Our Dreams Motivate Our Realities: A Conversation with Center Visiting Scholar Kristy Edmunds

Kristy Edmunds.

On January 21, Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, became The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage’s first visiting scholar. Over the next 12 months, she will serve as “catalyst in residence,” visiting the Center for a week every three months to explore a “question of practice” vital to our work and that of our constituents. This collaborative research will inform a variety of outputs, among them commissioned writing and live events.

Paula Marincola, the Center’s executive director, spoke with Edmunds about the opportunity.


Paula Marincola: First of all, thank you for agreeing to be our first visiting scholar. What was it about our invitation that piqued your interest?

Kristy Edmunds: I am completely rapt by the idea of being a kind of “catalyst in residence” and duly honored to be invited to work with you, to explore the ecology of the Center, and the whole tapestry of your community: the culture of place, what makes it tick, where the aspirations reside, where things are strained, where the pressure points are—and what we might find in the whole stew. I am interested in the special properties and ingredients in Philadelphia and the region, and thinking about these through the auspices of such a highly engaged organization more than piques my interest.

PM: How do you envision your interactions with us and with our community?

KE: I anticipate that initially they will be rigorously engaged around discovery and idea development. Then there will be a period of refinement, followed by a period in which we will make something substantive. I am going to do a lot of listening and “riffing” to see where we can best strike…or what we might be able to forge.

PM: In a recent phone conversation, you noted that the arts in the United States are suffering from an “atrophy of dreaming.” That’s a very provocative phrase. What did you mean by it?

KE: I’m glad you asked me to expand on this, because however readily quotable, my intentions could easily be misread (and taken out of context the statement makes me sound rather cavalier). Still, I have noticed that there is a real and present shrinkage within the arts in numerous pockets around the country where previously there was strength and support. And, in some highly influential arts organizations, a formulaic approach to facilitating the work of artists has been adopted. Both of these “conditions” I have been thinking about a great deal—specifically, why this happens, how it manifests, and what the impact is with time?

Outside of the arts, within our broader society, there seems to be a pervasive feeling of diminishment, and in some parts of the country a reduced enthusiasm to tap in to art and culture—a sector which, of course, we (I mean, you and I) see as a source of replenishment. Perhaps this is a logical response from a battered middle class, and the lingering disenfranchisement that comes with such potent economic instability in the lives of so very many, including arts and cultural organizations, including education systems, including…etc. Which has many of us in the arts and culture sector thinking quite deeply about why this has happened, what conditions gave rise to it, and what we are or are not doing—or can or cannot do—about it, and the effects of these (in-)actions.

My comment wasn’t a judgment of our profession or an indication that exceptional art is in a state of atrophy or devoid of dreamers. Thankfully, we are in plentiful supply. But it would be disingenuous for me to avoid mentioning that there are examples where facilitating mediocrity acts as a stand in for the exceptional, and where rhetoric around excellence has migrated into a marketing tool, rather than being upheld as a a public promise emanating from a mission. I think this is worthy of critique and question, and here are some questions that preoccupy me at present:

  • Are under-imagined efforts or formulaic delivery models a result of lessened resources?
  • Is there an aspect of exhaustion within our profession?
  • Are our corporate governance models of the past few decades failing us now in the not-for profit sector?
  • Do we embrace an expansive possibility or artistic idea primarily when there is no risk involved?
  • Do pre-determined resource interests impact upon what artists are willing to bring to the table?
  • Do they push their most impassioned pursuits onto a back burner?
  • Is it possible to embrace diverse definitions of what success is and can be (place-specific definitions and culturally specific definitions perhaps)?
  • What does artistic honesty mean as a value and an ethic within the abundance of “administrivia?”

And so on.

Dreaming beyond a resource “fence line” is not an easy thing to continuously do. Offering a fulsome vision when managerial prowess is an increasingly requisite skill, is a regular tension. True vision, however irrational and boldly framed, is what inspires. A “key performance indicator” is unlikely to become part of the thread of celebrated human achievement in comparison to an actual work of art. What is our focus on?

There is an enthralling ebullience and passion when we believe that something magnificent is truly possible, however far beyond our readily knowable reach, and we busy ourselves toward it. We do this on a small scale (like making a pottery bowl for but one user), and we do so with larger participation in mind—like an international tour of a choreography, a museum exhibition, a wall mural, a neighborhood festival, a concert, etc. But what happens when our established and emerging cultural visionaries and ‘innovators’ are pouring over data sets and advance-determined success metrics in order to get access to resources that will scaffold that vision as it moves from their imaginations and into the world?

PM: I find it interesting that you are seeing these developments at precisely the same time that we are seeing other so-called opportunities opening up to artists as a result of globalism, technological advances, and so forth. What do you think we’re losing, as a result of this increased focus on metrics, and in light of these new economic pressures?

KE: There are certainly a bevy of opportunities—a huge expanse of new terrain out there for artistic involvement and invention, and intervention. The digital and technology worlds being clear examples. Artist collaborations across genre-lines, art forms and across cultures abound. There is no doubt of an authentic creative flurry going on. Much of it is being resourced, which tends to ‘quicken’ the flow of ideas and possibilities.

