After a decade at the helm of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, Kristy Edmunds has taken a new role as director of MASS MoCA. Here, she speaks about the importance of working collaboratively with artists to realize large-scale projects, and discusses how the all-encompassing nature of a visit to the MASS MoCA campus compares to other contemporary art-viewing experiences.
I’ve known MASS MoCA since Joe Thompson, the founding director, was getting it off the ground. I was starting the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art around the same time; we were working under very different conditions, but I certainly understand warehouse renovations. MASS MoCA is immersive, thanks to the light touch of the architecture—it provides an open framework that artists can go nuts in. Some curators are driven by projects, others are driven by exhibition-making, but the fundamental reality of dealing with sixteen acres and fourteen buildings is that you are in a totally immersive environment.
There’s a huge distinction between what an immersive experience means when it lands you in the gift shop versus when artists have utilized the space and technology to activate your senses. That’s when the artists’ questioning imbues the encounter with integrity—which is what institutions and curators seek to foster. MASS MoCA is at the bleeding edge of helping artists realize their vision. We put our shoulders to the wheel together, dealing with fabrication and the artists’ changing ideas in ways that truly enhance their creativity.
MASS MoCA has been pushed strategically to add more gallery space, to use more of the buildings to show more work, to expand the big immersive experience that is MASS MoCA. But we need to catch up on the resource equation that supports artists and curators and visitors. If you quadruple the amount of available square footage but not the budget that sustains it, you’ll get out of balance. I want to see how we can shift toward deepening the programming, supporting the people who make the programming, and increasing the diversity of voices.
I’m looking forward to getting involved in the community. I grew up in small communities in the West. There were no MASS MoCAs in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. There was a craft fair, and that was my art experience until I hit college. So I’m going to enjoy teasing out that part of my history again. Granted, we’re close to major urban centers; but New England still punches far above its cultural weight. The number of museums, galleries, performances, festivals, residencies—it’s staggering.
I’ve spent a lot of time in cafés, talking to locals. What I find remarkable is that if you ask them if they’ve been to MASS MoCA, they’ll say: “I love that place!” That’s a pretty rare response. MASS MoCA went from being an absolutely obscure, radical impossibility a few decades ago to now being an impossibility achieved. And it is cared about. We need to nurture the spirit that gives local people real pride in the place—that engages them and inspires a sense of belonging. MASS MoCA is something in the region that can make people here feel connected to the world.