rose to the challenge and the result is the docu-series Isolation to Creation. …The general manager of the program Duke Dang with me to talk about that journey….but we begin with Duke explaining a typical Works & Process event back in the days when we could still gather.

Duke Dang: So all of our performances are 70 minutes long, and we always open the performance with a excerpt. You know, we’ve all been in these circumstances where we start talking about a performance or a work of art, and if you haven’t seen it or if you’re not familiar with it, automatically you’re out of the conversation because you don’t know what the reference point is. So at Works & Process it’s important for us to collectively, artists and audiences, to all see a performance excerpt so that we have a shared point of departure, so that we’re all on the same page and nobody is ever left out of the conversation, and so we start off with a short excerpt. We have the artists on a panel-- <audio cuts> question that’s moderated usually by a journalist or a director or somebody that’s familiar with art so that they’re really comfortable having the conversation, and the artists will talk about what they’re trying to achieve, what they’re trying to do, and through this conversation the audience is able to glean some insight so that when they see the work they understand the intention of the artists, but also oftentimes it’s the very first time that a creator is seeing their work in front of a life audience, so they get to see how an audience reacts to this work. So hopefully, by the time the work premieres, the creator understands that relationship between the audience and the artist.

Jo Reed: I think that’s something that is always interesting to me and I never feel is quite explored enough, and that is that relationship between-- among, actually, the audience, the artist and the actual work of art, and the audience, yeah, those early audiences really have an impact. Artists learn if something lands or if it doesn’t or if an audience is not taking it the way that the artist meant and it might mean that the direction of the piece changes. It might mean the artist goes with the audience response-- you know, it shakes out in so many different ways.

Duke Dang: I couldn’t agree more, and actually what this pandemic has taught us, one of the things that it has taught us, is that when you go to a performance it is a group activity. It’s this exchange between audience to audience, audience to artist, and that’s what we have been lacking, haven’t we, during this pandemic?

Jo Reed: Oh, yeah.

Duke Dang: We’re all at home watching a screen and we’re not feeling the energy of a room, and when an artist is in the studio creating they don’t get to feel that energy of a room either, and by having excerpts performed at Works & Process the artists get to feel the energy of the room before the premiere, so they have a chance to make it the way that they want it to be.

Jo Reed: Now, how do you choose the artists to perform? Are they mostly New York-based artists or is it more of a national effort, casting a wider net? How do you choose?

Duke Dang: Initially when the program was created in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, most of the artists that were presented were New York-based and we partnered with mostly New York organizations that were commissioning new works, and we would have these Works & Process programs prior to premiere. Over time we really expanded the program to highlight what was happening not only nationally but also internationally. So we really wanted to provide a more national scope and also we wanted to share the breadth of artistic creation that was happening not just only in New York City but nationally, and then over the past three to four years we really sought to broaden what representation could be, and so we expanded beyond modern and ballet and opera to include tap and then street dance and vogue and ballroom. And on the music front, we started to present cabaret, more experimental operas, and right before the pandemic hit we were presenting a beatbox program, because we really wanted to bring in new audiences, but also we wanted to leverage the platform of the Guggenheim to start to increase representation of these art forms that were underrepresented.

Jo Reed: How has how Works & Process changed in the past year, because boy, last March hit the performing arts like a ton of bricks.

Duke Dang: Yes. <laughs> You can say that again. Well, when the pandemic hit, we really had to think about what our mission is and how we continue that mission, and our mission has always been to support the creative process of artists, and even though we couldn’t gather audiences and artists, we said we could still find a way to support artists right now, especially as we were hearing from so many of the artists that they were facing cancellations left and right, from presenters, producers, and so the first thing that we did was we said, “We can commission these artists to create works, to provide them with creative and financial support,” and it was through the medium of digital performances. We provided artists with fees and we said, “Create anything that you want to create that expresses your work. Just do it while you’re social distancing and we will digitally present these works.” So we watched our Virtual Commissions program in March. It’s now January and we’ve premiered over 80 works on that platform and we’ve supported over 200 artists.

Jo Reed: But that was just a first-step.

Duke Dang: Yes. We knew that that was a Band-Aid for a situation that was much more severe, and that’s when we really started to think, “How do we make it possible for artists to continue to work? How do we support their creative process?” because that is our mission, and that was when we came on the idea of a quarantine creative bubble,

Jo Reed: Describe a quarantine bubble. What does that mean?

