There's a long tradition of beauty pageant winners coming to Los Angeles to make their way in the creative world, but not by the route taken by Kristy Edmunds, who will be announced Tuesday as the next artistic and executive director of the financially struggling UCLA Live performance series.
Edmunds, who has been hired to program three seasons starting with 2012-13, made her name in Portland, Ore., as a builder of new contemporary arts programs. Her four years as artistic director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival in Australia extended her reputation as an impresario with impressive contacts and a flair for the adventurous and the offbeat.
She begins May 1; during her first year or so at UCLA she will continue to serve as consulting artistic director for a new performance program at New York City's Park Avenue Armory.
A filmmaker, choreographer, printmaker and installation artist in her own right, Edmunds, 45, spent her formative years in Washington state, Idaho (where she was a Miss Coeur d'Alene at the age of 16) and Montana, then made her name as a driving force in shaping the contemporary arts scene in Portland. In Melbourne she became a lightning rod, with each annual festival rekindling debate over whether she'd gone overboard with her penchant for presenting avant-garde work and unfamiliar artists.
Edmunds is well aware that her respected predecessor at UCLA Live, David Sefton, resigned suddenly last May precisely because his bosses at the university, faced with dwindling audiences and donations, abandoned the annual International Theater Festival that had been a hallmark of his 10-year tenure. The current season offers 43 performances, down from 85.
Speaking from her home in Melbourne, Edmunds said that she had to decide whether the UCLA Live search committee that courted her was merely saying the right things about the university's aspirations for the program, or were committed to backing lofty talk with the fundraising needed to support ambitious seasons.
"I feel very satisfied that there is truth underpinning the rhetoric," Edmunds said.
Christopher Waterman, dean of UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture, said theater will be back in the mix in Edmunds' inaugural season, but not in the 2011-12 season to be announced next month (which Waterman programmed as interim artistic director).
Whatever she comes up with, Waterman said, "it's got to be sustainable" economically. "We spent a lot of time talking to Kristy about that." He acknowledges that California's ongoing fiscal woes spell further uncertainty for an $8-million program budget in which university funding covers about 15% of expenses. But Waterman sees the new UCLA Live director as a potentially transformative figure: "She's really, really smart and deeply practical, and there's something about the way she engages people. There's no elitism in her at all. You know you're in the room with someone who has enormous intelligence and charisma and charm, but she isn't showing off."
The job, Edmunds said, boils down to "how do you sustain something that's taken some hard knocks … but that has a chance to have a very reinvigorating [future]? I'm actually pretty inspired, but that doesn't mean I'm not actively aware of the challenges and difficulties."
Edmunds majored in film at Montana State University, which she attended on a volleyball scholarship, then earned a masters degree in playwriting and theater direction from Western Washington University. In 1990 she joined the Portland Art Museum to curate a new contemporary series, "Art on the Edge." Five years later, she struck out on her own and began building the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art from scratch.
"Kristy sort of burst on the scene and she really captured the imagination of the funding community and other presenters," said Olga Garay, executive director of Los Angeles' Department of Cultural Affairs, who as head of arts grantmaking for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation evaluated Edmunds' work in Portland. "She has a really fresh eye for talent. She's very respected by artists, and that's half the battle. People really understand her passion for the work, and that she'll do whatever it takes to make projects happen."
Melbourne wasn't totally foreign turf for Edmunds when she arrived there in 2004 — it's the hometown of her partner of more than 10 years, dancer-choreographer Ros Warby, who tours internationally, and their two sons, ages 2 and 6.
But, accustomed to being a critics' darling — the Oregonian newspaper had described her as "the charismatic, brilliant Edmunds," possessed of "a near-Clintonian capacity for campaigning and winning adherents to her cause" — she learned Down Under what it was like to face slings and arrows, if not boomerangs.
While programming such luminaries as Philip Glass, choreographer Bill T. Jones and productions from avant-garde theater directors Robert Wilson and Ariane Mnouchkine, she was faulted for skipping the customary orchestral concerts, opera and classic plays, and for lagging behind the box-office results of competing festivals in Sydney and Adelaide (where, coincidentally, Sefton has been hired as artistic director).
But the critics were largely placated by improved ticket sales during her last two festivals, which included rocker Patti Smith, Peter Brook directing an Athol Fugard play, a festival-within-a-festival revolving around the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and an Edmunds-brokered teaming of respected independent contemporary Aboriginal musicians into an ensemble called the Black Arm Band, which has remained an ongoing group.
"When a history of the Melbourne International Arts Festival is written, Kristy Edmunds will be acknowledged as one of its most intelligent and sagacious artistic directors," the national newspaper, the Australian, said, while a Melbourne paper, the Age, noted that she had become "a much-admired, almost-revered figure among many of the city's creative community for her cutting-edge and cross-disciplinary approach to the arts."
Edmunds says she has connections to L.A.'s visual art scene, but has never made an extended visit. With a lot to learn, and a career-long pattern of closely engaging with her local creative communities, she expects to be "amply busy learning the nuances of the city."
One thing she says she does know is that Los Angeles is "a city that likes a little bit of magic." The wand will soon be hers.