In December 2011, Laura Herbert, after years of invaluable service, stepped down from her role as Acting Executive Director of the Burlesque Hall of Fame, and was succeeded by Curatorial Director, Dustin Wax. Laura remains the President of the Board of Directors, and has expressed her high regard for Dustin and his abilities.
I have so enjoyed meeting and talking to Dustin, finding out more about him and his work, and reading his fascinating website. I felt sure that the rest of the burlesque community would love to know more about the man behind the job title too, so I was eager to arrange an interview…
Can you tell me more about your work and career up to this point? How or when did you become interested in anthropology and pursue a career in teaching Women’s Studies?
I had an inauspicious start in my academic life, bouncing from major to major and dropping out of college for a few years. When I went back, a friend convinced me to take anthropology to satisfy a life science requirement and I got hooked. I’d always been fascinated by the stuff people do – making art, telling stories, building bridges, creating religions, caring for each other, killing each other, and all the other infinitely rich facets of the human experience – and here was one field that covered it ALL.
And of course gender, race, and class, the central concerns of modern Women’s Studies, are also central concerns of anthropology, at least in the places I studied it. More importantly, though, it appealed to my general sense of humanity – if what fascinates me about us is the amazing things that we do, then naturally I’m offended by the artificial limits we place on people because of their sex, sexual orientation, ethnic background, biological ancestry, financial status, physical appearance, physical able-bodiedness, and so on; the various excuses we find for keeping people from becoming everything they can be and doing everything they can do.
I should say, teaching hasn’t quite worked itself into a career for me. I spent eight years as an adjunct, the first two teaching just anthropology and the last six teaching both anthro and Women’s Studies. But currently I’m not teaching at all – I work full-time at the art museum at UNLV and part-time (officially, anyway – it’s more like full-time hours) at BHoF.
And what led you to take an interest in museum work?
I’ve always loved museums. As a kid, I’d always bug my parents on family trips to stop at every museum we passed as we drove through the small towns of the Midwest. In grad school, I managed to get a job at the Jewish Museum in NYC; I was just an administrative assistant, but it gave me a look at the inside workings of the museum world. And I liked it! I took whatever museum studies courses I could work into my grad school schedule, expecting not so much to one day be a museum worker but to maybe curate a show now and again alongside my teaching.
Then years later, the chance came up to work at the Barrick Museum at UNLV and I leapt at it. The Barrick is a small museum with only a couple of full-time staff, so it’s given me the opportunity to try my hand at virtually every area of running a museum: curating shows, managing the collection, supervising the student staff, procuring supplies, writing promotional material, collaborating with other organizations, and so on. At the same time I had started volunteering at BHoF, and I was able to apply my experience at the Barrick to the situation at BHoF, where the skills I had learned in grad school and honed at the Barrick were desperately needed. And… here we are.
What are the key things you have learned and/or observed from your time working in museums, and with non-profit organisations? What is the key to establishing stability and development?
That’s a huge question and I don’t think anyone knows all of that. But here’s the thing that drives me and that I think is the key thing of at least the kinds of organizations that attract me: community. Museums, and non-profits in general, are in a relationship with their community that goes way beyond the producer-consumer relationship for-profit businesses have with their customers. For me, it’s not just, ‘Do they like what we make?’ but, ‘How can we empower our community to be part of the process of making what we make? What role can we play in our community making itself better?’
I’ve been bowled over again and again since stepping into the Executive Directorship at BHoF by the outpouring of support I’ve had from people who hardly know me. That, to me, is as valuable as financial support, if not MORE valuable, and it demands that I make sure BHoF remains engaged with that community; all those people who are willing to commit their time, talent, and financial support because they believe in what we do.
How did you discover or come across burlesque, and the Hall of Fame itself?
Both of these discoveries were from meeting Laura Herbert a few years ago. At the time, I was thinking a lot about sexuality – particularly about the way American culture shaped our understanding of sex and the role sex played in our political lives. I was aware of burlesque, but academically I was more interested in more mainstream forms of sexual display: pornography, prostitution, strip clubs, etc. But it didn’t take long – with Laura’s vast knowledge of burlesque to light the way – to begin to see how burlesque fit into the things I was already thinking about.
To be honest, when Laura told me she was building a museum, I was in – regardless of what the topic was. But working with BHoF and getting involved in the community, I really started to love it. And the kind of person I am, when I love something, I want to learn all I can, and the more I learned, the more fascinated I became. And on and on.
Which was the first BHoF Weekend you attended? Can you describe the experience? Did it reaffirm or encourage your belief in and enthusiasm for the cause, the museum and the community?
