Cathy Byrd quickly became a household name in the Atlanta art scene when she arrived in 1995 and began writing for a number of our beloved publications, including Creative Loafing, ART PAPERS, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. From there, she went on to become the guest curator at Agnes Scott’s Dalton Gallery, where she spearheaded a number of the gallery’s most memorable exhibitions. Her last seven years in Atlanta were spent as the Gallery Director at Georgia State University’s Welch School of Art and Design. Cathy is also the co-creator of Le Flash, the one night art extravaganza that debuted last year. Last month, Cathy flew north to become the Executive Director of the Maryland Art Place in Baltimore. I have been corresponding with Cathy about upcoming projects, plans for this year’s Le Flash, and what she is leaving behind.
Q. You have worn many hats in the Atlanta arts community and have had some amazing accomplishments in each field. When you look back, what do you feel the most successful having accomplished?
What I loved about Atlanta was the opportunity to continue evolving as a cultural contributor. Actually, I’ve only been involved with contemporary art since 1995. So, consider me a teenager!
Before I came to Atlanta, I had lived and worked creatively in places far outside the art world. I think of Atlanta as an intersection in the Venn diagram of my life; it’s a place where I was able to begin tapping into my true energy and drawing from all my experiential resources. My vivid interest in making connections motivated me to initiate projects that would bring together different kinds of people and modes of creative expression.
Q. It seems like your announcement that you were leaving for Baltimore came “out of the blue.” Is this a move you had been thinking about for some time, or was it just a right-place, right-time scenario? What impacted your decision to leave Atlanta?
In my eight years at GSU, I took on a lot of projects on and off campus. I stretched the limits of the Welch School Gallery Director position every way I could, because it was exciting. I viewed the gallery as a laboratory that offered opportunities to see and talk about and interact with art outside the classroom, for both our students and the Atlanta community.
In the past year, I realized that I had perhaps pushed the Welch School envelope just about as far as it would go. So, I began thinking about what I would do next. I considered moving to Mexico to live by the sea, teaching English as a foreign language, and writing those books I have in me, or joining the Peace Corps again and working in community development in Africa or the Caribbean. And I had thoughts of remaining in ‘the field,’ of perhaps full-time teaching or curating (because that’s my fav’, if you don’t count branding, outreach, producing interactive events and mentoring interns!).
This spring, two op’s for executive director positions suddenly appeared within one month, and Maryland Art Place became a real offer. How could I resist?! An unbelievable adventure awaited me. Risk-taking is something that exhilarates (and terrifies) me! I couldn’t resist the chance to re-create my life. That’s probably the biggest reason I find myself on this new planet called ‘Baltimore.’
Q. You have been a huge part of the Atlanta arts narrative in your time. How do you think your departure will impact the community? What will be the hardest to leave behind?
That’s generous of you to say, Susannah! I consider myself part of a whole; I couldn’t have achieved any of the projects I dreamed up without the collaboration, support, and encouragement of the community. I hope that someone else will take it from here. My absence is like a negative space waiting to be filled with new ideas!
Let’s see. I’ll miss being close to the friends I made in Atlanta, the positive people I met through my work, dinner parties in my garden, Ria’s pancakes, cheese dip at Taqueria del Sol, my fab neighbors, my housemates, my students …. I feel a bit strange being a 12-hour drive away from my children, even though they haven’t been living at home for a while. I already see how hard it will be to keep up with everyone considering my desire for total immersion in Baltimore.
Q. Last year’s Le Flash project that you put on with Stuart Keeler in Castleberry was an extremely ambitious project. Now that you have moved to Baltimore, how do you plan to continue that, and do you plan to do a joint Atlanta-Baltimore version this year?
Stuart and I will forever be in awe about how Le Flash became an immediate legend.
Turns out there will be Le Flash 2009! Stuart and I have been asked to organize the event for October 2, to open this year’s Atlanta Celebrates Photography. The Call for Proposals was just posted!
Q. One thing you are known for is being an idea person. Now that you have a new facility at your disposal, what ideas do you have cooking for that space? Do any of them include projects that have been put on hold or fizzled in Atlanta? On the subject of ideas, what was your favorite idea that you were able to carry out in Atlanta?
Le Flash made the biggest splash. Other projects that stimulated me the most were the sound art postcard of Atlanta we produced with the French collective Ouie-Dire; Sheryl Oring’s I Wish to Say, a performance in Woodruff Park; Strange Planet, working with Meschac Gaba and a textiles student team to produce the Thrift Store Collection. The exhibitions and publications for Potentially Harmful: The Art of American Censorship and Re\constructing Atlanta were thrilling to me. I can’t believe I’ve published two 120-page books! For New Wave Atlanta: When Urban Intervention Speaks French, we’re producing a DVD box set. I’ve never tried this sort of documentation before, so it’s very exciting!
My biggest challenge in Atlanta was the challenge of getting the community to take the trouble to come downtown to our space. I have some of the same challenges in Baltimore: traffic, parking, one-way streets … and so on. What I ended up doing in Atlanta was presenting a ton of public events and creating projects off-campus in parks and neighborhoods. I definitely plan to get out in the neighborhoods and work with different cultural communities here, too.
Several of my concepts are portable. That will help a lot. I’d love to present Le Flash or Nuit Blanche in Baltimore!
There’s one project I’m taking with me: Losing Yourself in the 21st Century. Losing Yourself is a blog site that I established this Spring with Susan Richmond, the contemporary art historian in the Welch School, and Jillian Hernandez, a Ph.D. candidate in the Women’s Studies program at Rutgers University. The seven or so artists we select based on their blog postings will be in an exhibition that also features video screenings and performance. The exhibition will be shown first at GSU in fall 2009, and will come to MAP in late January 2010. We hope [Losing Yourself] will travel on to Rutgers in late Spring 2010. It’s a very cool site. Check it out!
At MAP, I have plans to present a December 2009 to January 2010 exhibition and events with Ellen Lupton, a curator at the Cooper Hewitt in New York. It’s titled Instant Messages. Of course, I have a ton of other ideas that I’m not quite ready to reveal … Do keep an eye on mdartplace.org for updates! You can Friend us, too, on Facebook.
Q. As parting words for the Atlanta art community, do you have any bits of advice or suggestions that you would like to leave?
Never stop experimenting. Be open to adventure. Take risks. Do what you love, and do it to the max. Your life will be amazing!