Legacy Russell is the recently appointed executive director and chief curator of the Kitchen, a performing arts center with 50 years of history as an experimental hub for theater, music, dance, and numerous other art forms in New York. Shortly after she began the job in September, the Kitchen announced a $28 million capital campaign to raise funds for the renovation and expansion plan of its building in Chelsea, with the goal of beginning construction in spring 2022. Russell worked previously as associate curator of exhibitions at the Studio Museum in Harlem. She is also the author of Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020).
Adrienne Edwards is the director of curatorial affairs at the Whitney Museum of American Art, where she began as curator of performance in 2018. With fellow Whitney curator David Breslin, she is organizing the 80th edition of the Whitney Biennial, scheduled to open in April. Before the Whitney, she worked as curator at large at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and as a curator for Performa, a biennial devoted to performance art of various kinds in New York.
[This conversation is part of ARTnews’s Deciders 2022 issue, guest edited by Hank Willis Thomas.]
In October, Russell and Edwards joined ARTnews to discuss the evolution of the performing arts, changes related to the field in museums and institutions, and prospects for the future.
ARTnews: What was an early experience with art that put you on your career path?
Legacy Russell: Mine is linked to sites. I remember in my early years [in New York] going to what was at the time P.S. 122 and Theater for the New City, as well as queuing with my parents in front of the Public Theater to get tickets to see Shakespeare in the Park. A lot of my childhood experiences were bound up in these spaces that at the time I didn’t even really know were art spaces. The Poetry Project or Danspace—these were spaces that existed so fully in the world with me and my family, but it was only in my growing up that I came to a better understanding of the ways in which they were housing these incredible canons of thought and making. That gave me a budding interest, and then, as I grew older, going into museum spaces and gaining a better understanding of the systems behind this work, I began to ask questions about the ways in which certain things were or were not housed by institutional sites, what different models of institutions look like, and what types of artists were being invited to work inside different spaces. That created a branch between spaces that existed and an alternative art-space model or smaller institutional model that turned into what became a deep love affair.
Adrienne Edwards: Mine is nowhere near as exciting. I did not grow up in New York City—I grew up for the first six years of my life in Atlanta, and the rest in South Carolina. The cool thing about that place was the community theater, which I was deeply involved in. But as for formative memories, my aunt was a member of the Spelman/Morehouse Players when she was at Spelman College, and she was actively engaged in a very particular Black theater community. Samuel L. Jackson and LaTanya Jackson, who were very good family friends, came from that, and there was this network that went from Atlanta to New York and L.A. My aunt would also take me to see Alvin Ailey every year. To this day, when I see Ailey, inevitably there’s someone who is having their first Ailey experience—and I just love to sit there and watch them literally have a conniption.
ARTnews: How did you first come to know of each other’s work?
Russell: I remember coming into awareness of Adrienne because I was really excited about performance and her incredible work at Performa. Seeing what she was doing, it occurred to me that there were actually people like me who could do this work. It encouraged me deeply to think intergenerationally about conversations that I had been a part of but didn’t even know I was a part of. Adrienne was one of a select few people who showed me what a professional pathway could look like. Performa existed outside institutional space and as an institution in its own right—without walls. It embedded itself in so many different types of places. For me, as somebody who grew up in a deep intersection in different kinds of downtown nightlife, that was special. I came of age in a period when a lot of the kind of deep curiosities about what performance could do came from being in club space. I was really interested in thinking about performance as an important tradition that can be broken out of the edifice or architecture of institutions and actually be placed in the world. I was inspired by Adrienne’s work because it aimed to do that. It allowed for things to be set inside institutions and also break them out into other settings.
Edwards: Legacy started out as an artist, so I had some awareness from that. But I remember having a drink with Thelma Golden and she was looking for someone for her curatorial staff. She said, “I got this application—have you heard of this person?” But then it was funny: I went to an installation at Performance Space New York, and I did not want to lose my seat. I had gotten there super early and had to go to the bathroom. I had been sitting there for two hours, and I remember I turned to Legacy, who I had not met before, and said, “Will you hold my seat?” She said…“No.” [Laughs.]
Russell: Oh, my God!!! I did?! [Laughs.]
Edwards: It was amazing. I was like, OK…
Russell: That is hilarious. I don’t remember that but I apologize! To the point of Thelma, as I began my work at the Studio Museum, she told me I needed to get to know you ASAP. You were doing all the kind of amazing work that I was asking questions about, so I needed to call on you. I’ve always been a bit shy so I’ve never said this directly, but across all these different generations—and there is not even that much space between us—the way Adrienne has shaped the work we do is monumental. So, while the physical seat was not saved, certainly she has been amazing in holding a space for different generations of folks, including myself.
ARTnews: How would each of you describe the level of regard paid—or not paid—to performance work during the time you’ve followed it? How has the attention it garners evolved?
