Prize-Winning Curator Kristy Edmunds Discusses How She Helps Artists Realize Visionary Work

Ann Hamilton and Kristy Edmunds
Mar 14, 2019 3:41PM

Installation view of Ann Hamilton, the event of a thread, 2012, at the Park Avenue Armory, New York. Photo by Thibault Jeansen. Courtesy of the Ann Hamilton Studio.

Today, the nonprofit United States Artists (USA) announced a new annual award to recognize the behind-the-scenes arts professionals who are pivotal in helping artists realize their work. Known as the Berresford Prize, the unrestricted grant of $25,000 has been awarded to artist and curator Kristy Edmunds.

Edmunds is the current executive and artistic director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance; she previously founded and directed the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in Oregon, and was the first consulting artistic director for the Park Avenue Armory in New York. Edmunds has long been dedicated to supporting artists and commissioning new, ambitious projects, like Ann Hamilton’s memorable 2012 exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory that saw visitors swinging from the rafters.

On the occasion of the Berresford Prize announcement, we share a recent conversation between Edmunds and Hamilton (who is a USA trustee and was a fellow in 2007). Longtime collaborators, they discuss the crucial work of art advocates like Edmunds, who set conditions and manage logistics so that artists can focus on creating visionary work. (The following conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Ann Hamilton: Where to begin? There are many awards for artists in all disciplines: writing, dance, theater, film, et cetera. At United States Artists, we fund all those practitioners and more, but what is not made visible is the condition that makes all that art possible on so many levels.

It feels really important to me to say, you can’t acknowledge the work of the artist without also acknowledging the condition makers, who are a lot of different kinds of people.

For artists, it’s the conversation that opens the field, that makes permission, that lets you imagine someplace you might not otherwise grow. It is seeded crucially by the curator, the producers, the team that’s helping produce the work and commission it. This prize has really been something that’s been in conversation since I joined the board at United States Artists, and something I’ve really wanted to advocate for.

Kristy Edmunds: To me, what you’re hitting on is that the conditions are interdependent—that there are a lot of different hands that either align or get fragmented or walled off. The artists who are thinking in very large, systemic ways would recognize that there are certain individuals, organizations, or moments in time that ended up shifting those conditions, and that informs the work as well, right?

AH: Yes, and I think that whether you are a director, curator, producer, or whatever, the way in which you inhabit that relationship is really like an artist. It’s approached with the same “what if,” but also marrying that with the practicality of budget and timelines and all of those things that institutions need to be responsible for.

KE: Yes. I often say that one of the jobs that we have is to beat back the icebergs so that the idea can come through. Most people don’t always recognize how much we are pushing certain indifferences, pressures, administrivia. We’re trying to hold those things away from the maker; tend to them ourselves, hopefully in very entrusted ways with integrity.

I often find that executives, heavily administrative-laden staff members, or board members will ask for the outcome when the artist’s nascent idea is still a doodle on a napkin. If you ask for the outcome first, before the work is made, you miss the essential journey; but you also start to pressurize that work to shift.

I try to make sure that I’m the one dealing with those kinds of questions to let the liberty of a thought and the vulnerability and strength of a process be held with the person who is driving. How do you take all of our conditions and sequence them in a way that gives fuel to the artist? It gives confidence, opportunity, maybe inspiration.

AH: You also make the condition for them to trust the process. I remember when we were working on the piece for the Park Avenue Armory, the event of a thread, and you came for a studio visit. I had a model and didn’t know what the hell I was doing yet. I was really nervous and didn’t know you all that well.

I felt pressure inside myself to present to you. You just paused and said, “I’m not here for you to report to me; I’m here to explore this with you.” You were out on this limb taking this risk along with me, because you believe in this process; and you believe in the questions that I’m asking; and we’re on this journey together. That really shifted everything for me. If someone is asking you all along “What’s it going to become?” then it can’t grow.

KE: Exactly. If there’s not a way to cohabitate in the opportunity, the opportunity becomes just pure pressure.

I stand with the artist and do my translation process for [questions about the outcome of a project], while the artist translates with materials, forms, and ideas. When we’ve all come to a point of saying yes—yes, we will work together; yes, we will attempt this; yes, we will do this—I’m being entrusted with an idea and an artist’s identity.

AH: I also think that one of the things that’s really very crucial to how you’ve worked with artists across disciplines, is to recognize a particular opportunity or circumstance that isn’t necessarily what that artist is known for. You are sensitive to understanding the practice and what that artist is thinking. I think of you as being that flexible joint that is making the connection between institutional responsibilities and needs, but making those more flexible.

