Talking to Angela Mattox
The role of the curator qua creative professional has been a subject of discourse for decades, resulting in scores of scholarly texts, symposia, and interviews, not to mention exhibitions and projects that self-reflexively experiment with the boundaries of this position. Conversations around the narrower role of the performance curator, on the other hand, have only recently begun to gain momentum, with one of the latest instances of collective, critical examination occurring at the symposium Envisioning the Practice: Montréal International Symposium on Curating the Performing Arts (April 2014), hosted by the Arts Curators Association of Quebec.
Last spring, Andy and I began a dialogue about what this increased attention to the field means and how it reflects or impacts the day-to-day practices of curators. Andy’s essay “The Autodidact’s Guide to Curatorial Practice in Performance” laid the groundwork for our discussions, and from there, we identified a shared interest in delineating the practicalities of the profession through the lenses of those who are practicing within it.
What can we learn from examining the theoretical perspectives, acquired knowledge, and day-to-day experiences of the contemporary curators who are pioneering thoughtful approaches to this emerging field in performing arts festivals, art museums, contemporary art centers, galleries, and alternative, non-traditional contexts? To explore this question, we will be publishing on Culturebot a series of curatorial interviews that record first-hand accounts of the practice and profession of curating performance. By taking this conversational approach, and inviting early career curators (like myself) to speak with an established curator, we hope to compile insights about the field that are as rich as they are realistic—a balance that we believe can usefully inform discourse on this topic as it expands and evolves.
For the first installment of this series, I spoke with Angela Mattox, Artistic Director at PICA (Portland Institute of Contemporary Art), about her career as a performing arts curator since 2003. From her office in Portland, in the weeks leading up to the Time Based Art Festival (T:BA:14), Angela discussed her longstanding involvement in the performing arts, her curatorial values, and her commitment to curating as a means of provoking pressing conversations.
Alison Burstein: To start our discussion, I would like to a get a general sense of what led you to a career in the arts, and if there were any specific moments that pushed your practice towards performance in particular?
Angela Mattox: Performance has been a significant part of my life, ever since childhood. I started out as a dancer very young, training from the time I was about six years old continuously through my late twenties; so the performing arts world shaped a lot about who I was as a person. I think that there were a few distinguishing moments when I determined that my contribution to the performing arts world would probably be better served not as a dancer, and not as a choreographer. I knew that I was going to stay immersed in the field in some way, but that I needed to find a way to be more engaged, and for me that was being more involved with issues and ideas, nurturing artists, and taking part in a broader conversation. Starting out as a practitioner was an integral part of why I think that the performing arts are significant in our world today. And it gave me a very particular insight—a very embodied insight—in terms of what it means to bleed and sweat and be a part of this community in a very different way.
AB: The fact that you have an embodied insight into the field of performance stands out to me, and I’m curious to hear how that has influenced the work you do as a curator.
AM: A couple of values run through my practice as a curator, as an administrator, as a human: notions of generosity, empathy, and respect. Those are three things that I hope are really crucial for all of us in the work we do.
As somebody who knows what it felt like and what it took to create something embodied, to collaborate with fellow human beings, to experience the whole arc of creation—the vulnerability around that process, the pain, the joy, the ecstasy, the camaraderie, the humanity, the failures—I have memories and specific experiences to reference, and so I try to provide a bit more latitude and understanding around the artists that I work with.
I understand that the creative process is a shifting animal, and that there is vulnerability around creation in particular. I try to remind myself in certain moments when working with artists that they might not have answers I need, that things change, ideas shift. I also just understand my role as somebody who is investing in an artist around a project, and I recognize that that level of support is incredibly important, and that notion of showing empathy and understanding and support goes a really long way around certain moments.
In addition, I am a multidisciplinary curator, but most of us come from a particular lineage and then expand out, and I think that it is always good to acknowledge where you come from. I am not defined by dance, but it is the discipline that I have an embodied experience with, and in which I am probably the harshest critic.
At the same time, many artists who have interdisciplinary practices do come through a particular lineage first, and that is a grounding point, and whether they diverge from it, subvert it, change it, whatever, many of them have to acknowledge those roots. So I do the same for my curatorial practice. Having a strong grounding in the body as a practitioner of dance and knowing that field really well has certainly guided some of my curatorial choices, guided the way that I talk about work—maybe I reference the body more than other curators and acknowledge it in a more specific way in terms of all the forms that I look at.
AB: As a multidisciplinary curator you must pull in skills from other aspects of your life and your career training outside your experience in dance. What has been formative for you in developing your abilities to work in this way?
AM: Well, I left out a big chunk of my career when I was speaking earlier.
When I stopped dancing, I really stopped dancing, and I became an arts administrator. I first worked on facilitating grant programs for a fantastic arts organization called Arts International, which is no longer in existence, but it was an organization that was developing different funding opportunities and initiatives to create artistic exchange globally. After that, I started as an Assistant Performing Arts Curator at Yerba Buena Arts Center and I think, like many of us in the field, I learned on the ground by being immersed in my organization, my situation. Point blank, I had no curatorial training.
I had a few different moments in my career where either a lot of people trusted me, or it was a situation in which I had to deliver and there was no other way than to move forward and figure something out. I learned a lot in my first couple of years as a curator, and from those first experiences I determined what skills I need to best support a project; no matter what discipline it is in, I need to have a clear set of expectations, I need to have conversations about our intentions right up front, and the artists and I need to have transparency about a working relationship, since there can be a lot of assumptions that get made.
In terms of multidisciplinary curating, I would also say that any time you have expertise in a certain field, the onus is on you to learn and be as curious as possible about other disciplines that you need to support. I think people need to be voracious about their research, and that became really crucial in earlier parts of my career to just see as much as possible. I had to immerse myself in other theatrical forms and music, and understand that fields operate very differently, values are nuanced, and there are different histories and lineages. I had to figure out how to be really adaptable.
That’s another skill set that I was required to gain: the ability to ask a lot of questions and not make assumptions, while also coming to the table with as much research as possible around somebody’s world. And this relates to the work that I was doing at Arts International, which goes back to some of what I was doing in my academic studies, which was looking at cross-cultural work.
Some of those studies are really important in terms of my curatorial practice now, for example in relation to practices in which artists are exploring their cultural identity through work or exploring the role of performance and society not only through a Western lens. A lot of that work that I was doing in terms of cross-cultural dialogue has been really crucial, because I think that’s always a grounding point for me when I am having an encounter with an artist. It reminds me to not make assumptions about things, because people are working from really different perspectives.
AB: To turn our attention toward the more specific aspects of your curatorial practice, can you discuss some of the criteria or guiding principles that you use when you initiate a curatorial project?
AM: My curatorial point of view has always been intertwined with the institutions that I am working for. So usually there is a pretty clear criteria set for a curatorial team, and then there is nuance about how you actually fulfill that and what the more subjective aspects of it are. So working at PICA, working at Yerba Buena, there are very particular aspects to these organizations’ artistic values, and I would not be working with these organizations if I did not feel completely in line with those values. To get more specific about these parameters we could just insert some of the standard text—“supporting some of the most innovative and bold artists who are working today, who are revealing insights about contemporary society, and who are urgent aesthetically”. Ultimately almost every contemporary arts organization could have the same criteria in writing, but it’s all about what’s beneath the surface in that.
It’s really intuitive in some ways for me—how do you acknowledge your subjectivity in the process, and also acknowledge that it is intuitive? For me I use the word urgency a lot; it is in my head often, and my body often, as I am watching and experiencing a project. Does this demand my time right now? Does it feel urgent?
To me, the notion of urgency is not to say that every project needs to be frenetic or politically oriented. But since I only have a few slots to program, the selections I am making have a really significant impact, not only in my local community but also around the world, and I have to take a lot of responsibility for that. I take a lot of care in thinking about what it means for me to support this project, but I also think a lot about curating people. So that urgency is sometimes about the project, and thinking about how it will resonate at the moment I present it, how it will be urgent in terms of our cultural and aesthetic moment, but I also have to think about what it will mean for my audience. Since all have multiple audiences as presenters this gets quite complicated, but I’m ultimately communicating that I think this is really a crucial project for somebody to experience.
I’m known for curating a lot of really hard works, a lot of awkward pieces, and those notions of the awkward and the uncomfortable are things that I look for. I think about works that really provoke. They might provoke a conversation around our place in the world or in a political or social event, but I feel as strongly about projects that feel equally urgent in terms of personal considerations. I like those kinds of tensions between the political and the personal, between things that are tangible and maybe language-based that reflect on the world that we live in today and works that are not content driven at all but are just as urgent around sensations and the body, or kinesthetic empathy, or things that we can’t understand. I value this balance curatorially. In my work I have a little bit more latitude in curating a festival or curating annual programs, and I can play with unexpected collisions of things together.
There is a lot of curatorial pressure to not always follow the trends of your colleagues, and to carve out a unique pathway, which can be challenging. Going back to the notion of artistic vulnerability, I think the act of curating can be a really vulnerable one. This gets acknowledged occasionally, but for curators it is more important to acknowledge their power in a situation. So that is something that I want to more powerfully mention, that it is really awkward and scary to put forward your body of artistic choices. I am trying to disrupt and create change and provoke, and these are all quite uncomfortable things to do in a culture and society. Though I feel very firmly that that is my role, the act of doing it, and living through it, and knowing when certain projects fail, and knowing that I’ve created some of these awkward fissures in a moment are uncomfortable phases to go through. It’s such a part of the work, and I think it doesn’t get any easier if you are trying to make bold choices.
AB: In confronting this curatorial vulnerability over time, have you developed any particular ways of discussing or addressing what it means for you or for the context of a program?
AM: I made a pretty conscious decision to publicly be more honest when I’m going through those moments of vulnerability. I want the audience to be a part of that conversation, so for example in a pre-show talk, I sometimes try to reveal who I am in this process, and where I am in this moment, as a way to involve other people, and as a way to acknowledge the complexities behind it, and implicate us all in it in a different way. My act of publicly revealing it might be counterintuitive, since I think people want me to have one hundred percent clarity on all my decisions and tell them that the work is amazing. But I think we are in a world where we need to have more transparency and be more full human beings in the work that we do. And in performing arts curatorial work I might not always have opportunities to see a piece twenty times like I would with a static work, so I could still still wrestling with my understanding of the work even as my audience is doing the same thing.
I don’t want people to not trust me, and I do have very strong intentions, but with performance work people need to understand that there are multiple ways to engage with it, and it can sometimes help to have collective conversation around it, or sometimes you just need to wrestle with it alone for a long time. This openness may or may not be useful, but it has been a tack that I have taken to try to generate some more real conversations with people and get them to think about the humanity in these efforts, because that’s what I need for people to engage.
AB: To continue with this topic of engaging audiences, can you talk about how you conceive of your responsibility to audiences and discuss what methods for connecting with audiences you have found effective?
AM: So much of my work has to do with thinking about my audience. I think that on one hand, certainly here at PICA, I’m trying to revitalize structures in which we have more formal opportunities to connect with audiences, but the informal and the formal need to exist contiguously. It’s like the informal, the formal, and then the thing.
With the actual art thing, it’s all about the artist and how they want to construct the situation, and my job is to facilitate to the best of my ability the scenario for what they’re trying to accomplish and be as supportive of that as possible.
In terms of how I can help push forward these different ways of engaging with people, I try to thoughtfully construct some of the more formal moments. I think they are important, and I think that we miss them sometimes; in some cases we just want someone to provide expertise and context, and I’m a firm believer in that. So I’ve instituted in the last year new and different kinds of workshops and formal experiences for people to get content, but these can only exist when there are these more informal opportunities as well. So if we pull together something like a symposium, I think just as much about the constructed, didactic moments as I do about the food we are eating, and where we are eating and drinking, and I make sure that we create places where people feel comfortable together.