Edwards: It depends on the context. You can talk about gallery space, artist-centered space, and museum space, but even those descriptions don’t really hold anymore. Museums are trying to make themselves artist-centered spaces, and there are a lot of hiccups around that, because there is a learning curve when it comes to working with living artists and fostering them to make something new that is thoughtful and engaging and changes their trajectory. That is not something a lot of museums know how to do well. But we are at a moment where they are trying, and that’s interesting. Museums are like battleships: it takes a long time and a lot of effort to turn them. For me, that turn started in the museum context around 2004. Obviously, it had been there in the ’60s and ’70s, but something happened in the ’80s. I don’t think it’s an accident how that links up with the way the market escalates at that time. There was a dearth of support in the presentation and incubation of what I call motley things, whether they be performance works or interdisciplinary work or whatever, where the experience is a container for something, or the museum is made a container for a certain kind of experience.
ARTnews: Why do you pin it to 2004?
Edwards: I have to give the credit to Performa, which was established in 2004 in advance of the first Performa biennial in 2005. In Europe the context depends on what country you’re talking about. In Europe you were beginning to see exhibitions cater to artists who work with a kind of disciplinary disregard. But not really in the U.S., and particularly not in large institutions. At the time, at the Whitney, performance was jazz bands on a Friday night when they were open late. I have to say that Adam Weinberg [Whitney director since 2003], because he trained at the Walker Art Center early in his career, understood that there was a real opportunity and that he would not be doing the service that he should be doing for artists unless he opened up the museum to really fostering performance. It has been a journey since then, but there were no performance curators at the time.
Russell: So many things occurred between 2004 and 2008, when I began my work in museums. I became a fellow at the Met and I remember being interested in performance, but I was like, What does it mean to do this kind of work? I loved museums deeply, even though I had this complex and challenged relationship with them. At the Met, it was an amazing time to realize that there were deep traditions that were very rigid and all these canons that existed within the Met as an institutional site. At that time, it was unheard of to bring different things into contact with each other in the way that we see occur now across many different types of institutions. I remember feeling a little bit bleak about it. I was not confident about how one could navigate what that leap would look like. It was around then that PopRally began to be built at MoMA, and then, with the history of Warm Up, there was an amplification and widening of my viewfinder. They set an interesting example of how performance practice could be set inside an institutional space, and how that could be successful—that performance could actually push objecthood and our understanding of objecthood in new directions and challenge us to think about what an institution’s responsibility is to living artists producing a living body of work. Different spaces really changed to respond to performance, not as a trend but as something that could actually be supported with a type of fixity.
ARTnews: How has the academic treatment of performance and performance studies evolved most meaningfully in recent years?
Edwards: I was fostered by incredible brains in New York University’s Performance Studies program. When I worked for Performa, I went to NYU at the same time. I was working full time and studying full time: it was an incredibly intense period in my life, and the stakes were quite high. But José Esteban Muñoz understood from the jump what I was trying to do. Some of it was performance, but not all of it was, and I wanted to find language to talk about what it is that art does in the world. I felt that there was this huge disservice in terms of thought around not only the artists I was interested in writing about and working with, but in the academic life that I had. It felt like there was a real gap, and that I could bring rigor of thought and analysis into it. NYU Performance Studies gave me the vocabulary and sensibility [to talk about it]. José said to me, “You know, everything is performing, all the time”—which is a radical refashioning of the way to approach something, whether it’s an object or a thought or a performance. NYU has this incredible history and trajectory, from thinking about experimental theater with the work of Richard Schechner and going on to Peggy Phelan’s relationship to feminism and José’s radical thought around queer theory. Fred Moten is my adviser. These are people who have completely shifted not only the way we think about what performance is but the way we talk about what art is.
Russell: I went to Goldsmiths [in London], and for me it was a challenging experience being an American in British space. The idea of the forum in academia—where you are sitting with your cohort in conversation and talking back to the text, with a certain kind of tradition of debate—operates really differently in Britain. I remember fondly my first class with Gavin Butt, who broke that mold; I remember a course with him looking at the intersection of queer culture and performance studies and really thinking about what it means to be embedded in the work and the ways in which rigor and scholarship have been brought to it. Performance practice and the theory-making around it comes as much from the artists within it as it does from those who have borne witness or documented it by writing about it or building scholarship around it.
My thesis supervisor was Simon O’Sullivan, who was the first person to make me understand that you can be both a practicing artist and a deep Deleuze theorist. The idea that theory and practice can be in support of each other rather than competitive interests helped me better understand, too, how I wanted to situate my own work and writing and community building.
ARTnews: As the Kitchen recently announced a big capital campaign, how have the prospects for fundraising—through donors who might otherwise be more inclined to give to museums or more conventional organizations—changed for institutions focused on performance?
Russell: We are in an exciting moment where people are invested in diverse models. Museums are changing, and institutions around the Kitchen are also changing. When I think about priming this amazing institution for the next 50 years, it’s about recognizing that we are investing in models that may not have even been imagined yet. It is part of ongoing discussion about the ways in which we can think about experimental art as an intergenerational and intersectional conversation. Engaging questions of alternative models and histories allows us to open our imagination for what can be instructive about how we can do the collective work of expanding the arts more broadly.
