Vancouver Man on a Mission Native to his Heart
By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
Before one of his dazzling performers hits a stage somewhere in the USA, Andre Bouchard has done lots of mundane legwork at his cluttered kitchen table in east Vancouver.
Much of it is a detail wonk’s dream: booking dates and setting up schedules. Reviewing technical contract riders to make sure all is correct and crystal clear. Bugging busy venue managers who expressed interest, then disappeared. There’s also the bigger-picture part: writing project grants and consulting with venues, from theaters to universities, who’ve hired Bouchard to help them design authentic Native American cultural programming, or get indigenous performers onto their stages.
Bouchard, of Kootenai and Ojibwe descent, is on a mission to bring great indigenous performing artists to the world’s attention. It’s not only a matter of cultural equity, he said — it’s a matter of survival during a moment of planetary crisis.
“Tribal people have so much to teach,” he said. “Culture is as important as the air we breathe. It’s the thoughts we think, it’s the clothes we wear, it’s how we raise our children.”
Bouchard wasn’t always behind the scenes. He used to be a dance-theater performer but eventually developed this unique cultural arts-maven niche. Bouchard believes he’s the only talent agent-manager-consultant in the nation who works exclusively with Native American performing artists; in August, he was also appointed to the Washington State Arts Commission.
“I work to bring authentic native voices to the stage,” he said. He demands a definite level of excellence.
“I need them to be exceptional.”
But he requires still more than that. His performers must have “sign-off or some kind of cultural license” from their elders, he said, and — crucially — the ability to work as cultural ambassadors as well as performers.
“All my guys are educators,” he said. “They need to be able to go into a lot of different rooms in a lot of different communities, and speak to their own personal connection to their heritage.”
Bouchard, 41, grew up on the Flathead Indian Reservation in western Montana. His father was a tribal member, he said, but thanks to arcane “blood quantum” laws and customs, he is not.
“As with many things Indian, it’s extremely complicated,” he said. “As with any government, it’s all about drawing boundaries. Race is a construct made up in people’s minds. It doesn’t allow a lot of subtlety.”
Fortunately, his elders supported the subtlety inside Bouchard, who found his outlet in the arts. “Like a lot of nerdy kids, the arts were a refuge for me,” he said. “They’re a refuge for anyone who can’t stand and fight on the playground. You stay inside and find activities that prevent you from getting punched in the nose.
“If you wanted to dance powwow, someone would teach you. If you wanted to do beads, someone would teach you,” he said. “No administrative fees, no application form. Art is strongest when its bones are in the community.”
Bouchard went to the University of Montana and earned two degrees — in cultural anthropology and dance performance. He started his own dance company in Seattle, where he “reluctantly but quickly realized, the best ideas in the world aren’t necessarily mine,” he said.
So he eased off on his own performances and started foregrounding the talents of others. In 2001, he founded Walrus Performance Productions.
“My niche was getting recent college graduates their own modestly paid gigs,” he said.
A few years later he launched Walrus Theater, a 50-seat “black box” on Seattle’s Capitol Hill that he subsidized by cashing in his first retirement savings account.
The theater thrived until exploding real estate prices undercut it, Bouchard said.
“The landlord wanted to triple the rent,” he said.
Bouchard said he dissolved the company and gave its assets away to other nonprofits.
After that he pursued many related opportunities, earning a master’s degree in arts management from Carnegie Mellon University and working everywhere from Microsoft and the University of Washington to the theater at Edmonds Community College, staging upwards of 100 events per year, he said.
“Not so hard when you have lots of student energy behind you,” he said.
Then he worked for a couple of years for the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation in Vancouver and moved here with his wife. The couple have a toddler daughter. When The Columbian interviewed Bouchard on Halloween, he was getting ready to don a high-concept double-costume. His daughter was going to be a bumblebee, he said, and he was going to be a flower.
Today, Bouchard works for his own firm, Walrus Arts Management and Consulting, doing the unglamorous work that brings glamour to others. He spends a lot of time at his laptop and on the phone. He also spends a lot of time traveling. He was recently contracted to lead some Seattle-area workshops for indigenous performers in “how to get tour-ready,” he said.
In addition to the cultural consulting, grant writing, public speaking and workshop leading he does, Bouchard personally manages eight acts. There’s “world hiphop” band Audiopharmacy; DDAT, an acoustic quartet that blends hiphop, jazz and soul sounds; singer-songwriter Thea Hopkins; dance companies Dancing Earth and Maura Garcia Dance; and performance and multimedia artists James Luna and Storme Webber.
How does Bouchard find and screen talent? “You hear about the good ones really quickly,” he said. In the Indian world, the game of who-knows-whom is so tight, you could call it “three degrees of separation,” he said.
The only artist he can legitimately claim to have “discovered,” he said, is Anthony Hudson, a Grande Ronde performance artist and filmmaker who’s gained fame in Portland as drag clown Carla Rossi, putting “a queer spin on ancestral, traditional storytelling,” according to the Carla Rossi website.
“It was his touching personal story that I really related to,” Bouchard said, “growing up a mixed-race kid on the reservation, gradually understanding this complicated idea of culture and how everything fits together.”
Infrastructure barriers for indigenous performers remain substantial, he said. Shooting an impressive video that proves how great your band is — and how excited your audiences get — can cost thousands of dollars and an experienced crew. Native artists rarely have those kinds of resources, and neither does Bouchard.
“I’m a startup,” he said.
In August, Bouchard was appointed to a three-year term on the state arts commission. The position does not permit lobbying the state on behalf of your own locality, he said, but it does work on grants and policies like a new Creative District designation that could bring more bottom-line benefits to downtowns than Vancouver’s current Arts District does. Vancouver’s Arts District designation is “a name only,” Bouchard said.
Bouchard believes Vancouver has not kept pace with similar cities when it comes to support for the arts. “The Vancouver arts scene is ready to expand, but there are challenges,” he said. “Peer cities in the Pacific Northwest all have more arts infrastructure than we do.”
Catching up soon is crucial, said Bouchard, who predicts more masses of artistic displacement in Seattle and Portland over the next few years. Vancouver could catch them all, he said, if it had a central arts facility and affordable housing.
What’s needed right now, he suggested, is a local political leader who champions the arts. A recent summit hosted by Arts of Clark County was a good step forward, he said, but he knows a similar summit was held a few years back, and its energy wound up fading away.
“We need to work harder advocating for ourselves,” he said.