Cathy Edwards, Coast to Coast Curator
Cathy Edwards programmed the first professional engagement I ever performed in New York City – it was the inaugural season of the newly renovated Dance Theater Workshop on 19th Street in Chelsea – fall 2002 (Kathy Westwater’s Dark Matter). I then had the great pleasure of working with her 7 years later as a producer when I was general manager at the Mark Morris Dance Group – we were colleagues bringing one of the most beautiful of Mark’s dances, Dido and Aeneas, to the stage for New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas – admittedly a gargantuan task. When I was asked to profile a curator I most admire, she immediately came to mind – brilliant, savvy, cutting edge, and one of the most wholehearted people I’ve met. What follows is a selection of questions and answers that Cathy and I exchanged prior to her departure for the whirlwind of APAP.
Can you describe your programmatic vision, and your (professional) aesthetic? In what realms of work do you find yourself most interested?
I think of myself as a curator of live performance in multiple disciplines. I am working in so many different arenas, from New Haven to Portland, from world music to classic theater to video installation to experimental dance, and I’m really enjoying the chance to see and hear a range of work that I didn’t have the opportunity to pay as much attention to during my years at DTW when I most single-mindedly focused on new dance. Most profoundly, I am interested in championing artists whose work is experimental, progressive and embraces emerging ideas and forms.
How did you come to be a programmer of dance, initially? Were you a performer?
I was briefly a really poor student of ballet as a kid, and then of modern dance and jazz dance as a teen. But I was embarassingly not able to bring my intentions and my body together. I have always been in awe of those who can! But I was a reader and writer and grew up in a house surrounded by art and music, and was always looking for ideas in art, also always willing to be transported into other realms. I encountered real modern dance for the first time as a teenager seeing Alvin Ailey, and I thought Revelations was phenomenal. I literally didn’t know it was possible to evoke so much feeling and beauty and power in a dance. I loved it so much. In college at Yale I didn’t encounter dance at all, and it was really happenstance and a desire to work in the arts that brought me to Movement Research in my early 20s after graduating from college. I had a similar experience seeing Jennifer Monson in an early Movement Research program as I did to Alvin Ailey — I just didn’t know that world existed. It was like a door was opened to a room in the house that I hadn’t even imagined was there. I loved the visceral, transgressive and thinking nature of that work, the artists I met at that time. It was incredible to be a young person and see Holly Hughes (at P.S. 122) for the first time– the funniest and most outrageous thing I had ever seen– or Dan Hurlin (at Dance Theater Workshop) — opaque but really interesting — or all the artists whose shows I just kind of wandered into. I saw Susan Marshall’s work (at BAM) and thought it was captivating and luscious and so beautiful. The Movement Research offices at that time were based at the Ethnic Folk Arts Center, and our dance studio was right outside the office door—so I was surrounded by the Stephen Petronio Company and the Bebe Miller Company rehearsing, and artists teaching class, and it was inspiring to see work being made, slowly, day by day. I was really changed by the work I saw, the artists I met, the realization that I could work with incredible people who were committed to making their lives in art and that I could be an effective partner to them getting this work made and out into the world.
Everyone wants to become a programmer, right? It seems like a really amazing job. Is there a series of logical steps? What’s it actually like?
It is a great job. It involves a lot of nights and weekends, and that can be hard depending on the phase of life you are in, and where you want to spend your personal time. The great part of the job is working with artists who are investigating ideas and craft at the edge of their field and creating profound experiences that alter the fabric of art, and aesthetics, and (for me, sometimes!) the world we live in. Partnering with those artists to create a platform for the public to interact with and experience their work is really exciting and it is not the same year after year, because art-making and experiences of art are so complex. The thing to avoid is the feeling that you are buying and selling a product. I never want to be a “talent buyer”! And there are jobs like that. From my perspective, you need to understand art, and be able to see where artists fit into contemporary artistic trends and discourse, and to understand your own taste as well as important timely aesthetic debates. You also need to be creative and imaginative in terms of creating frames—metaphoric or physical—for that art. On the practical side, you need to be able to raise money in order to support those artists, and you need to participate in creating informed marketing plans in order to get audiences to see those artists, and you need to engage with the public and key individuals directly in order to contextualize and inspire engagement with those artists, and you need to be able to apply for visas, and understand how projects fit (or don’t fit) into venues, and create budgets, and all that practical stuff as well. It’s a mixture of heady and real-world. I think logical steps involve gaining experience in any or all of those practical aspects of programming, and moving forward with championing some projects or artists you really believe in– either by producing them, or writing about them, or raising money for them. I guess it is just about “doing” in partnership with a strong sense of the artistic ideas you believe in and are excited about.
What has been the most deeply satisfying curatorial, or programmatic, coup for you?
I have been working at this too long to have one answer. I have had a lot of deeply satisfying moments. I have really specific tastes that relate to rigorous attention to ideas and innovative aesthetics– but they also are broad– so there is a lot to be thrilled with. I really loved the DTW season I put together in 2005-06, I felt incredibly proud to be associated with that group of artists, and I do remember thinking “wow, I did it” when we squeezed the Meg Stuart/Benoit Lachambre/Hahn Rowe piece into the theater and I loved it even more than I had when I saw it in Europe for the first time. There were a lot of great projects that year, a lot of artists I had the chance to work with and have maintained really fruitful relationships with. I am still feeling euphoric about how much I enjoyed the 2010 TBA Festival program– I was sitting in the theater watching Maria Hassabi and Cedric Andrieux for their second and third shows, thinking, what am I doing here? I should be taking a break and having a drink! But I really didn’t want to leave the theater, I loved that whole festival. And, I was so happy to bring Big Dance Theater and National Theater of the USA to Arts & Ideas this past June. I can’t wait to see Big Dance’s new piece, which I will have the chance to see during Arts Presenters. I love being immersed in a profound aesthetic experience, and festivals really lend themselves to that. But it’s also great to be at a place like DTW, where the artists arrived one at a time, and I felt I could be attentive to each artist’s experience of the theater, of their piece, of the resonance with the audience.
Do you have a professional lineage, a mentor, an idol, a hero, a model on which you have based your career?
In terms of a professional lineage, I always think of the people I have had the most long-term professional relationships with, in really practical ways that are inspiring and taught me so much. For example, at DTW, David White, who created so many opportunities for me to learn and program and was always interested in talking everything through, talking about the why as well as the how. And Guy Yarden, who I worked with for many years at Movement Research and was such a great partner in terms of sustaining and building an organizational infrastructure, teaching me about an artist’s perspective. I think being hired by Richard Elovich at Movement Research, a practicing artist and an activist who always clearly saw art as part of the real world, had a big influence as well. But I have found so many of my colleagues to be really valuable sources of information, learning and inspiration. I learn from a lot of people, all the time. Many of those colleagues are younger than me, and I am fine with that!
Who are the programmers of tomorrow and what is being done to identify and/or cultivate them?
This is a good question. I am sure there is no one answer to it. But I have been inspired by the do-it-yourself presenters who often double up in their roles– Brian Rogers, Ben Pryor, Sara Coffey, Ron Berry, Rachel Bernsen. I don’t think we are doing a great job within institutions of cultivating the programmers of tomorrow, largely because of staffing reductions and shrinking budgets– all those jobs have been cut, and it’s harder for institutions to invest in developing younger staff, either by hiring and cultivating them, or by growing programming opportunities so that they can create their own series and projects. I tend to see the programmers of tomorrow moving forward, putting things together based on their interests, their relationships, the spaces that they have available to them.
I’m reading an intensely meticulous biography of Lincoln Kirstein at the moment (The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein by Martin Duberman), inspired by the way he was so passionate about bringing ballet to America, and it has made me curious about producers, impresarios, etc. (Diaghilev too): how they “find” artists, nurture their careers, provide resources, introduce them to collaborators. From this I have several questions: What initially inspired you to become a producer? Has the nature of your work changed? Do you find that you are able to connect artists with each other, bring about art that didn’t exist before? What is the most important part of what you do?
I find I respond most to you talking about reading the Lincoln Kirstein biography. I just want to talk about books right now! I loved Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.” . I read the book in the early fall, then right away saw the documentary film about her, “Dream of Youth” made by Steven Sebring, and then went to hear her read live from the book and sing some songs and play some guitar. I loved the endless possibilities of “Just Kids”, being immersed in the story of New York in that time and place, of becoming an artist and finding art in the world. I also just read Jennifer Egan’s novel “A Visit from the Good Squad”, which I loved, and has a music backbone to it– again, art as a way of encountering the world. It’s a great read, and really experimental in the way it is written, too. Other books that I picked up recently and really liked include the “A Short Life of Trouble: 40 Years in the New York Art World,” the autobiography of Marcia Tucker, founder of the New Museum. Another great story about will and art and values and life.
Do you read reviews? What value does the press have for you, and do you think it serves artists?
I read reviews, yes. Except when I am in the middle of a festival! I’ll generally save them all for a few weeks afterward, unless there is something I really need to read because everyone is talking about it, or something so great that it ends up right in front of my nose. I am not sure how to describe the stock I take of reviews. I think I have been in the field for long enough that I have a good sense of the primary critics in my field, and what their perspectives tend to be. I take reviews seriously on their own terms, but I don’t use them as my primary way of evaluating an artist. Often I am really interested in how a critic writes, or in understanding what his or her perspective is, and each critic brings different strengths to their job as well.
What does APAP mean for you? In other words, how will you spend the time you have here? What are you looking forward to?
It’s not really just APAP to me. It is partly the conference– and I do spend some time at the Hilton, attending sessions and meeting with agents and managers, all of that. But it’s also Under the Radar, and American Realness, and COIL, and Global Fest, and Winter Jazz Fest, and lots of opportunities to see artists and performances I have been interested in seeing. This year I am really trying to prioritize seeing work instead of having meetings, but that shifts from year to year depending on how desperate I am in a practical sense to wrap some projects up. This year I am more open-ended, and also very excited about seeing some shows that I missed this year in NYC. Of course I am disappointed (already) because there are some shows I really wanted to see and just can’t fit into my schedule. But essentially it is a research trip, time to meet with people, see work, talk to potential partners about some international projects, engage with colleagues and make plans for the future. And hopefully to catch up with some great shows that I missed during the year that are being remounted.
How many shows do you see on average? Do you try to see everyone live? How much do you travel?
It would be very rare (but probably not impossible) for me to make a commitment to present an artist without ever having seen their work live. But once I have seen an artist’s work live, and have a sense of who they are and what they are working on, I feel a lot more comfortable looking at video footage of a show. I travel a fair amount but it all depends who you talk to, many of my colleagues travel a lot more. I think it’s less appealing to me since I have two kids to be traveling all the time. And these past three years, a lot of my travel has been to Portland to work with the PICA staff. But I do enjoy spending time in other contexts, seeing unfamiliar artists, attending other festivals. I learn a lot and it’s really engaging.
How do you stave off feelings of boredom, jadedness, of “there’s no money”, “dance is dying”, “we have no audience” – perhaps what might be a perception of some, though certainly not all, presenters?
It has been great to be able to work these past few years in an expanded field– music, theater, and also dance of course. That has definitely staved off the bored and jaded feeling! There is just too much great art in the world to feel that way.