Artistic Minimalism

Problem: How to win audiences and money for risky contemporary art in a down economy Solution: Start a festival.

At precisely 8:21 p.m. last September 13, 450 diners at long black tables jumped as alarm clocks rang and bicycle messengers entered bearing entrees in take-out boxes. The patrons ran the gamut from gray-suited Standard Insurance Co. executives to an artist who performs a dance about a man whose ego gets so big he explodes.


Dinner as art. This was the sold-out, $150-a-head opening gala for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s first Time Based Art Festival. It was an intriguing intersection of art and commerce. “There were artists and then there were sponsors who you wouldn’t think of sitting in this part of the city,” says Kristy Edmunds, PICA’s executive-artistic director. And it was one thing more: a surprising success.

An energetic performance artist, Edmunds, 38, started PICA in 1995. She wanted to show the riskiest art, pieces like William Pope.L’s American flag made of rotting hot dogs. Her idea got traction, and by 2000, PICA had a budget of $1.2 million. But as Portland’s technology economy swooned, fund-raising became tougher and potential season ticket buyers stayed home. Edmunds was unwilling to take PICA mainstream in order to win donations. The answer? Keep the art, but toss the old strategy.

Borrowing a European model, Edmunds shrank PICA’s nine-month season to a 10-day festival packed with 55 performances. A festival dense with works from Japanese creation myths to Bill Shannon (left), a hip-hop dancer on crutches, she thought, could create a destination for out-of-towners and attract wary locals and new donors.

It was a bet-the-farm gamble. If corporate cash and crowds didn’t show, the cost of bringing in dozens of artists could have stomped PICA. Instead, the festival soared. It attracted an audience of 7,500, three times the attendance in a traditional season. Corporate donations have also tripled, helping PICA’s 2003 budget rebound to $1.2 million. The festival now nearly breaks even, instead of draining $150,000 as performance seasons have in the past. “Audiences for the arts have been retracted, like an impacted tooth,” Edmunds says. “What the festival did was extract them.”