New Mass MoCA director pledges to ‘honour the past and build from there’

Kristy Edmunds replaces Joseph C. Thompson after lengthy period of layoffs and new staff union over pandemic

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Kristy Edmunds portrait © Mass MoCA

Kristy Edmunds portrait © Mass MoCA

The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (Mass MoCA) in North Adams, Massachusetts, has a new director.

Kristy Edmunds, previously the executive and artistic director of the Center for the Art of Performance at The University of California, Los Angeles, replaces Joseph C. Thompson, who helped found the museum in the late 1990s and led it for more than three decades.

In an interview, Edmunds describes herself as “another pair of shoulders” and says she is not in a hurry to make drastic changes to the institution.

“I see [the role] as a baton that has been passed to me in an entrusted way," she tells The Art Newspaper. "It isn’t about how you reframe it, but how you conjoin with what’s there. It’s about honouring the past and building from there, not trying to unweave it for some other set of ambitions.”

Edmunds, who will relocate from Los Angeles to New England in the coming weeks, brings to her new role extensive experience in the performing and multidisciplinary arts. She will continue to serve as artistic adviser for the Nimoy Theater in Los Angeles.

Mass MoCA did not get through the last year and a half of the pandemic unscathed, reducing its annual operating budget from $12m to $10.5m.

Pandemic-related closures had a direct effect on 70% of the organisation’s annual budget and half of the museum’s annual programming. The workforce reduction at the museum amounted to 120 of its 165 employees laid off across every department, including management, throughout 2020. The layoffs prompted employees to unionise earlier this year.

In April, the museum released an official statement which said, in part: “While we recognize the challenges we face as an institution, we believe in our staff and in our ability to meet these challenges together. We respect the choice to unionize and look forward to working with UAW [United Auto Workers] Local 2110 in continuing to cultivate an inclusive, diverse, and sustainable workplace.”

“They definitely went through a period of layoffs,” Edmunds says. “There are so many ways that this institution is interdependent with the economy locally and artists globally.”

Edmunds is looking toward the coming months “strategically, cautiously, optimistically and with great care, not getting ahead of our skis just because there’s new momentum”, she says.

Attracting an average of 300,000 visitors a year, Mass MoCA exhibits art on large-scale, comprising 250,000 sq. ft of open and often naturally lit space, immersive installations and galleries. A recently completed expansion brought the complex to 650,000 sq. ft—roughly the total area of the Louvre. The site’s 28 buildings form an elaborate system of interlocking courtyards and passageways situated on 16 acres.

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