Duke Dang: It means that we bring artists together so that they can work, but we do it safely. We have the artists quarantine for seven days before they enter the bubble. During those seven days, we rapid test the artists two times, four days before they enter the bubble and on the day that they enter the bubble. Addition to this, we rapid test the bus driver, and then after everybody has the all clear with a negative test, everybody gets onto the bus. They drive onto a residency center that is-- sits on over a hundred fifty acres and they work and live in complete isolation, and for many of these artists, it’s the first time that they’ve been able to touch another human being, be in the same room and perform and work, and that was what we created in June, and we executed that model in August, making it possible for artists to come together and work again. It wasn’t easy. We didn’t have the information that we have now, but fortunately, we were working with Dr. Wendy Ziecheck, who was supporting us on serial testing and helping us create the medical protocol. And so that’s how this bubble residency model came about.

Jo Reed: Now, how long did the residency last?

Duke Dang: The residencies last for-- it depends on the bubble-- but between 10 to 14 days.

Jo Reed: And this is in the Hudson Valley, and when you say the artists are isolated, they’re together but isolated from all other people.

Duke Dang: Correct. In our first cycle, which lasted August, September and October of 2020, we partnered with three residency centers, Kaatsbaan Cultural Park in Tivoli, New York, in Dutchess County. Kaatsbaan sits on over 150 acres. It’s completely isolated on those 150 acres. There are three studios. There are 16 rooms with on-suite baths, and the artists all had their own rooms, their own bathrooms, and they had devoted studio time and only the artists that had gone through this medical protocol could enter into the bubble, and so it was a virus-free environment. We also partnered with the Petronio Residency Center in Round Top, New York, and the Petronio Residency Center actually sits on 170 acres, and our third residency partner was Mount Tremper Arts, in Mount Tremper, New York, in Ulster County, and Mount Tremper also sits on 170 acres, and having that acreage and that physical and geographical isolation ensured that we truly would have a barrier to any vulnerabilities or any puncture so that we could have a COVID, virus-free environment for these artists to work in.

Jo Reed: And you also made the decision that you were going to film them and this was going to become a docuseries. Tell me about that decision and how you came to it and why.

Duke Dang: Yes. It was so important for us to document this from the artists’ perspective. In times of crisis, artists have the ability to reflect the world that we live in, and so we wanted to document that. Second, because we couldn’t gather audiences and artists, we wanted to create a docuseries so that audiences can take this journey with these artists and experience the hope and the joy and the exhilaration and the challenges of going back into the studio after months of isolation and not being able to perform work, create collectively. Third, for us as an organization that has always presented the creative process and allowed audiences to go behind the scenes, this was, we felt, the most effective way of doing this during a time when we all can’t physically gather, and we were very, very fortunate in that we were able to partner with WNET’s ALL ARTS to provide a distribution platform. So on January 27th, we will premiere this series nationwide on a streaming platform of ALL ARTS, but here in the New York Metropolitan region the series will also be broadcast on TV.

Jo Reed: I saw not the finished cut but an almost finished cut of it, and oh, my God. It was just fabulous. It was mostly dancers, though not exclusively, and the range of dancers was really extraordinary, from ballet, to as you say, to voguing.

Duke Dang: Yes, yes. Well, you know, what we’re very proud of is that all of these projects, we were already committed to them before the pandemic because we knew that we had to be a part of shaping what representation can look like, and we looked around at our peer organizations and we said, “What is lacking in the performing arts presentation world?” and we realized that New York City was where club culture, where house dance, house music, was created, yet this culture was not being provided the platform of a dance concert, and so we commissioned Ephrat Asherie, who is a B-Girl, who is a member of the house dance community, to create a piece called “UnderScored.” “UnderScored” is inspired by the underground club culture that came of age in New York City in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and fortunately the creators of that culture, they’re still alive, and these elders were invited into the creative process to share their stories with a younger generation of club heads, and this culture is distinctly American, distinctly New York. So we had commissioned that piece in 2018, provided a residency in 2019, and were planning on premiering the work in 2020, but the pandemic hit, and we couldn’t stop supporting this project. We had to find a way to continue to support the project, and so we had Ephrat Asherie Dance enter a bubble.

