Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Indigenous Performing Arts Promoter Gordon Bronitsky

Anthropologists in Practice is an ongoing series of interviews featuring anthropologists (and professionals with anthropology training) who work outside of the academy. The goal of the series is to provide a source of information and inspiration to other practitioners and (potential) students of anthropology, and to illustrate the wide variety of jobs, skills and competencies held by anthropologists for anyone who is curious about what anthropologists actually do. While the interviews all follow a similar framework, each one is unique in its reflections on anthropology training and education, workplace applications, and advice for current and future practitioners.

Gordon BronitskyTell me about your company, Bronitsky and Associates.

I founded Bronitsky and Associates in 1994 and have been turning up the volume ever since. We work with groups and individual artists around the world who want to preserve, promote and develop their cultures and voices on their own terms. We specialize in working with Indigenous talent in the design, production and international marketing of traditional and contemporary art, music, dance, fashion, film, video, photography, theater, speakers and writers, in both Native languages and English. We also work with Indigenous communities in festival development.

In my experience, the audience for cultural diversity is wider than anyone has imagined so far. Over time, the scope of my business has expanded greatly, from mainly American Indians in the U.S. and European audiences, to artists, performers and audiences all over the world. My work has brought me to every continent except Antarctica.

How did you get interested in this type of work?

I grew up in Albuquerque, NM, and was interested in American Indians and archeology from an early age.  I became an archeologist and served a year as a Senior Fulbright Professor at the University of Frankfurt, Germany, teaching Germans about Indians. That year changed my life.  I realized the high level of European interest in Native cultures and began to wonder why they only knew about such a limited range of American Indians (specifically 19th Century Plains Indians).  After teaching for a year at the Institute of American Indian Arts  in Santa Fe, I began to explore the possibility of “turning up the volume” for a broader range of American Indian groups (and later, international Indigenous groups) through “messages” of traditional and contemporary music, dance, theater, literature, fashion, and other events.

What is a typical workday like for you?

Each day can be very diverse, so it’s difficult to describe a “typical” workday.  Common tasks include checking emails early in the morning to deal with the business day in Europe, spending time figuring out how to find funding for projects, checking emails late in the evening to deal with the business day in Asia and the Pacific, creating pilot projects for projects that are in the pipeline, talking to performers to find out what their goals are, and talking with venues and organizations to design programs that fit the needs of their audiences.

Describe the most interesting project you’ve worked on in your current role.

That’s a tough question!  How about three projects? I’ve produced a one-woman show for Navajo fashion designer Virginia Yazzie-Ballenger with the local U.S. embassy in Moscow, and an international Indigenous theater festival in London, with companies from the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia. I’ve also traveled with the Chinle Valley Singers, a Navajo family group, over the years (including stops in Estonia, Latvia, the Philippines, England, Italy, the Netherlands, Dubai, Oman and China).

Tell me about your anthropology background. What was one of you favorite projects as an anthropology student?

I received my B.A. in Anthropology from the University of New Mexico in 1971, and my M.A. (1973) and PhD (1977) in Anthropology from the University of Arizona. My favorite project was the Tucson Garbage Project, founded by the late archaeologist William Rathje, which studied contemporary consumer behavior from an archeological perspective, analyzing the material residue of behavior, namely, garbage. I was “good enough for garbage” and volunteered for the project as a graduate student.

What are you most passionate about when it comes to anthropology?

I enjoy teaching people about the great diversity of traditional and contemporary Indigenous performance around the world.

How does your anthropology training play a role in the work you do? 

Anthropology gave me an excellent holistic perspective with which to understand the diversity of performance and the diversity of audiences.  I’ve had to learn the skills and competencies I needed as I went along – I made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot, and am still learning. My anthropological education also introduced me to the great breadth and depth of Indigenous talent, and my work introduced me to the passion and heart of Indigenous performers.

In the professional world, do you call yourself an anthropologist or use another title? 

I rarely have any reason to identify myself as an anthropologist, but I do identify as one and consider myself to be one. I’m proud to be an anthropologist and I continue to be delighted with the education I got at the University of Arizona.  Potential clients and performers don’t usually respond to me as an anthropologist but rather respond to me in terms of what I’ve done and what I can do with and for them.  Some anthropologists like my work, but I’m an outsider to most people in the discipline because I’m in business, I’m self-employed, and I market myself and the people I work with very vigorously.

How does practicing anthropology reflect how you envisioned it as a student? 

In grad school, I just “knew” I would be an academic and have tenure, a tweed jacket, and a pipe. In 2013, the only one I actually own is a tweed jacket. In the 1960s and 1970s, the only non-academic work possibilities were cultural resource management (for archeologists) and positions with the federal or state government.  I haven’t been an academic since 1992, and I’ve never done cultural resource management or worked for federal or state governments.

I also “came of age” during a period within the discipline when academia was considered pure and business was considered bad – boy, was I wrong! I had no idea how creatively stimulating it can be to be a business owner.

What advice do you have for current anthropology students for marketing their skills to prospective employers? Is there something you wish you had done as a student to prepare yourself for the workplace?

Know what it was that brought you to anthropology – hopefully not learning how to write papers with correct footnotes!  Why did you, as a student, choose anthropology and not something else, such as modern dance or accounting?

Networking is the one skill I wish I had learned early, but, better late than never.

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

On the side, I’ve been facilitating Jewish/American Indian dialogues and programs since 1987, when I had an experience that showed me that American Indians and Jews share some common issues, like cultural survival, sacred lands, and language retention and loss. I felt strongly that what was needed was open dialogue. Two years ago, everything came together. I met Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison, who liked the idea and offered to be a part of it. I connected him with the rabbi at my own synagogue, Harry Rosenfeld, who also liked the idea. We decided that there would be a semiannual series of dialogues on specific issues, alternating between Congregation Albert in Albuquerque and the Navajo Nation Museum in Window Rock, Arizona.  The first topic was Living in Two Worlds:  How Do We Keep Our Balance?  The second dialogue asked What Makes Land Sacred?  The topic of the third dialogue, which will take place this fall, will be The Long Walk and the Holocaust:  Healing the Wounds of History.

Editor’s Note: To learn more about Gordon Bronitsky’s work, check out his recent article, “Doing Anthropology–Full Tilt, Full Time”, recently published in A Handbook of Practicing Anthropology (2013), edited by Riall Nolan.

2 thoughts on “Anthropologists in Practice: An Interview with Indigenous Performing Arts Promoter Gordon Bronitsky

  1. Great interview! Dr. Bronitsky’s perspectives on the value of his work, his role(s) and his advice are enlightening. I look forward to reading his chapter in the Handbook for more.

  2. Pingback: What do dinosaurs have to do with insurance? A lesson in advocating for anthropology in the workplace | Anthropologizing

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