We recently announced the hiring of Angela Mattox as our new, full-time Artistic Director, and we can’t wait until she starts in her new role. While we’ve all gotten to spend some time with her, we realized that you might like to learn a little more about her background, so we sent her a round of questions about her career and her approach to curating. You can ask her your own questions when she gets to town in September, just in time for TBA!
Angela enjoying the world’s greatest doughnuts at NYC’s Doughnut Plant.
PICA: How did you first get engaged with contemporary art?
Angela Mattox: My first point of entry was as a practitioner. I’m a former dancer and this first-hand experience has always informed how I work with artists and has been really valuable in providing insight into the creative process. I often reflect on the vulnerability of an artist as she puts forward her work to the public, and that has helped me be a more compassionate curator.
PICA: You’ve worked on both the funding and the presenting side of art—can you share a little about your background and the path you’ve taken to get here?
AM: I think it’s imperative to understand how the field really operates, from multiple points of view. While it wasn’t my intention to work in various branches of arts administration—from funding to presenting—the perspectives I gained really shaped my priorities and values.
My entry into working in the arts started with my job at Arts International in 1999, a really extraordinary funding organization based in New York that supported international exchange in the arts. The job brought me to NYC from Los Angeles and it was a transformative relocation. I was coordinating a range of grant programs and funding initiatives, many of which funded US artists to travel abroad to perform and exhibit their work, participate in international residency programs, and engage in international collaborations. It was gratifying to support artists as they explored and took risks in their work, and it was exciting to wrestle with broader issues around contextualization and translation. I had explored some of these issues in academia, so it was thrilling to explore them in more practical, on-the-ground ways. I was incredibly passionate about this work, and my commitment to global exchange and cross-cultural dialogue is still very present in my work today.
At a certain point in my work doing grant administration, I felt too removed from the creative process, and I recognized that I wanted to find a career that would allow me to work more closely with artists and go deeper with specific projects.
In 2003, I returned to the West Coast to take the curatorial position at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. I’m really proud of the work I’ve done at YBCA, which has been to present and commission contemporary works by local, national, and international dance, theater, music, and interdisciplinary artists.
PICA: Explain your approach to contemporary artistic practice—what does it mean to think and curate across disciplines?
AM: Well, I see the role of a contemporary art organization as a platform where potent artistic expression, ideas, emotions, and audiences can intersect. My work is about cultivating curiosity and investment around experimental and visionary contemporary artistic practice. In terms of the kinds of artists I look to support, I can say that I’m dedicated to nurturing artists who embrace experimentation, who question and subvert assumptions of current forms and discipline boundaries. In fact, I think it’s imperative that contemporary art centers take a leadership role in supporting new forms and cross-disciplinary work. So much of our field separates out the various disciplines, and that doesn’t allow for cross-pollination of ideas and aesthetics. I do think it’s important to acknowledge the distinct histories, lineages, and critical discourse arising from the various disciplines, but ultimately, I’m interested in artists whose work reflects the profound, complex issues of our time—from the personal to the epic. These themes permeate through all forms and disciplines.
PICA: How do you approach working with artists? Where does the process begin?
AM: As a curator, I believe in being a generative force, and I am committed to commissioning new work. The job is about taking risks on concepts and new ideas. Curators have to be fluid and flexible as they support artists as the creative process goes into unexpected territory. And, while I’m committed to researching and supporting young artists, I also believe in supporting artists over a long period of time throughout their artistic trajectory; it is a crucial way to build trust and a foundation to support future risk-taking.
PICA: What are some projects that you’ve been involved with at YBCA of which you are particularly proud?
AM: I’m really proud of my eight-year tenure at YBCA, but there are definitely a few highlights. My recent art crush is on cross-disciplinary artist Ralph Lemon, whose work moves between visual art and performance and tackles some big themes. The project I presented was called, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere and his vision definitely pushed me to expand my work as a curator in exciting ways.
With this piece, I was able to support Ralph’s vision far beyond the confines of the stage to present his body of visual and installation work in a gallery and screening room space. We also transformed our big theater into a fully immersive visual art installation, which created amazing opportunities for immersion and introspection with his poetic material.
I really connected with the larger themes in the work. It was a fearless exploration of what it means to be human—an exploration of the potency and grace of human connection. The project renewed my faith that artists are willing to tackle universal themes of love, loss, and transcendence with a rare vulnerability.
PICA: What are a few of the trends, regions, artists, and ideas that most excite you about the future of contemporary art?
EM: As I mentioned, my commitment to presenting global perspectives is really important to me. I believe strongly in fluid conversation between local and global ideas. So it’s no surprise that I love to research and travel internationally to festivals and conferences to experience new artistic expression and cultural contexts. I think deeply about the work would resonate with local audiences. I’ve been really excited by the work happening in Latin America—such a vast and complex region for artistic expression. Argentina has an extraordinary theater scene, and Brazil has really provocative and transgressive performance art scene. I’ve also supported a lot of contemporary African work that has been some of the most urgent and compelling work I’ve ever experienced.
PICA: What interests you about the work that PICA does in the field?
EM: Over the past several years, I’ve looked to PICA as a source of inspiration for visionary, artistic programming—I love the unique and poetic collisions of artistic viewpoints and disciplines. As I was interviewing for the job and reviewing the lists of artists that PICA has presented, I was amazed at just how many extraordinary artists have been supported by PICA, and often before the rest of the US arts centers had even heard of them. That kind of leadership is inspiring.
The TBA Festival is one of the most important national convergences of artists and curators. I’m enamored with how TBA creates dynamic exchanges of art and ideas in social settings. I’ve attended the festival for the past four years, and I love how the PICA spirit infuses the city!
I think the organization is at a profound moment of revitalization as the organization transitions into a new physical space, grows programming beyond the confines of the annual festival. I think there is an extraordinary opportunity to build on the solid artistic program history, and to explore ways to deepen the impact of the work locally.
PICA: Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to in Portland?
EM: I’m very much looking forward to getting to know the city and explore the different neighborhoods, which all seem to have exciting and diverse characteristics. It will be fun settling in and discovering my new favorite brunch spots, wine bars, and boutique clothing stores. Advice welcome!!