Interview: PICA Artistic Director, Angela Mattox

Angela Mattox, incoming PICA Artistic Director

On Friday, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with the new artistic director for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA), Angela Mattox. Even as PICA is working furiously to prepare for the 2011 Time-based Art Festival, Mattox was in town to meet a few folks and have a look around. Coming to us from Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, Mattox is wasting no time: Already on Saturday night, she was out with the PICA crew at the 12128 Boat for Carlos Gonzalez’s performance. Mattox’s first day on the job is September 1.

In person, Mattox is dynamic and passionate, smart as hell, and friendly. First impression: She’s going to be a force to be reckoned with. We talked about engagement, year-round programming, and what it means to have the word institute in PICA’s name.

Lisa Radon: From many accounts, you’ve rejuvenated and strengthened performance at Yerba Buena. Here, you are beginning at another institution. I wonder how you think about the moment you began at Yerba Buena, what the situation was that you found, and how you were able to make happen what you did there. And of course I’m interested in how that experience informs how you are thinking about your new position as artistic director at PICA.

Angela Mattox: At Yerba Buena, I had to look at the local impact, to assess what was happening there, and to ask what was the vision for performance, what was pushing forward an artistic point of view. I wanted to focus on artistic priorities, and I think it was important to me that performance live up to the other disciplines at Yerba Buena. I asked: what does it mean to invest in artists? And I established a clear program to do so, so that it was not just that they were in our facility, but that we did the research to select and invest in certain artistic projects.

It was important to invest in commissioning new work. It took some time to build up, but eventually we took some leadership in identifying the most compelling work, how it was landing in the facility and more broadly in the community. Our main charge was collaboration across disciplines. There was a level of investment, of risk taking with artists who were not being presented elsewhere. Unexpected collision, and a not anticipated mix of artists, conversation among artists and disciplines — these are the kinds of things that we were after. Of course, the main question is, how do you support artistic expression? And at Yerba Buena, the constraint was that it was a facility-based organization; there were theaters that I had to program for, and some work didn’t fit the mold. There were some opportunities to address the relation of the spectator to the work vs. the conventional proscenium. PICA is really able to do that, does do that a lot with TBA.

I am a firm believer in supporting provocative, sophisticated work, but I don’ t want the audience to feel as if it were being pushed away. I like the idea of being welcoming, of a kind of generosity such that we are inviting a response. It is an invitation to engage.

I think I am not the only one who feels that while we’ve very much appreciated the contributions Cathy Edwards and Mark Russell have made as guest artistic directors for the TBA Festival, we are thrilled to see PICA have a full-time artistic director who will be based in Portland and integrated in the community year-round.

 The whole field has been watching PICA. It’s been ahead of the curve in many ways, and the guest curator model has made sense for PICA. The guest curator model emphasizes one person’s aesthetic and sense of curiosity, which can be interesting. But I’m interested in curating beyond my point of view. Part of this is getting to know Portland. I want to know: What do people care about here? What is this culture, what is its character? How are things going to land here?

At Yerba Buena, I had to get to know the Bay Area. You can’t push until you know what matters here. All of this has to come into play when setting artistic direction at Yerba Buena. I look forward to being present here in Portland. I’ve moved a lot in my professional life. And I’ve been really impressed at the openness and generosity here. People are excited to meet, and it’s been really good.

As you’ll be here, on the ground year-round, do you have thoughts about expanding PICA’s programming throughout the year?

 I am thinking about fresh strategies. The TBA festival is a culmination, a dynamic collision, but because it’s a festival, you don’t get the chance to go deep with an artist or a project. I’d like the audience to be able to get to know a project or an artist earlier, to facilitate that kind of engagement. I think about programming as building out in concentric circles from the work. I’m also interested in intimate strategies in contrast with the epic, in face-to-face contact, going a little deeper, sitting around a table. I’m interested in art and the everyday, about it being part of everyday life, connecting with people over daily rituals. And after TBA, there is an interesting moment for response. I think we can be savvy about finding ways to maintain visibility.

I am wondering what you think about the word “institute” in the title of this organization and what that word implies for programming. I’m thinking about the workshops, panels, and so forth at TBA, but also the Resource Room and other opportunities.

You can’t program unless you know how something resonates in a community. So the question is, how do you facilitate that engagement? And it’s especially important around work PICA does that provokes, to create dialogue ranging from the didactic to inquiry-based engagement, to develop the context around the work so that people can develop their own opinions. I believe in creating a strong platform for the artist’s voice. And I’m interested as well in how the work matters in a local, national, international context, through the lens of other artists, professionals, critics.

At Yerba Buena, we received funding for a pilot for strategies for dance engagement, and we decided to target Yerba Buena’s visual art viewer base. We realized that this sophisticated audience needed help to be able to engage dance. This is basically a think tank that has worked for a year and a half to prototype an integrated approach with multiple modes including the didactic, but also creating opportunity for inquiry-based engagement, and I, as a former dancer, was also interested in how do you physicalize the experience, feel what it means. For a performance of Pacific Islander dance, we experimented with a pre-performance centering ritual, helping to create an aware and active spectator. People come with experience, history, expertise. So, how do we tap into that so they can get more from the experience? It’s an ongoing project.

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