PICA's Big Surprise

Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds Heads for the Land Down Under

I t was the news I had been waiting for. It had to be. Last Friday, I received an email from PICA marked "Top Secret." It contained a press release with a "strict embargo" attached, swearing me to secrecy until after a press conference Monday afternoon. My mind raced through the possibilities. PICA's gallery was reopening? The whole closure and release of Stuart Horodner was all a big hoax? Unfortunately, it wound up being one of those situations where you know you should feel happy for someone, but end up feeling threatened instead. The press release stated that Kristy Edmunds, the ever-charming and easygoing Executive and Artistic Director of PICA received an appointment as Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival for 2005 and 2006. Not exactly the news I had been hoping for.

I found a gallery-director friend with whom I frequently bemoan and gossip the art world. There was a spring in my step thanks to the juicy embargoed news I had to drop. "You hear about this thing over at PICA?" I asked, waiting for the easy set-up. "What? About Kristy going to Australia?" the friend asked. "Oh. Yeah." The director laughed. "You mean the news that they're trying to keep as a huge secret that everybody knows about anyway?" I nodded yes and wondered why nobody ever tells secrets to an art critic.

Within the hour I had received an email from an Aussie journalist, asking if Edmunds was a controversial curator, as Melbourne is "down-home conservative." I wondered whether or not to tell her about the House of Cunt, but decided to ignore her inquiry.

The next day, the Oregonian leaked the story, despite the embargo, which was apparently a strict term of the Aussies'.

The three or four of us who showed up for the press conference anyway learned the following: Kristy's two-year appointment has an option of extending through a third year. It's a three-week festival with 27 full-time staffers, as opposed to PICA's nine. Their budget nears $10 million, versus $800,000 allotted for TBA Fest 2004, and Kristy will not alternate six-months residencies, but rather jet-set back and forth, maintaining both fronts.

What, you might ask, about the leadership of PICA? Surely Kristy, its founder and "charismatic leader" wasn't so expendable that she could be gone for half the year to no effect? The sub-theme of the day was that, yes, in fact she could. It was stressed that with their strong Board of Directors and staff, PICA could sustain itself, and that this was "the natural evolution of the organization." They repeated the last phrase enough that I wondered if it was a new logo, but I never understood what was so natural about it. The diminished hands-on role of the artistic director?

The other mantra of the day, of course, was that this was going to be good for Portland, though they were vague on this point as well. It's a professional coup for Edmunds, no doubt, and PICA will have great relations with countless Australian arts organizations, yes. But now PICA has no art gallery, no visual arts curator, a visual arts program in critical condition, and an artistic director whose head is elsewhere.

One fact that I found baffling was that PICA reported an unprecedented boom in membership at the end of 2003, after dropping the bomb about suspending visual arts. They chalked the surge up to local "belief in the vision" of PICA, and not the waiver of the three-dollar admission. But still--an institution removes integral services and sees a raise in financial support?

PICA has a Midas touch when it comes to spinning news. I have been shocked at how easily people swallowed the news about the visual arts scene being restructured. This news of Kristy's appointment doesn't carry the same direct impact on the structure of PICA, but tell me if this sounds like a good deal to you. "This is a reflection on (the Portland arts community)," Edmunds said. "All of us benefited from the investment we've made in the arts in this region that allow us international connections. So if the local region says 'Gosh, we're not losing something--there's not a threat, there's not a risk,' but instead looks at the reality of the situation, we are gaining another set of relationships with another international city."

So remember, kids--stay in the reality by repeating "Gosh, we're not losing something. There's not a threat. There's not a risk." Soon enough we may all be having Australian pen pals thanks to the investment we've made in arts in this region. CHAS BOWIE