- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 26, 2000

Marta Kuzma believes art becomes more exhilarating when it's taken from museums — traditional temples of the muses — to communities.

Ms. Kuzma, 36, new head of the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran (WPA/C), did this in Kiev, Ukraine, as director of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art from 1992 to 1999. She established the center in the centuries-old Central University with funding from the Soros Foundation, founded by billionaire financier George Soros.

She also staged exhibitions in unusual places such as the nuclear Battleship Slavutych at Sevastopol, Crimea, and a former Romanov palace that was the site of the Yalta Conference in Crimea.

During the eight months Ms. Kuzma has been on the job in Washington, she has mounted shows and multimedia performances at a storefront on Seventh Street NW; planned conferences on the topic of art, technology and society; and introduced the British audiovisual artist Robin Rimbaud, a k a "Scanner," at a sold-out Corcoran event Aug. 3.

"WPA/C is designed to create platforms of activities that take art beyond museums and white-cube galleries and into the community," she says.

The program is the only off-site arts project in the city. It grew out of the absorption by the Corcoran in 1996 of the Washington Project for the Arts, an important alternative arts institution that folded. Ms. Kuzma runs WPA/C on a slim budget, projected at $200,000 to $250,000 annually. Smartly dressed in a navy-blue sheath, she recently described her plans for WPA/C and what some would consider far-out programs.

"WPA/C wanted a new direction, and I felt it was time to develop a more comprehensive program by exploring ideas about contemporary culture, community and place," she says. "It was time to develop interdisciplinary efforts and challenge artists in different ways."

She also wants to use her international experience and contacts here. "D.C. is a global village, an international place with settled ethnic communities that have all kinds of exciting possibilities," she says.

Ms. Kuzma has divided her programs into Talks, Projekts, Frame Series, WPAConline, Visual Evidence, Artfile and Rx. "I want the programs to be both thought-provoking and enjoyable, and they're already drawing sizable audiences," she says.

Salah Hassan, a Cornell University faculty member and editor of Nka: Journal of African Contemporary Art, premiered the Talks series with a discussion of issues of race and a person's sex in past and current international art exhibitions.

Helmo Hernandez Trejo described the contemporary art situation in Havana on another occasion. Stephen Rand, artist and director of Apex Arts in the TriBeCa area of Manhattan, talked about the demands of working as both an artist and director of an international cultural program. Mr. Rand's talk was part of the Rx program, which helps artists help themselves.

Ms. Kuzma persuaded Douglas Development Corp. in the spring to contribute a storefront space at 714-716 Seventh St. NW for exhibitions. This was part of her Projekts program, which gets art out into the community.

One of the most successful events there was Miranda July's multimedia performance in March. Part of the Frame series, which presents music, performance, film and other forms of popular culture, Ms. July's program integrated sound, music and video screening.

The Scanner event drew more than 400 people to the Corcoran's North Atrium. Scanner, a musician, writer, curator and digital artist, appropriated his name from the tiny machine he uses to create his audiovisual presentations.

He tapes and records conversations from cellular phones, police stations and radios.

Sounds came from a black box on top of a wooden table. He had lighted the atrium with a violet light.

Scanner is set for a future project in the city in which he will record conversations among people and work with local sound artists. The sounds then will be projected throughout the city. Ms. Kuzma is hoping for cherry-blossom time.

Her other plans include a citywide project with the British Council and British artists that would offer alternative avenues to artists and musicians for showing and performance.

Another is the launching of a series of projects and panels dealing with art, technology and policy. In partnership with the Goethe Institut Washington and Zakros InterArts, the series will present projects by ZKM, or the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany.

In November, Olivero Toscani, controversial creator of the Benetton ads, will discuss provocation as a strategy in art.

Ms. Kuzma grew up in the middle-class New York suburb of Morristown, N.J. Her sister Marika, an artist, drew her to art. Twelve years older than Ms. Kuzman, Marika was a student of a leader of the Fluxus group — one of the earliest to experiment with "happenings" — at nearby Rutgers University.

Ms. Kuzma also started going to museums and artists' studios. Later at Barnard College in New York City, she studied political economy, economics, art history and media studies. She became fascinated with the video and alternative art forms she discovered in media-culture classes.

Before going to Ukraine, Ms. Kuzma worked for nonprofit art institutions such as New York's International Center for Photography, American Federation of Arts and Asia Society.

While directing the International Exhibitions Program at the International Center of Photography under Cornell Capa, she saw a photo exhibition on the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It moved her profoundly. "The world was changing, and I found it impossible to stay in the New York art world. I had to see what was going on in Eastern Europe. It had just opened up and was a new frontier," she says.

She traveled in 1991 to the Soviet Union, which was breaking up. Because of governmental changes, artists had to move from a government-run system to one more individually oriented. She says that when she became director of the Soros Center in 1992, "I was determined to try something new and experimental outside the established infrastructure."

Ms. Kuzma put on international shows as well as exhibits of cutting-edge work by artists of Eastern Europe. These included "Boris Mikhailov: A Retrospective" and "Re-Examining the Arte Povera Movement With Jannis Kounellis, Alighiero Boetti and Young Italian Artists.

Ms. Kuzma believes Washington is ready for her kind of programs. "The Washington Project for the Arts was successful with its programs and exhibitions in the late 1980s. It failed because of financial mismanagement," she says.

"I'm working on developing programs that integrate concerns already being addressed by the city and the art community. I'm trying to show how the visual arts are now combined with sound and moving images, and stimulated by technology."

David Levy, president and director of the Corcoran, says Ms. Kuzma is an important addition to the Corcoran and the Washington arts community. "She brings a lot to the table, not just energy, but a strong sense of direction in the contemporary arts. She's an advocate for cutting-edge art, and that's what WPA/C is all about."

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