It is interesting how the “new” is being resourced, along with who is doing the resourcing and in what kind of conditions/environments. I don’t know many not-for profit internet companies, or technological advances that are unconnected to commercial sources of investment. I really am amazed by the venture capitalist verve and how they get behind ideas and aggregate resources of scale around propositions that could utterly fail to even make it to market.

In our not-for-profit world order, metrics seem to be abundantly in place in order to seek as much definitive proof about the potential of something in the advance of the doing of the something as can be eked out of the potential doer. Which is either for the sake of measurability, or for increasing the attractiveness of an idea’s potential. Where does a journey of discovery find favor, and artistic risk-taking, or where does a journey of attained trust over successive years and decades of important work fall within the not-for-profit metrics grids?

I think that applying these in a formulaic method, often too with a level of granular detail in the arts, stimulates a decrease in participation by vital and incredible voices and practitioners. How many proposals or descriptions have we held in our enthusiastic hands that are devoid of exploratory zeal and passion? I wonder if the drive to convince and the drive to be convinced, might mean we are losing the authentic gift of our exchanges of honesty and trust.

There is immense pressure around productivity, and while “innovation” is highly desired (or at least over-abundantly thrown around as rhetoric), it is valued in direct proportion to its producing power: its exploitable product as an end point. The debates around process and product in the arts is ongoing, and it has been proven time and again that both must coexist. They are interdependent. The former is harder to resource than the latter, and I think we have to look at some radical creativity in how we do resource our artistic and cultural commons (and especially outside of New York City).

PM: But despite what you describe as a critical situation, can I infer that you remain optimistic, or at least hopeful, that change can be made, given your great commitment to the sector?

KE: I think what I am suggesting is that under prolonged pressure where our human and/or societal range of motion is restricted, our dreams do tend to wither a bit. I believe that looking at the points of restricted motion in the arts is now a useful analysis for us to undertake.

  • What does it mean if our *institutional *bottom lines are more important to preserve than what the institution was created to give to the world?
  • Are we thinking rigorously about artists and successive generational transfer?
  • What are the non-economic metrics that support the value system at play for human imagination, heritage and cultural dynamism?

Productivity is not the same thing as betterment. Information is not the same thing as meaningfulness, stores of data are not the same thing as knowledge…all of which we seem to keep confusing.

PM: Given these issues, what could the role of the arts—of artists and arts presenters—be?

KE: This is an excellent question to revisit, and one that we are likely to be pondering together at some length while I am in residence. Clearly, there is no one single definitive role of the arts. The various and vital roles that the arts play in society are well known across human history—so too in the here and now. But, for whatever reason, we seem to have to continuously respond with a set of justifications for existing—a powerful distraction that is wearying at best, and alarming if one stops to think about it.

The role of the arts, artists, and “culture workers,” is to manifest the gifts of human heritage and build upon these over successive generations. We instigate replenishment. We seek, we find form and meaning, and give of it. And we do so by being in possession of a passionate willingness to extend unique—and relevant—creative assets. Namely ourselves. We make things, and in doing so, we often provoke awareness. That unto itself is deeply important and useful. It results in the ongoing tapestry of our cultural commons.

PM: Isn’t it important to cultivate or foster a community of dreamers who are also effective and canny practitioners? Where do you think dreams and reality meet in the most important and productive ways for cultural workers?

KE: Dreams and reality meet every day for culture workers and are important each time, regardless of their productivity quotient. I would say that our dreams motivate our realities, if we let them—and when we are able to keep them active. Far more than a key performance indicator does, or completing an acquittal, or filing another ever-redundant form. As for effective and canny practitioners—they are absolutely vital. And I know that we completely share the belief that it is incredibly important to foster and cultivate this in communities—and as such I think we have to be consciously mindful that we not drown our dreamers and inadvertently repurpose their value.

If the most important possible destination we can envisage is to be found only by getting immediately on the path of least resistance, are we in danger of circumventing the very character of leadership, and a core purpose of the arts? Of ameliorating a generosity of pursuit? Of shortchanging a fundamental human need? Are we contributing to diminishment without actively knowing it? Or worse: We do know it, but it’s too hard to care. When in history did we begin to celebrate and honor “administrivia” and spreadsheets above literature, painting, dance, music, theater, sculpture—the contributions of artists to human awareness? Quite possibly when we started to place our collective institutional report cards up on the national fridge and ask for applause.

PM: Do you have an idea of what impact you would like your time with us at the Center to have? What is your dream for this experience?

KE: I always have the belief that by spending time in considered contact with people and the culture of a specific place, inspired ideas will spring forth. I am very optimistic that these ideas will have impact—especially in thinking about the capacity and imaginative rigor of the Center. Maybe we could invent a governance and resourcing structure for current not-for-profits and artists that is based on a cultural profit index. And, rather than copyright it, we would give out our findings in service to the common good.

I would say that my “dream” for the experience is that we find the specific vehicles to place Philly and its great collaborators and connectors into a national springboard position for the arts. Perhaps our findings and ideas could catalyze a platform of aesthetic erudition that engenders transformative change and re-ignites and inspires the nation towards a healthier relationship to art and artists—to its character—and powerfully so. It would not be the first time that Philadelphia was central to forging the ideas that would fuel betterment and a national character!

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Collaborators & Colleagues

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