posted by laura becker
there were about 75 people in the w+k atrium as i arrived for kristy edmunds’ lecture on sunday. kristy and mark russell sat down in the PICA red chairs (there is a shade of red called PICA red, isn’t there?) and informed us that they would mix up the format and turn it into a q&a so that kristy didn’t keep repeating what she has probably been saying a lot of this week, and so the audience could actually learn something they might otherwise never know.
mark asked kristy, “do you remember the moment PICA started? what was that moment?” and kristy began to explain Portland’s contemporary art history. once upon a time there was PCVA – the Portland Center for Visual Arts, and that was a seminal organization for presenting contemporary work here and really started and helped build an audience for it. But it went under. Kristy said that she had been working at the Portland Art Museum for Art on the Edge – their contemporary art program, until March 1995, and her resignation caused quite a reaction. Kristy felt “a profound responsibility” to this growing audience to keep the momentum going, and when she realized she herself had the identity and the access to do it, it became her own obligation. And that was “the moment”. Sixteen “passionate patrons” formed the founding board for PICA and raised $16, 800 for Kristy to get started. With a tone of gratitude, Kristy recalled that group’s “profound amount of generosity and risk”.
After describing PICA’s skeletal administrative start, Kristy and Mark discussed funding at this time, which was, simply “a mess” thanks to the fall-out from the culture wars and the NEA diverting away its funding mechanisms and leaving no financial foundation behind. Kristy’s challenges (which she was too young and naive to ever view as crises), besides fundraising for an organization nobody knew about (which led her to hire staff for marketing before trying to fundraise) included “proving the gaps”. She remembered a foundation meeting when she was told “no” with the reason being – “you are not theatre, you are not dance, you are not music, you are not visual arts, you’re something that’s all of those. well, we’ve already got one museum, Imago theatre which does contemporary stuff, and lots of dance and music, so I think we’re all set.” Kristy explained that she tackled one thing after another by “steering through the icebergs”. Probably the biggest iceberg, of course, was September 11th and its fragments are still floating in everyone’s path. The organization started “going down” and Kristy bravely (and wisely) made that fact public (because the public responded – with their faith in Kristy and PICA and with their checkbooks). It was then that she started contemplating PICA’s future as a festival model, which provided easier ways to describe and fundraise for the organization and its major program and identity. When asked to list PICA’s early highlights, Kristy refused to list exhibits or performances, and instead referred to making connection with architects and developers – when PICA’s reach rippled out beyond the arts community.
Perhaps the juiciest vignette was Kristy’s story of her meeting with Dan Wieden, who offered her a job at the agency to help connect his advertising world with contemporary art aesthetics. Turning down a salary “three times PICA’s annual budget”, Kristy explained to Dan that the corporate model wouldn’t work because she had to stay “public” for her constituents, but it would be even more exciting to see what could result from a business and an arts nonprofit collaborating and instigating each other. Dan, with the generous attitude he’s famous for, replied “Well what do you need because we need to get going”. And the collaboration was born.
Over and over again in Kristy’s discussion, PICA, and even PICA as an extension of Kristy, was referred to as “a connector”. Connecting artists with each other, connecting beyond the arts community, connecting to business, connecting the past to the future…and as Kristy explained PICA’s past to Mark, now one of the stewards of its future, that connection was evident, and somewhat bittersweet. Eloquent and modest as always, Kristy thanked the audience for being a part of PICA, for saying “yes” and for keeping it going. When asked to compare working for PICA with being an artist herself, Kristy answered “PICA was the most important installation that I would ever make.”