Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A few thoughts on Kristy Edmunds at UCLA Live

Kristy Edmunds, back in the USA
By Barry Johnson

Kristy Edmunds has been named the new director of UCLA Live,  among the most influential and, at times, forward-thinking performance series on West Coast, and yesterday, when the LA Times story was posted, I sent out a couple of emails to interested parties. Edmunds started her career as an arts administrator/curator in Portland, first getting traction with her efforts for the Portland Art Museum's Art on the Edge program of contemporary visual and performance art, then founding Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in 1995.

The road at PICA was bumpy -- it started as a performance series and exhibition space, but when it ran into financial problems, it reinvented itself as a festival, specifically the Time Based Art festival. In some ways, that transition was Edmunds most important accomplishment, requiring every bit of her considerable enthusiasm, political skill and charm. I can't think of a more successful re-imagination by a Portland arts group during my time in the city, which stretches back to 1979.

My emails went to Victoria Frey, the executive director of PICA, and to Walter Jaffe, who founded and runs White Bird with Paul King.

King heard about Edmunds' move when he was in Melbourne recently for a dance festival. Edmunds first served as artistic director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival for four years after leaving Portland in 2004, and in 2008 became Head of Performing Arts for the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne, which is the hometown of her partner, choreographer Ros Warby. Jaffe had kind words for David Sefton, whom Edmunds replaces.

Sefton resigned last May when UCLA decided to eliminate the international theater festival he had created. UCLA Live and the university itself have struggled during the Great Recession -- attendance and donations to the performance series declined precipitously -- and the university, which supplies around 15 percent of the $8 million series, said it didn't have the resources to make up the difference.

"UCLA has undergone major budget cuts and they let David Sefton go because he was spending too much on programming -- that’s what we understand," Jaffe said. "We liked David’s taste though -- he was a big fan of Stephen Petronio -- and we partnered with him on Hofesh Shechter last year. So it will be very interesting to see what Kristy brings to UCLA."

UCLA Live has been a major dance presenter during Sefton's 10 years of leadership, and given the difficulties of dance touring these days (the number of dance presenters has declined as expenses have risen, for example), partnerships with White Bird make sense.

Frey said she'd known about the possibility of Edmunds' move for a while, time she'd spent "trying to hide my excitement." "It does open up a lot of opportunities for increased collaboration for West Coast touring and development of work," she said. "Kristy remains invested in PICA's future as the Founder and will be looking for ways to leverage partnership that benefit both programs. She is also a significant leader in the field and will add much to the national conversation. We are very happy to have her back in the US and on the West Coast."

Edmunds faces a steep climb at UCLA Live, by all accounts, as the series figures out how to find a new sustainable financial level. How avant-garde a series will LA support? On the other hand, she lands in a city with a lot of extremely wealthy and arts-engaged patrons. It won't take very many wins among this group to get UCLA Live back on track, and I'm not betting against Edmunds. She's always been great at creating a buzz around "pushy" performance work, and the lessons she learned in Portland and refined in Melbourne should be applicable to LA.  The "noise" level in LA is far greater, of course, but that's the challenge. It will be fun to watch her operate again, even from afar.

No comments: