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?