In general, the trust of an audience is something that is at the heart of the work that we do. I’m in my office right now, looking at my wall, and I have this big brown butcher paper with the grid of the T:BA festival and a million post-it notes on it. And as I start curating, I put different spaces and artists up and it really helps me to start mapping. And what I start doing is mapping the audience’s trajectory and thinking through questions like, if I were to experience this piece—you have to think quite practically with performing arts curation— that is two hours of an audience going through this particular experience, in this space, at this time. What am I going to ask them to do from there? Can I ask them to go see this other thing? And then over the arc of ten days, what kind of accumulation of encounters is this person going to have? And so as I map experiences that idea of trust comes into play.
We physically and emotionally can only go through so much, so if I’m pulling together a festival that has a lot of really personal or intimate work, that takes a different kind of energy from people. How much down time do I need to give people as a result? For me, again, it’s about creating the environment for things to thrive, and so if I put too much of one kind of work, then people might actually rebel against it. At a certain point people will stop trusting your choices, if they see enough projects that they don’t think are artistically strong enough based on their criteria, or if the projects push them and they are too uncomfortable in certain ways. I can’t provoke to the degree that they don’t trust me, and the institution, and the work that we’re doing. They have to keep coming back. I need them; they are vital.
AB: It seems like the idea of trust that you were just discussing with regard to audiences is equally relevant to the relationship between an artist and a curator. How does trust factor into your interactions with artists?
AM: Like any relationship, it’s about action, and it’s about how your words match up to your actions. So relationships work when you’re clear, communicative, and honest, and when sometimes you say hard things, and when the other person can trust you in action and see you deliver. That’s the only way that it works. So that just takes time. And in terms of trust, I generally won’t take on the most ambitious and challenging project that the artist has ever pursued without having worked with them in a different type of capacity. It’s pretty obvious to state it, but again I’m a pretty practical curator—I really believe in the poetics of the practical. Sometimes you have to have honest conversations with artists and mutually determine what is going to be the best first introduction of their work. And if there is a lot there and there is a reason to work together again and the trust is starting to build, then it becomes really intuitive and exciting to go further and maybe engage in a project that pushes the institution and the artist in new ways. But in that case there is that foundation of trust, and you understand that if something goes wrong, you have each other’s backs.
Sometimes while working with artists I talk about the ways that I think we will be able to serve them really well, and then acknowledge areas that we are not as good at so that they have a heads up about it. And it’s not to say that I’m not working on certain areas, but it’s stating “these are some things in this organization that are going to be tricky. You should know this, and we need to determine how we are going to work with this.” So honesty builds trust, and I think trust builds a platform for projects to go in a more aggressive territory and build something potentially more interesting.
AB: We’ve covered a lot of ground regarding your own work, so I’d like to close on a broader, more speculative note: how would you describe the role of the performance or performing arts curator in our current moment, and how do you see this role transforming as the field continues to professionalize and expand over time?
AM: One thing that I think is really fantastic that has already resulted from the professionalization and expansion is that it has raised the bar and elevated our conversation. It has put more responsibility on this position in the field, and called for more accountability in terms of articulating what we’re doing, and how we’re doing it.
In the United States, I feel such a responsibility to serve the artists that are working. While we have more of a professionalization and we have more people aspiring to be performing arts curators, I’m hopeful that those people will also have the ambition, passion, and expertise to start things on their own, because there are very few institutions at this point where experimental practice can thrive and survive.
I also think that the ways we are connecting globally are imperative right now. And it’s such challenging work. We need to be globally aware of artistic trends, aesthetic moments, international political events— it’s a United States problem. I believe we will shrivel up and die, artistically, in this country, if we are not connecting to what’s happening around the world. So the aim of building authentic relationships with other cultures is definitely something that is guiding my initiative-based work here at Yerba Buena. It’s going to take a long time, but that notion of exchange in the work that we do—exchange across disciplines, exchange from artist to audience, exchange amongst artists working across different parts of the world who share values—is really important.
In the bigger picture, I think what we are really doing is illuminating and galvanizing and advancing the role of the artists as leaders in society. We are showing that artists have something to communicate about the world that is integral to the society that we want to live in. That’s why we’re in it.
AB: That is a powerful closing thought! Thank you being so generous with your time and your insights.