An Interview with Bourgeon’s Rob Bettmann by Rick Westerkamp

Robert Bettman. Photo by Luis Gomez..
Robert Bettmann.

Rob Bettmann, both artist and arts manager, has compiled a collection of essays, poems, artwork and interviews from the issues of Bourgeon magazines. These essays offer a wonderful, in-depth look at different artists and the art they create. I speak from experience when I say that it is easy to simultaneously lose yourself in this book and gain inspiration.

If this interview sparks your interest, please consider purchasing a copy of this book for yourself and the artist or arts enthusiast in your life!! And check out Rob’s all levels modern dance class at Jordin’s Paradise 1121 7th Street NW, in Washington, DC.

Rick: What are your intersections with the arts and arts management? Can you shed some light on your training and experience in both fields?

Rob: I played violin and sang growing up but I didn’t really think about the arts until I got to college. After college, when I got a scholarship to train at the Alvin Ailey school, that was really the first time I started considering whether or not I could be a professional artist. And my understanding of myself has always been influenced by the fact that I have always had other jobs. For the last few years I’ve been a freelance web designer, and now I do digital communications for Taxpayers for Common Sense, a non-partisan federal budget watchdog on Capitol Hill. Before getting into web design I was a Studio Manager, and a Company Manager, and before that I waited tables (multiple times), and worked in bookstores (twice), and various odd jobs. After I left the Ailey School I ended up as an Editorial Assistant for Science books at W.W. Norton & co… There’s definitely been overlap between my professional worlds, and as I get older that’s clearer.

What was it like starting your non-profit organization, and how did you come to start Bourgeon?

I decided to start my own non-profit because I was serious about what I wanted to do with Bourgeon, and the non-profit started with the magazine. I knew we had to fund the magazine somehow, and that if we were going to do it that question was going to be answered through a business entity. I’m incredibly grateful to our Board of Directors and we couldn’t do any of this without them. I want to give a major shout out to past and present Day Eight Board members!

The actual idea for Bourgeon came during the discussions that created the organization Dance Metro DC. The Meyer Foundation convened ten meetings in a year with artistic and executive directors and because of my earlier work I got invited. At those meetings people kept talking about the problem of growing audiences. And I thought, “There should be a dance publication in DC” and so that’s what I started. The first issue had five articles that I laid out in Word, photocopied on four pieces of paper, folded and stapled. We published just dance for the first seven issues. We’ve since expanded to cover all the arts, but that didn’t happen until 2010, after we moved online.

What interested you in creating a book of selected Bourgeon essays, interviews, and poems? What was that process like? 

Bourgeon started as a print publication and I was really sorry to move online, but we just couldn’t afford to keep printing. In creating this anthology it’s more of a ‘returning to’ than a ‘beginning’. Fifty artists write about their work in this book, and I hope it will introduce a whole lot of people to those fifty artists, and that this book will promote their work. There are a lot of wonderful artists in DC, and I think we tend to get ‘swamped’ in the spotlight because there is such a wonderful national art scene in DC because DC is the seat of the federal government and the Smithsonians are here, and the Kennedy Center.

Who inspired you growing up? Did you have any mentors that have guided and/or influenced your artistic journey? 

I’ve been inspired by a lot of people, and mentored by just as many. Today I’m feeling like there are so many I almost don’t even want to say any because it will mean leaving some out. My parents created two strong professional models for me, and we had family friends growing up that inspired me too. And I have two older siblings, and at multiple times in my life I’ve been supported and inspired by each of them. I’ve always read a lot, and I’ve felt inspiration from lots of books. And I’ve connected with other authors and those associations have been meaningful. My first book was really research based, and the process of writing that book connected me to a lot of inspiring folks – some alive, some in books. My father is a scientist and when I was a teenager I got reasonably enthralled with process. At that time I read Ghandi’s autobiography. My mentor and advisor at Oberlin College was David Orr, and when I was doing my Masters at American University it was Naima Prevots. I’ve studied and danced with and for a number of incredibly inspiring dancers, and I count among those Maida Withers, of GW, who I know you know… I’ve been sustained by more friends and mentors than I can count.

How did you select the people to sit on the selection panel for the book?

I just asked a whole bunch of people who had been involved, and who I wanted to work more with. About half of the people I asked said no. It is a lot to ask people to read through and judge hundreds of articles. They had to read and score the entire archive of everything we published.

Rob Bettmann (far left), Councilmember Jack Evans, Shanti Norris (Executive Director of the Smith Center), and Jack Hannula (President of the Arts Club of Washington) presenting on behalf of the DC Advocates for the Arts. Photo by Albert Pootie Ting.
Rob Bettmann (far left), Councilmember Jack Evans, Shanti Norris (Executive Director of the Smith Center), and Jack Hannula (President of the Arts Club of Washington) presenting on behalf of the DC Advocates for the Arts. Photo by Albert Pootie Ting.

What criteria did the selection panel look for in selecting essays, interviews, and poems for the book? 

I asked them to just say ‘Yes,’ ‘No,’ or ‘Maybe’ to each article. They’re all professionals. I compiled the votes, and we discussed on the ones that were on the bubble.  One article would be four yes, one maybe, two no. Another would be six yes, one no. Another would be two yes, three maybe, two no. On and on. We had decided we would publish forty pieces, but we had a hard time drawing the line. In the middle of the pack — articles which had a lot of yes votes, but also a maybe or two, or in some cases a no or two – there were some great strong articles. It was not easy for me to not include some of my favorite pieces, but I trust the group process. You should check out Judy Byron’s piece, Jackie Hoysted’s piece, Tammy Vitale’s piece, Rima Faber’s piece — none of which made the book, and each of which I like very much. I wish we could have included more.

Was the preface, written by Leonard Jacobs, written specifically for this book or was it written and selected as the preface? What statement did you want to make with that essay as the preface? Did you want to set the stage for the environment in which these artists are creating the art they speak about in their essays?

Meeting and connecting with Leonard has been a lot of fun. I also blog for the publication he started – The Clyde Fitch Report. Because of how we’ve talked, I just asked him if he’d write something, and he did. It was written for the book, and we went back and forth for a few rounds editing it based on what I felt like I needed for the book. He’s a talented and experienced writer, and I’m really proud to have his piece in the book.

Prudence Bonds's artwork on the cover of the Bourgeon book.
Prudence Bonds’s artwork on the cover of the Bourgeon book.

I found the inclusion of artwork, interviews, and poems in this book interesting. Did you want to represent all of the things you would see in an issue of Bourgeon?

Absolutely. We had to make a decision about whether we were making a book to read, or a book to just sort of look at – a coffee table book. And I felt like we needed to strike a balance where the content (the words) are the important part, but the book is designed to encourage its reading. And Innosanto Nagaro of Design Action Collective did a tremendous job creating the design. We were working with a very talented student from the Corcoran for a few months, but designing a book is a big job, and in the end we asked Design Action to step in and complete the project and I’m really happy with their work. Inno recently wrote and illustrate a children’s book, titled “A is for Activist”, by the way. I have a copy and it’s awesome.

 What is your greatest source of inspiration?

I don’t know how to answer that question… I love my wife. I love my family. We just had a baby and I love my little baby girl. I love dancing, and art. I love policy, and writing. And I genuinely enjoy and love being alive. I went through some tough times in my twenties… I lost some people who were close to me, including two to suicide, and after recovering from that… I don’t know, inspiration? I have no idea.


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