KE: Before I started the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), I had worked at the Portland Art Museum. I was very young and started to recognize the rigidity of that institutional framework. It wasn’t that it was intending to be formidable in a way, but it was becoming formidably rigid. The lines were hard-edged, and I was working with contemporary living artists.

I remember thinking to myself: What I have to do is find a way to blast a metaphoric hole on the other side of the marble so that other kinds of people can find their way in, because the current front door really is only enabling a certain segment [of artists] to be present. So at PICA, we had to have a whole bunch of core values, and one was nimbleness—are we being nimble? We had to have some way of constantly evolving, or the organization would become rigid. I think I’ve run around the world trying to do the same thing ever since.

I always think about this when an artist is being stretched into terrain that they want to go in; and it may be different than their practice, or it may be a form that they haven’t tackled yet or an engineering dilemma you can’t practice at home—like your pulley system at the Armory—but it’s a chance for an organization to learn, as well.

AH: Right now, you’re working within a university, which is a very large bureaucracy, really. You have multiple spaces, and you have the potential for lots of collaborators. How is a university a place where something can happen?

KE: All of the academics and teaching artists at the university create a living laboratory. Then, on top of it, you’ve got special collections libraries, and you’ve got astrophysicists and these other people who I wouldn’t find in my normal life, but I do when I’m on a campus. I can almost always find an artist or a thread in a work that will connect them to something that they don’t think they’re connected to.

AH: Do you think that you would characterize, in part, what you do, to be a listener?

KE: Oh, yes, for sure. I love to listen to the space between the notes, as it were; not just the notes. It’s that in between-ness, I find, where I can migrate other points of connection. If I can do a rich job of listening in many, many different directions, that’s going to inform the richness of the soil that something that’s going to be planted there has to work with.

AH: I think you can do what you do because you are an artist, and this is your form. You approach this condition-making or institution-building in the same way that you might approach making a sculpture, and you ask yourself some of the same questions. I think that’s, in part, why you also recognize and listen in the way that you do.

KE: Yes, that’s true. I think of institutions and organizations as a medium, as a material. With the ones that I have had the privilege or complete naïveté to start, I’ve had the chance to invent platforms or organizations through listening and trying to recognize how place, time, interest, aspiration, and often fear can coalesce into something that can be greater than the independent bits of those parts. I’ve been able to imbue them with a value proposition in a way that will resonate with artists and, hopefully, a community, too.

With artists, I begin a relationship, we connect with one another, and I will often say, “and so we begin,” because I know that we are now at a particular beginning. I will participate in the research necessary to understand how best to help, to be useful.

Ultimately, we don’t just work in the institution that we work in. We also work in a field. We work in a profession. We work across each other’s platforms to help create mobility for an artist. We nominate. We write letters of recommendation constantly. We try and build connections to different things.

We find ways where, even if our own organizational framework may not be the right moment in time for an artist’s work or practice or process, we have a connection to another entity that will. So there’s this way in which, I think, United States Artists is recognizing not just where I work, but the space between the notes that we’re also trying to tend to.

I think that’s what makes [the Berresford Prize] so profound. It’s saying: The individual unto themselves, in how they approach the work—across institutional frameworks, with each other, or under other kinds of conditions—is making a difference in the life of artistic practices.

Sam Miller would do this. Others would do it, too. Harvey Lichtenstein is another example. There’s a pivotal moment when he was at BAM and put the Next Wave Festival into being. They took a full-blown risk to change the institutional framework that would alter the conditions for artists of a particular generation in that moment.

They were frustrated that artists in New York, particularly, were going to Europe; but there was no next step for them in the New York ecology. They made that framework. They didn’t do it because that was something BAM was asking them to do. They did it out of their own absolute gut condition and own courage; like I was saying before, they needed to blast out the back wall of the travertine marble to make another gateway.

AH: It’s recognizing need and inventing opportunity, because things shift. They shift because what we need doesn’t exist. So instead of making the foot fit the shoe, you have to change the shoe.

KE: Yes. There’s no body of people that helps others more than artists. If we behave in the spirit of that integrity when we’re inside of institutions, the institutions have a life and a beating soul that artists can utilize to connect our most significant questions into the fabric of our heritage. If we’re not operating from that place, we need to step down from our positions of leadership.

Ann Hamilton
Kristy Edmunds
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019