John Borstel solidifies Liz Lerman’s legacy with NEH grant

John Borstel MFA-IA ’14 is tasked with the archiving of Liz Lerman’s work for the Special Collections at the University of Maryland

In one sense, John Borstel’s new job involves binge watching his favorite shows. 

John settles into his task of watching (and adding metadata to) 1,329 video recordings of the work of choreographer, dancer, educator and MacArthur “Genius Grant” recipient Liz Lerman and her company, the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange from Takoma Park, MD. The work dates back to 1976, and the task of preserving her performances through digitization will solidify her legacy as an innovator and interdisciplinary artist who is outstanding in her field.

The archival process is made possible by a National Endowment of the Humanities grant announced on March 28th for $313,753. The grant green-lighted the work of Borstel to work with librarians to enter Lerman’s archive into the Special Collections section of the Michelle Smith Performing Arts Library at the University of Maryland. In time, the archive will be open for students and academics free of charge.

Borstel sees this project as an extension of his own artistic work and his professional association with Lerman runs deep- going back to 1993 when he was the Development and Marketing Director for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and before that, a dance student.  Borstel was instrumental in shepherding the development of Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process, co-authoring a method for providing artist feedback in a way that energizes and reinvigorates the process of creation, rather than stinging critiques that may be not fully formed or inflicting negativity on a developing artist or a work-in-progress.

In 2020, Borstel is introducing a certificate program to bring CRP into wider use among educators and professionals working in the arts.

Preserving Lerman’s legacy is partly hinged to Borstel’s 25 years of collaboration and work with the Dance Exchange:

“We’re putting in a missing piece that really helps establish (Lerman’s) legacy and understanding of all the ways in which her work has been important and innovative so that people will really understand her in the bigger context in dance, art, community-based art, inclusive practice, and a host of ideas that she’s a maverick for.”

Borstel advises artists to commit themselves to their own archive:

“I realize that a lot of the generating of an archive is just catch as catch can. You’re writing a program note, taking photos for a blog, doing video as a reference for the choreographic process…All of this happens in the day to day, and you don’t necessarily think of it as archival, but down the road, it is a source of meaning and memory as the trajectory of the artist’s work plays out. I’m encouraging the artist to keep in mind that the stuff is worth saving and preserving.”

“There is beauty in the archive.”

One of Borstel’s “Goddard moments” involved an understanding of the uniqueness of the Goddard program. “I knew people who were going through their MFA at the same time I was at other institutions, and the structure of their programs were actually to almost get you to repudiate your old work and so transform by virtue of what the program can do for you.”

“Goddard was quite different in that you were encouraged to think of everything that you’ve done up to now as a teacher for your present work.”

John Borstel exhibits his photography during his final residency in the MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program.

“Goddard gave me a great place to experiment, both by virtue of how the program was constructed, and with who your colleagues are. I really loved the fact that there are artists working in other disciplines, collaborating together to innovate and make change.” 


Personal interview, Ben t. Matchstick, 9/4/19