DIANA REYNOLDS ROOME
of the Arts
South Bay Accent, October/November 2005
Gordon Knox finds the right mix of artists, ideas and community support for Montalvo's revamped residency program.
For a man who once lived in a South American jungle and ran a dairy sheep farm in upstate New York, Gordon Knox has traveled a far piece in his 50 years. Now, like a hero in an adventure novel who has been flung all over the globe, he's landed in Saratoga, at the Montalvo Arts Center. And there, in that bucolic setting, he's been directing the artists' residency program for the past two years.
Not everyone is equipped to trade a barn for a palatial estate, but then again, not everyone comes to the table with Knox's credentials and multi-discipline, hands-on experience.
The story of his varied pursuits and multiple interests sounds like the perfect preparation for the unusual demands of his job. His mandate is to expand and energize the Sally and Don Lucas Artists Programs at Montalvo, which are at the core of the venerable nonprofit arts center.
"This is the right place to build a global institution that brings some of the most fascinating minds in arts and puts them in touch with the technical world," he says. "The fact that the trustees and corporations in this valley assembled the $10 million (to fund the artists' residency program) clearly brought home to me that this part of the world understands the idea of creation and innovation."
At a time when funding for the experimental arts in this country is a tough sell, the need to honor and nurture free artistic expression is greater than ever. Under political and social duress, numerous arts leaders have recently retreated or retired. Not Knox. To him, Montalvo is a noble cause - as well as a cause for celebration and a historical icon.
Montalvo's trustees and board members were looking for a director who would be "as creative and innovative as the artists who would be coming here," says Elisbeth Challener, director of the arts center. At the same time, they needed someone with experience and a strong sense of the practical and material foundation necessary to turn visions into reality.
In Knox, they found a man who takes a long-range point of view. His international perspective is reflected in the artists' residency program, which once attracted mainly California and U.S. applicants. Now more than 60 percent come from other countries, and only about 20 percent or so from California. Knox sees this as a reflection of the global community that defines 21st century life.
His passion, he says, stems from the profound effects of growing up abroad and understanding a very different way of looking at the world: The "very bright, creative and communicative people" in these artists' residency programs, he says, "return to where they've come from, and their ideas begin to percolate through their artwork and their community. It's really like a very slow-moving alternative circulatory system for ideas."
In that respect, Montalvo's programs offer invaluable training in communicating across borders with ease and authority, and a glimpse into a viable future.
This summer, three 2005 residency fellows in Montalvo's Sally and Don Lucas Artists Program were among six featured artists to exhibit works at the S 1st Venice Biennale, which is the world's oldest and most prestigious exhibition of contemporary art. The three fellows, who-along with other visiting artists-worked in bright, newly designed studios, are from New Delhi and Mumbai, India.
Knox's blend of fund-raising, academic and social skills may qualify him as a modern Renaissance man, but he didn't become one overnight. A doctorate in anthropology launched him on his career track. Or at least an almost-doctorate. Knox says he never completed his dissertation because he "wanted a more direct engagement with the world."
Whatever the reason, it proved all but unnecessary. Born in Vienna, Austria, he grew up in London and Pakistan (his father was in the U.S. Foreign Service), and spent summers in Europe. "When we came back to the U.S., I didn't know the rules of baseball, though I played cricket and polo," he recalls.
By the time he entered the University of California at Santa Cruz, he had traveled to Guyana and Surinam. He made his way back to the United States by way of Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Trinidad and the Darien Gap. Later, he went on to Cambridge University in England.
Restless at heart and forever on the move, Knox lived in a South American jungle, ran a sheep farm (funded by $13>000 insurance money after he and his father were involved in a plane crash), directed an upscale interior design company in New York City and founded an artists' residency program in an ancient castle in Umbria, Italy.
Eventually settling down in Italy, Knox became executive director at the Civitella Ranieri Foundation. At its centers in Umbertide and New York City, he successfully developed the foundation's missions, goals and fellowship program. Word spread, and Knox became a consultant to international arts organizations, as well as to the Atlantic Center for the Arts in Florida.
By then he'd developed a strong personal perspective, one that allows him to see the artists' residency program as "a palette of opportunities." He also married. His wife is an Italian journalist, and their seven year-old adopted daughter is from China.
It's safe to say that without Knox's multi-faceted talents, many donations might not be finding their way to Montalvo: "This is the R & D of the art world, where people can experiment, practice, try things, succeed and fail-and they're not tied to the final production." Such an understanding of local entrepreneurial spirit makes Knox particularly adept in convincing goal-oriented Silicon Valley technology movers and shakers to help support a process-oriented arts community where success is not contingent on productivity. There are no milestones; no deliverables. So what exactly does this donated money get for its buck? Interaction between art and technology. Not necessarily something you can hang on a wall, but a platform for joint explorations that couldn't happen anywhere else.
Knox is forging links at Montalvo with high-energy enterprises at Silicon Valley's Sun Labs and Ideo Design, for example. He expects they will lead to original collaborative works. But, there have been tangible results, too: Wayne Horvitz, an American composer and former residency fellow, wrote much of his noted piece about the labor movement, "Joe Hill: 16 Actions for Orchestra," while at Montalvo, collaborating with writer Paul Magrid. Horvitz's work premiered in October 2004 and later was the subject of an episode on National Public Radio.
Knox is so committed to the social side of the residency that he has created a new. fellowship-for a chef, who is as much an artist as any of them, he says. Whereas in the past, fellows cooked for themselves in their personal studio, now they assemble in the Commons several times a week to enjoy a superb meal, currently prepared by a culinary fellow from Umbria.
"We're spoiled," laughs Judit Hersko, a Hungarian artist who is working on imagery and techniques for an installation that will draw attention to the effects of the increasing acidity in the oceans. But aside from the excellent food, the quiet time with others at the end of a day's work has positive effects.
"The idea of the ivory tower and solitude, with genius emerging from that setting, is a very small part of the picture," says the director. "The conversation that takes place around the table, and the table itself, is the heart of a successful residency. It encourages the face-to-face movement of ideas between creative minds. I think of it as a slow food broadband flow of ideas. You truly see the transposition of perspectives."
Many people who came to Civitella went on to become major voices of their times, and Knox has every confidence that the same will happen for Montalvo. The selection process he devised depends on a network of knowledgeable people around the world who serve as eyes and ears to identify deserving artists who could benefit from a residency program of this kind. (See accompanying story.)
For many, Montalvo
can be a major turning point in their career.