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Female Disruptors: How Kristy Edmunds has shaken up contemporary art

While it may sound cliché, artists disrupt our conscious and unconscious tendency to feel complacent about any number of things going on in society writ large. They can do so by challenging, rather than reinforcing, formulaic approaches to all kinds of fixed assumptions. Their efforts can result in a sublime interference that asks for reimagined possibility, or a provocation to reconsider a firmly held position, or, it can take the form of an advance warning that inspires empathy and change.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristy Edmunds. Edmunds was the Founding Executive and Artistic Director of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) and the TBA Festival (Time Based Art) in Portland, Oregon. She served as Artistic Director for the Melbourne International Arts Festival from 2005 to 2008, and was appointed the Head of the School of Performing Arts at the Victorian College of the Arts/University of Melbourne, and after one year became the Deputy Dean for the College. Concurrently, Edmunds worked as the inaugural Consulting Artistic Director for the now critically heralded Park Avenue Armory in New York (2009–2012). Curating the initial three years of programming, she established the formative identity of the PAA with commissioned work by artists such as Ann Hamilton, the final performance event of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company; the Tune-In Festival with Philip Glass and many others. In recognition of her contribution to the arts, Edmunds was named a Chevalier (Knight) de L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in 2016. She is the Executive and Artistic Director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, one of the nation’s leading presenting organizations for contemporary performing artists.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Part of carrying a surplus of creativity is that you find the process of identifying solutions to problems deeply energizing. In my late twenties (living in Portland, Oregon as an artist and emerging curator), I recognized that the art institutions at the time had settled on mission-priorities that would follow the conventions of art-historical successes which were long proven and regionally familiar. This left a rather large gulf between the ideas and work of living artists, and the towering significance of the established canon.

I was motivated by the idea of catalyzing the role of contemporary living artists and making a platform that would elevate the visibility of their work. So I rolled up my sleeves, enlisted the simpatico-passions of others and we invented an organization dedicated to bolstering the impact of contemporary artists across all genres. It was a creative collaboration with everyone I knew or could reach, and we used the ethos of the city itself as the framework for the organization (as well as its empty warehouses and available theater venues). My learning curve for establishing and leading a not-for-profit was directly vertical and I was regularly advised against taking the risk of trying. As an artist myself, I was necessarily undaunted by the ample obstacles. PICA (Portland Institute for Contemporary Art), exists to this day and has made an indelible mark for nearly 25 years. In creating PICA I inadvertently assembled the professional bona fides of an Artistic Director.

What is it about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

While it may sound cliché, artists disrupt our conscious and unconscious tendency to feel complacent about any number of things going on in society writ large. They can do so by challenging, rather than reinforcing, formulaic approaches to all kinds of fixed assumptions. Their efforts can result in a sublime interference that asks for reimagined possibility, or a provocation to reconsider a firmly held position, or, it can take the form of an advance warning that inspires empathy and change. Because I work at a high level with artists in all art forms to support their projects and practices, along with the impact their ideas can usher forth — the organization that I run has to work within the same spirit of acting from the position of integrity, compassion, and the usefulness of disruption.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share how they made an impact?

Long before we access a professional mentor, there are those who forge the elemental foundation of one’s character and it’s facility. I don’t think we mention this time in life often enough, but I think it is the period that sets you on a course for what you will become. On that front, the women in my family have been the unflinching mentors in the fiber and weave of my life. As I entered school and then university, I encountered several reverse role models — those who demonstrated everything I did not want to be — which in my case was a form of mentorship because I embraced the value of not becoming that (as learned from the women in my family).

I had a softball coach in the 8th grade who had no arms. He drove his car, ate his food, and kept statistics and scores on written notecards with his feet, which taught me that there is always a way forward. He was derided when we would have games in communities that didn’t know his formidable capacity, which taught me to never underestimate the potential of anyone — ever (while introducing me to ignorant cruelty). He led us to championships by inspiring us to use what we had uniquely within us. That technique and skill unto itself was not the sole arbitrator of achievement. Rather, there is a caliber of the heart to exercise fully. It can shatter statistical odds.

Professionally, I had a professor who introduced me to a world of artistry and global creative heritage that made me realize I was aligned to maverick sensibilities from decades and centuries earlier. By showing me their contributions, I recognized that the popular and iconic culture of the day, however, celebrated and economized, was not always the signature hallmark for leaving an enduring mark. I apply this recognition regularly.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Tonight there will be someone that has come to the theater for the very first time and we perform for them. There will also be someone when tonight will be their last, and we perform for them.” — Arianne Mnuchkin.

“The most political decision you make is where you direct people’s eyes.” — Wim Wenders

“Tell the truth.” — ubiquitous

How are you going to shake things up next?

We have recently purchased a small theater and are raising the money needed to put a long-dormant cultural asset back into use in Los Angeles. How we are shaking things up, is that instead of expanding the profile, economy, and footprint of CAP UCLA, we are establishing partners to conjoin us in sharing the venue for our collective work. Instead of growing our organization (the “go big or go home” expansion principal), we are using the venue as a stop-gap against market pressures that put other organizations and emerging artists at risk. It’s a form of collaboration with the ‘competition’ that reduces everyone’s economic vulnerability in service to sustaining the long view of culture as an accessible right. A form of affordable housing that sustains ideas that are meant to be shared with the public on stage, rather than an investment in a property that drives expansion and gentrification.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

Lewis Hyde. Everything that he has written.

Brain Picking- this is a website/blog/newsletter that is a dose of useful genius every single week. I am not overstating the word genius here — what she does is a measure above the word, by her use of words.

Marvel Comic books from the 1970’s — Frank Miller’s “Daredevil” epics, the X-Men era now being depicted in the film but staggering in the print edition, and the complex collaborative (yet flawed) dynamic of the Avengers (then).

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I am not convinced that the most important movement we can inspire towards “good” would be grounded in the idea of benefitting the ‘most amount of people.’ The prompt above implies that human beings should inherently benefit if a movement is “good.” But in the spirit of your question: My movement would have humans benefit less, in order to radically reduce the unbridled pressure upon everything else on the face of the earth. The natural world would be my acute priority — which requires a reduction in catering to human greed, exploitation, comfort, and an irrational sense of unevenly distributed progress.

I’d start with the redistribution of the US military budget by at least $2Billion per year — and funnel the moola into education as a principle INALIENABLE right.

I’d stop robbing Patricia to pay Paul.

I’d develop a platform for the 1% to re-direct half of their annual monetary accruals into deeply inspired purposes that leave a profound legacy.

I’d make sure that there was an artist in residence in every bureaucracy we’ve established to date.

I’d ensure there are seeds, water, air and the generous predisposition to share them with others along with song, dance, paint and shelter.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I was at a definite fork in the road at a particular juncture in my early career — one that would inevitably cast the die for what color and contour my life’s work would take. I sought the counsel of a respected patron who had been instrumental in my work, as she had been involved in the arts for many decades and I knew that she not only understood the weighty contexts for the professional decision I found myself having to make, she had perspective and I, at 28 could not possibly claim. Her response was not a linear nor pragmatic answer to my conundrum. She did not say, “If I were in your shoes, I would do ‘x’.” Instead, she provided me with a far broadened scope than my lens of consideration was focused on. An enduringly relevant adage that I had not encountered. She said, “A life well-lived is the greatest revenge.” I instantly knew what to do.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

About the author:

Chaya Weiner is the Director of branding and photography at Authority Magazine’s Thought Leader Incubator. TLI is a thought leadership program that helps leaders establish a brand as a trusted authority in their field. Please click HERE to learn more about Thought Leader Incubator.



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