Jo Reed: I loved the project “New York is Burning.” Tell me about that one

Duke Dang: It was inspired by the iconic documentary “Paris is Burning,” which follows the families within the vogue ballroom community. These are-- when I say family, these are the chosen families, because many of these marginalized GLBT individuals, often from black and brown communities, were ostracized from their families, and this was in the ’80s, and they came together in houses to compete and represent and to perform, and for the 30th anniversary of this documentary we wanted to invite a legendary member from the vogue ballroom community to create a piece in homage of that work, and so we invited Omari Wiles, a founding-- the founding father of the House of Oricci, to create “New York is Burning,” in 2019. We were supposed to premiere it in 2020, and again, the pandemic stalled the project in its tracks. But we said we had to find a way to continue to support this project and we didn’t know that it would be this way, but it was rather prescient in that those black and brown marginalized communities that were a part of “Paris is Burning,” well, those are the communities that now, they’re facing the brunt of the pandemic, and so “New York is Burning,” once again, like its predecessor “Paris is Burning,” is bringing together artists that are black and brown that are looking for a community, that have come together in their chosen family to create a piece.

Jo Reed: Well, and I just have to give a shout out to “Music From the Sole” with Leonardo Sandoval and Gregory Richardson, because that’s just a remarkable combination of music and tap where the dancing is absolutely part of the music. They’re not dancing to the music; they are the music.

Duke Dang: Yes, yes, and that’s why we commissioned “Music From the Sole.” It was just this beautiful marriage where you just didn’t know when the tap turned into music and when the music was part of the dance, and also tap is traditionally a black art form and so many of the tap dancers that are presented now are not black, and so when we met Leonardo Sandoval, we said, “This is very exciting to have a tap choreographer who is black be able to champion his work,” and it was through Dorrance Dance that we met Leonardo Sandoval back in 2017. We had commissioned a piece from Dorrance Dance made in and for the rotunda of the Guggenheim, and it’s through this rich family dance lineage that we met Leonardo Sandoval and our championing “Music From the Sole.” So those are just three of the six bubbles that are featured in “Isolation to Creation” but we’re very, very proud of these pieces and we hope that when we all can safely gather-- actually, I shouldn’t say that we hope. We will, when we can safely gather, present the official premieres of these works at the Guggenheim.

Jo Reed: You know, I was so touched, Duke, when I was watching the documentary, the docuseries, I should say, how the artists were expressing what happened when everything shut down last March, and, you know, I work in the arts endowment. I’ve heard this and I know that this is true but it just still so deeply tore at my heart, the fear, the confusion, the, you know, well, it’s not like I know this is for a month. Indeed, it’s almost for a year now, and the open-endedness of it, I think, is the thing that’s so disturbing, especially for dancers. Their instrument is their body and their body has to stay in shape. It’s not like you can just pick-- and that’s true for musicians too. Nobody can just pick something up after a year and say, “Okay,” <snaps> you know, “Back to where I was.”

Duke Dang: Yeah. I mean, it-- the stories that I’ve heard are completely heartbreaking. It was August when we had our first bubble residency, and I spoke with one of the dancers experience and he said, “It was a godsend to have that $600 a week that was part of the CARES Act, but when it ended, my New York State unemployment insurance only provided $154 a week, and I just couldn’t live on $154 a week.” And he’s a street dancer, and so he said, “I did what I knew-- the only thing I knew to do at this point to make money, and I went into the subway and I started to perform for tips,” and my heart just broke. It’s August. We don’t know anything about this virus, and he’s going into the subways to perform for tips. And he said, “And I tried it for two days, and because nobody was taking the subways, I wasn’t making any money, and to make matters worse the police asked me to leave the subway,” and so he said, “This bubble residency came at just the right time, The compensation that you’re providing me is helping me with my livelihood at a time when I need it most, but also it’s providing not only me with hope but it’s providing my-- the community that I am a part of with hope. That people care about us. That people are watching over us,” and so it’s so important that we as arts administrators don’t forget that the reason why we exist is for these artists and so we have to do everything that we can to make it possible for these artists to work. If these artists don’t work, then we don’t work.

Jo Reed: How did you get into the arts, Duke?

