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MASS MoCA Names Kristy Edmunds As Second Director In Museum History

A white woman with short silver hair and earrings in a white buttoned shirt smiles into the camera.
Courtesy of Kristy Edmunds
Kristy Edmunds.

For only the second time in its history, the North Adams, Massachusetts art museum MASS MoCA has named a new director.

Founding director Joe Thompson left MASS MoCA last fall, prompting a 10-month international search to replace him.

Thursday, the museum announced its new leader: Kristy Edmunds, most recently Executive and Artistic Director of UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance.

“She has a depth of experience in both performance arts and official arts and in their innovative combination, and that in and of itself is a key mark of what Joe created at Mass MOCA," said MASS MoCA Board of Trustees chair Timur Galen. “She has broad international experience, into experience on both the East and the West coast as well as abroad. And so she has the ability to take the MASS MoCA platform and project really nationally and internationally. I would say at the same time, and this is a very important criteria to the selection committee, she has an understanding of the relationship between an arts organization and its community and how what the synergies can be between the two. The community development and economic development in North Adams in the region has been a fundamental part of MASS MoCA’s mission, and that's a core value to her and her work as well.”

“So, at UCLA I run what's called UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, and it is a large curatorial program working across jazz music contemporary classical music forms, new music forms, dance, theatre, literary, there's a lot of that," said Edmunds. “I feel like I bring a lot of energy. I live the work, I live the mission. I listen quite deeply but I move quickly. I arrive at decisions after getting enough input to really understand where there’s synergy, and then I start moving in that. I feel like I'm an authentic human being. And I don't shy away from a challenge.”

Before she began at UCLA in 2011, Edmunds worked in Australia as Artistic Director for the Melbourne International Arts Festival and as the Head of the School of Performing Arts and Deputy Dean at the Victorian College of the Arts at the University of Melbourne.

Like Thompson, Edmunds knows what it’s like to be a founding director of a fledging art institution. She created the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in 1995.

“It was occurring kind of right around when MASS MoCA and Joe and the board there were getting off the ground," she told WAMC. "So, you know, it's everything from having the largest dreams possible but no idea how you're going to get to them, and motivating a community to jump on board with you and see the value in what you could possibly make. And if you can hold a future clearly in your mind, and really work towards the integrity of it with people, then things start to lift and change and things that you thought were impossible, and everybody at the time thought were impossible, starts to actually show itself as utterly possible.”

MASS MoCA’s new director takes over after a bruising 2020, with sweeping layoffs and the museum temporarily shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“For me, I think one of the first things is, let's just take a step back and make a recognition here that not only has the pandemic but the movement for Black lives and the kind of glaring exposure of inequities across gender and inclusion, all kinds of things have gone on and have really rocked, in many ways, our entire national arts ecology and cultural ecology," Edmunds told WAMC. "So part of what is really authentically true and at play, no matter where we are in the country, is the restoration, trying to recover and restore. So, first and foremost to me is making sure that I'm helping relieve some of that heavy lift.”

The 56-year-old also takes charge of an institution with a newly unionized staff.

“I absolutely have experience working with unions and represented staff on a number of fronts," said Edmunds. "And, you know, it's a really important relationship. It's a really important moment, and I think it's certainly not adversarial. I think it's going to be a great way forward for everyone.”

Edmunds says she’s already gotten a call from North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard welcoming her to the community. She starts in October.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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