Member Spotlight: Kathryn Armstrong

Posted by Abigail Alpern Fisch, Nov 23, 2020 0 comments

Kathryn Armstrong headshot. Photography by Tony VasquezKathryn Armstrong is the Executive Director at the Columbus Area Arts Council in Columbus, Indiana where she has worked since 2016. The Columbus Area Arts Council’s mission is to strengthen the Columbus community through arts and culture. With 15 years of experience working as an art professional, Kathryn’s work is centered around making communities stronger through art, culture, and civic engagement. During her tenure, she has implemented artist-led workshops, pop-up performances, and the 411 Gallery in downtown Columbus. Previously a faculty member at the Herron School of Art and Design from 2010 until 2016, Kathryn taught professional practice courses for undergraduate and graduate students and served as the Director of the Basile Center for Art, Design and Public Life.

How did you initially become interested and involved in the arts? Do you have a favorite arts focus?

I grew up in Northern Indiana and was fortunate to have been exposed to the arts at a very early age with The Art Institute of Chicago just a train ride from my hometown. Visiting museums and experiencing art and culture continues to have a profound impact on my life. I’ve dedicated the last 20 years to learning, making, teaching, and more recently organizing and advocating for the arts. There is often no separation between art and life, and I’m grateful to have found a career that is both creative and challenging.

Becoming an artist allowed me to view the world through a different lens, partly out of curiosity and partly because the camera was my first tool of expression. With a BFA in photography and a minor in film studies, I spent the majority of my undergraduate years documenting my surroundings, discovering alternative processes in the darkroom, and investigating materials that were not photographic. From there, I pursued an MA in Studio Art with an emphasis in painting and drawing, and an MFA in Visual Art & Public Life with an emphasis in sculpture, so I think of my studio practice as interdisciplinary.

As an arts and cultural leader, my work is much more broad. I look for ways to enhance daily life through arts activation, supporting artists and arts organizations, inspiring others to be creative, empowering youth, and more importantly implementing ways for folks to have equal access to the arts.

The Mask Project (in process). CAAC Community Outreach intern Priscilla Rocha cutting fabric designed by Yoonji Jung. Photography by Hadley Fruits.

How did you come to your current role as the executive director of the Columbus Area Arts Council?

Toward the end of a six-year run in academia, I was juggling my studio practice with several community projects and some consulting work for a nonprofit arts organization in Columbus. It was the consulting job that introduced me to the Columbus Area Arts Council (CAAC) and I was eventually recruited to apply for the executive director position. I’ve been in my current post since 2016.

Could you describe The Mask Project that CAAC started this summer?

The Mask Project engaged local artists and designers to create custom fabric patterns for face masks that are not only useful, but also fun and fashionable. With a goal to make 7,500 free masks and help from over 60 volunteers, we have produced and distributed 3,000 free masks throughout Bartholomew County. Currently, we are making 850 masks for elementary school students. Many students were only provided with one or two masks earlier in the school year and we have heard positive feedback that our masks have made students feel special. The Mask Project is supported by a collective grant from Heritage Fund—the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, Columbus Regional Health and Healthy Communities Proyecto Salud Action Team.

Columbus Youth Ambassador Valeria Juarez-Trujillo wearing mask designed by artist Pierre Obando. Pictured in front of "Learning Patterns" mural designed by LAA Office. Photography by Maria Trujillo.

How else has CAAC responded to the continuing challenges of COVID-19? Any advice for other arts leaders and organizations looking to safely engage their communities creatively?

Like many, we modified as many programs as possible that allowed our organization to continue engaging the public safely. We manage a community arts gallery in downtown Columbus that has two storefront windows. Instead of going dark, we’ve installed exhibitions to be viewed from the window as well as virtually. This has helped keep the arts physically present in our downtown and allowed artists to continue to exhibit their work. As for our performing arts programming and larger scale events, this is one of the biggest challenges arts organizations face today. We’ve postponed the majority of these programs for 2020 and are still working on how we might deliver these safely in 2021. In addition to the modifications we made to our programs and operations, we launched several fundraising campaigns that will help our organization continue to deliver mission-driven programs in 2021 while responding to health and safety guidelines and social distancing.

Although we all are facing similar challenges, every organization and community operates differently. Artists and arts leaders are trained to be resilient, to be nimble, to have empathy, therefore remaining true to yourself and your mission will allow arts organizations to survive this uncertain time. When time allows, it's important to take a moment to pause and reflect. I’m challenging our organization to think more deeply and more intentionally about what we can do today that will make our organization and community stronger in the future. The arts have a unique power to unite folks in ways that other sectors may not have.

Digital rendering produced by LAA Office for Sixth Street/Arts Alley project proposal.

What are you most proud of from your work at CAAC? What are you looking forward to next?

Our ability to evolve and respond to the needs of our community, while inspiring and uplifting folks and directly supporting diverse creative talent gives me great pride. Prior to the pandemic, we were planning to grow, developing strategies to increase capacity and resources that would benefit the community and increase opportunities for local creative talent. With good fortune, much of this work has continued, including two creative placemaking projects that tie to several of our strategic objectives. The first of the two creative placemaking projects is developing and activating a downtown street into an Arts Alley and the second project is an Asphalt Art Initiative grant awarded by Bloomberg Philanthropies that will be implemented in a budding business district. CAAC is leading the Asphalt Art project in partnership with the City of Columbus and Columbus Regional Health-Healthy Communities. Working collaboratively has allowed our organization to accomplish more, to share resources, and to reach a broader public.

How has being a member of Americans for the Arts helped your work or your organization? What do you enjoy about being involved as a member?

Americans for the Arts is an excellent resource that serves as a go-to for me personally and for our organization. In 2016, I attended NAMPC [the National Arts Marketing Project Conference] in Austin, Texas. In 2018, I participated in the Americans for the Arts Executive Leadership Forum in Des Moines, Iowa. This was an incredible experience and opportunity to immerse myself in the arts and culture field with like-minded individuals. As arts and culture leaders, we need to be able to connect with others outside of our local/regional networks, to exchange ideas and learn from one another, and celebrate the work that we are all doing to make our communities better places to live. I look forward to a time when we can safely gather in person again. In the meantime, the online offerings provided by Americans for the Arts continue to be helpful.

Americans for the Arts Membership

This series features the many Americans for the Arts members doing transformative work for arts education, public art, advocacy, arts marketing, and more. An Americans for the Arts Membership connects you with this network of more than 6,000 arts leaders and gives you access to latest professional development and research. You can become a member by visiting us online, sending an email to [email protected], or calling 202.371.2830.

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