ARTnews: Adrienne, how easy or hard is it at the Whitney to get the kind of resources and support you need for the kinds of programming you do?
Edwards: I have incredible support at the Whitney. And when I say I have support, it means that artists have support. I’m just a pass-through in a way. One of the things I started doing when I came here was commissioning artists to have a few years to be able to make new work. And that has turned out really well. Dave McKenzie was in some ways the first project of the series of commissions, and now we have My Barbarian. After they had been doing this for 20 years, I thought they needed a show. We thought the survey would happen live, but because of the pandemic we sat down and charged ourselves with asking how we could make an exhibition and hold on to the aspects of liveness—to have it be something in time and space that you can enter and leave on your own terms. We ended up taking 20 years of work and putting it into two hours in a video My Barbarian made as a kind of survey of their work, and then tried to create a context where the gallery is made into a theater in a way. We brought in theatrical lighting—from someone who worked with the Wooster Group and in downtown theater—to animate the space so that it’s like a My Barbarian performance. We turned to the tools of exhibition making to try to stage something that was 20 years in the making. We also had the benefit of doing a publication. It takes a lot to ramp up the machine to make a book, and it was a huge vote of confidence from the institution to allow us to do that. We’re also doing a series of performances, and the show is touring to L.A. That characterizes the level of support for what we’re doing here.
ARTnews: Have you noticed changes in terms of museumgoers’ response and receptivity to different kinds of performance work at the Whitney?
Edwards: I am a very big believer in audiences. I don’t assume they don’t understand. I have a lot of faith in their ability to understand and be affected. As a believer in artists and art, I think a lot about certain voices and what those voices need in order to be able to do the next thing that they need to do, knowing that, if the work does what it is geared for and does it well, then audiences will get it. That is my attitude, and it was deeply shaped by working at the Walker Art Center. The Walker shows all kinds of things that you would not necessarily expect an audience to be attuned to. I bring that attitude to the Whitney, and while we have a general audience, our audience has shifted. We primarily had tourists before Covid-19, and now we have primarily a New York–based audience. We also know that is not stable, and with these kinds of audience fluctuations, you have to just turn to the artists and figure out how to get the institution to further their ambitions. The rest will be OK.
ARTnews: Legacy, what are your biggest hopes and aspirations for how you would like to steer the Kitchen differently than it has been steered before?
Russell: I was trying not to clap with glee as Adrienne was speaking about the question of audience, because it is so important—the idea of what it means for institutions, as they change, to be changed by their audiences. Certain assumptions about institutional space—the reason why certain structures are so rigid is because of rigid assumptions about who belongs where. I really appreciate the Kitchen as a site because it is embedded in my own New York history, but it is also an amazing reminder of the ways in which points about audience and participation can constantly be redressed. The Kitchen is a place where there is both a very specific audience and also a vast one. Its mission, across its history, has touched so many disciplines. It engages questions of live programs that are set alongside object-based projects, and these are things that can make the vision of the Kitchen move at a sort of syncopated pace. In its history it has been dictated so much by the structure of the collective as part of its practice, and that is really fantastic.
But this stage, 50 years on, is an opportunity for the institution to ask questions about how to grow beyond the collective model. Being an artist-centered institution is about asking questions about how its value set is tied to audience. What I’m excited about for the next chapters is finding ways to rearticulate that and to expand the Kitchen’s vision in terms of who can participate in this history. Experimental history is not an alienated history. It doesn’t need to be something that is set apart. And, in fact, much of the radical experimental work that has come through the Kitchen has centered so many important histories. We are always thinking about the ways in which questions about the margins can be renegotiated.
ARTnews: What excites you most about what’s on the horizon for the art world at large? There is no shortage of challenges to stare down, but what do you think about in your most optimistic moods?
Russell: I will call on Thelma Golden’s words. She did an amazing conversation recently about the history of the Studio Museum in Harlem and said something that has been ringing in my head when she spoke about the idea that the next museum hasn’t been built yet—that maybe right here, right now, people are building what that future is, and thinking about the ways that, 50 years from now, there will be other sites that challenge and rearticulate and expand. I think it is important to slow down and really reflect on that, because we spend so much time in the arts trying to make legible histories that we are standing in the center of—and at points, it is only time that is going to give us a better perspective. That is my great hope: investing in the future and allowing artists to be instructive on how we get there.
Edwards: What makes me most excited is the fact that we are moving into a place where we are getting comfortable with asking questions. I feel like we’re getting into a sweet spot for a certain kind of uncertainty. It’s not merely that there is a reckoning, or that our institutions are financially in difficult positions, or that there are all these demands in terms of people doing more work with less structure or support. Maybe those things make us get a little bit more comfortable with our discomfort—and a little more comfortable with the need to ask questions. We need to be relentless in questioning everything. Working in a museum, I see this a lot—what has happened with the pending quest to become a public space that is not merely about collections and making exhibitions.We’re here to do a different kind of work.