My first was in 2010. We had worked like mad the days before to get the museum ready for its grand opening on Friday afternoon. With the Reunion just down the street at the Plaza, it seemed like EVERYONE came over for the ribbon-cutting. That was my first experience of a BHoF Reunion – hundreds of people crammed into our space while I tried to work the gift counter. It was… warm.
Laura invited the volunteers who had worked on getting the museum ready to bring a guest to the Weekender and I decided to invite my dad to the Friday night show. So that was my first experience of the Reunion Weekend show: watching the Legends Night with my 73 year old dad and listening to him reminiscing about seeing burlesque shows in Las Vegas in The Fifties when he was in college. It was great.
I also caught the Sunday night show that weekend, but because of my other work I wasn’t able to participate in all the other events that make up a Reunion Weekend. I met a blur of people, both in the museum (which I worked in the whole weekend) and at the show, and I had a great time. But it wasn’t until the following year that I had a sense of what BHoF really stood for and what the Big Ideas were that underpin modern burlesque and the modern community.
How has the team of people you have joined welcomed, supported and impressed you? What would you like to say about Laura Herbert, who recently stepped down as Acting Executive Director?
This is the thing that keeps me going: there are DOZENS of people out there, right now, all across the US (and maybe a few in Canada) who are working tens of hours a week alongside whatever other jobs they do for a living to help ME make BHoF a better, stronger, and more useful organisation. It’s astounding. Last year, when I was made Executive Director, we created an Advisory Council of a little over a dozen people close to the museum who basically made themselves available to help me do EVERYTHING, from working out tricky policy issues to planning our fundraising strategy, to relating to the museum’s audience to making the best use of our space, to – of course – planning the Weekender. And you’d think they’d just say, ‘Yeah, email me if you need anything’, but no, they set up working committees and by-laws and recruitment processes to rotate new members into the various committees and essentially organised themselves into a real organisation. I know, right now, that no matter what comes up, there are at least a half-dozen people I could turn to and expect help. So yeah, I’m pretty impressed.
As for Laura, what can I say? I admire her greatly. She is a walking, talking encyclopedia of burlesque knowledge. She has spent years shepherding BHoF along with virtually no resources (and for virtually no reward except the knowledge that BHoF would continue on).
When the roof collapsed in Helendale and the collection was threatened in 2003, Exotic World could have simply ceased to exist, and it is because of Laura’s leadership that there’s even anything left to call ‘the Burlesque Hall of Fame’ – let alone grow in stature every year even without a permanent location.
Given that for those first years after Helendale there was no money to rebuild something like Exotic World to house the collection, Laura was exactly the right person for the job: someone who could preserve the *idea* of Exotic World and the relationships that had grown up around it, even in the absence of a physical location. I really can’t give her enough credit for what BHoF has become.
I read an entry on your site about your visit to BurlyCon 2011 in Seattle, which you described as, “intense, amazing, mind-expanding, soul-filling [and] heart-warming.” What particularly impressed and inspired you during that long weekend?
I feel like a broken record here, but again, the warmth and commitment of the community and how many incredibly bright, talented (outside of burlesque) people there are in it. Everyone I met was someone amazing – artists, comics, marketers, other museum workers, historians, writers, it just went on and on. And I would sit in these panels and there was this sense of, ‘we’re all in this together’ and absolute support – even when people disagreed!
Do you plan to visit other major events and festivals?
Yes, absolutely. BurlyCon again this fall for sure. I don’t know how the rest will fit into my schedule, but I definitely want to hit some of the other burlesque festivals.
What are your ultimate goals and aims for the BHoF museum? What are the particular ways in which you want to contribute and support its development?
I have a single long-term goal: to see BHoF established as a world-class institution. That means getting the museum into its own building, growing the collection, developing new programming, and creating a sustainable financial base. I couldn’t even begin to go into particulars: right now, I’m trying everything I can, and I’m open to just about anything if it will move the museum forward a step or two.
What changes and developments can we look forward to over the next twelve months?
Overall, the biggest change is that you’ll see more of us – more activity in more places. We are going to start putting together small temporary exhibits, dealing with things like race, sexuality, censorship, social activism, and new trends in burlesque, and I hope to be able to travel some of those exhibits to other museums or to burlesque events. And we’re working on ways to have some kind of presence at burlesque festivals around the country, and even around the world, with our participation in this year’s Documenta festival in Germany.
We’re also trying to reach out to the community more, through initiatives like the new Flyer Archive, which collects promotional material from current performers, troupes, and productions. I want people to see BHoF not just as a museum in Vegas and a show in June but as a core part of modern burlesque – the way Exotic World was. So we’re working hard to support other efforts, like the Boston West End Museum’s costume exhibit, and to build relationships with other organisations, and to keep a channel open for people in the community who want to be part of BHoF – as financial supporters, of course, but also as volunteers and contributors…
Click here to visit Dustin’s personal website…