Duke Dang: I’ve always loved the arts. I did my undergrad at Boston University, and I studied Art History. I had multiple internships at the Smithsonian, at Glimmerglass, at the Guggenheim, at the Getty Center, and I found this niche of the performing arts in museums. I’d always loved both the visual and the performing arts. I really couldn’t decide where I wanted to be. I wanted it all, and fortunately I found this niche of working in the performing arts in a museum setting.

Jo Reed: Yeah, you got it. <laughs>

Duke Dang: When I graduated from Boston University and then I went on to NYU for my master’s, where I studied Performing Arts Administration, and so I always have had an appreciation for the performing arts. I never was a performer. I never was an artist. I’ve always seen it as what I as an arts administrator do best, enable artists to do what they do best.

Jo Reed: Well, you’re someone who loves visual arts and as well as museum art; so, you also have an understanding of the cross-pollination that artists needs to have with one another that just enhances creativity on all levels, and that’s something else that is very difficult right now.

Duke Dang: It really is. It really is, and I think what this pandemic has pointed out is that we as human beings, we need to connect. Not only do artists need to connect and cross-pollinate, we as individuals need to connect and cross-pollinate, and so it’s about finding ways for that to safely happen, and that’s what these bubble residencies are able to do, and by having this docuseries, we hope that the public will be able to access this journey, take this journey with these artists, and see how important it is for them to work, create, for them to inspire and to be inspired. These artists are our friends. They’re our neighbors. They need our help right now. They inspire us, and they’re going to play an incredible role in helping us heal from every life experience this past year.

Jo Reed: Tell me what you learned from this experience of bringing artists together in residency bubbles.

Duke Dang: What I’ve learned is that the human connection and being together is so important. What I’ve learned is that we just can’t stop. You know, hibernating is not an option, and we have to find a way forward. We just have to be informed and educated and use the best available data that we have to find a way forward for us to continue to work, create, connect, and that creative process can still happen. We can’t give up. That’s what I’ve learned.

Jo Reed: Thank you Duke—that’s a good place to end. Works & Process, man, you guys did a pivot so quickly, and I’m just very admiring of that. So, you know, good on you.

Duke Dang: <laughs> Thank you. You know, it’s-- and ultimately it’s the mission of our organization. We are works. We support works. We support process, and we support artists in new work, and regardless of what the headwinds are, what we’re facing, it’s that mission that we drill down into that propels us, that keeps us working, that provides us with the direction.

Jo Reed: Well, thank you. Thank you for doing that, and thank you for giving me your time. I really appreciate it.

Duke Dang: Thank you so much, Jo.

Jo Reed: You’re welcome.

That is Duke Dang—he’s the general manager of Works & Process the performing arts series at the Guggenheim Museum. The docuseries Isolation to Creation has begun streaming at allarts.org…and if you’re in New York Metro area, you can find it at AllArts tv—check your local listings…

You’ve been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Subscribe to Art Works and then please leave us a rating on Apple because it will make us happy because it helps people to find us. Kept up the arts endowment by following us on twitter @neaarts or by checking out our website at arts.gov. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed. Stay safe, and thanks for listening.


A conversation with Duke Dang—he’s the general manager of Works & Process the performing arts series at the Guggenheim Museum. Since 1984, Works & Process has been bringing audiences into the creative process of performing artists. Serving as a laboratory of sorts for artists to test their ideas, Works & Process has produced approximately 60 performances annually.  Each performance would begin with an excerpt of  a work in process, followed by a discussion with the artist. But this past year, because of the pandemic, Works & Process itself faced a shuttered theater. But the program made a remarkably quick pivot: it found a path for artists to safely gather, create and perform together again by establishing covid-free bubble residencies for artists in the Hudson Valley.  Over fifty artists have entered eight Works & Process bubble residencies following strict safety protocols, and Works & Process captured this journey in a four-part docuseries Isolation to Creation. Isolation to Creation gives audiences a rare opportunity to go into the bubbles and behind the scenes to witness the exhilaration faced by performers returning to the studio, to the stage and to each other. It’s also a chance to hear some great music and see some extraordinary dancing. I speak with Duke Dang about Works & Process and its recalibration in the face of the pandemic. Duke and I also talk about the struggles performing artists are experiencing creatively, emotionally and financially.

(Isolation to Creationis streaming for free at allarts.org, and is also airing in the New York metro area on the All Arts TV channel)