Ron Berry is the founder and Artistic Director of Fuse Box Austin, a multidisciplinary arts organization located in Austin, Texas. Ron has guided the organization through 11 years of critically acclaimed programming which has been nominated for and won over 200 awards. The organization is most known for its annual Fusebox Festival, which attracts up to 30,000 attendees each year. The festival features local, national, and international artists working across all disciplines and takes place in over twenty locations around the city. He has served as a panelist for a number of prominent organizations including: the NEA, Creative Capital, the MAP Fund, Texas Commission on the Arts, and SXSW. He has been invited to speak at festivals and conferences all over the world, including: Festival Transamerique (Montreal), Push International Festival (Vancouver), Time Based Art Festival (Portland), Meteor Festival (Norway), TPAM (Yokohama/Tokyo) and APAM (Australia). He received a theater degree from Earlham College, graduating with departmental honors, college honors, and Phi Beta Kappa.
Thao Votang: Did you start out as a performer yourself? What did you study in college and where did you grow up?
Ron Berry: I grew up in Houston. I was a NASA kid. So specifically, I grew up in Clear Lake, a suburb of Houston. Which I imagine is pretty much like every other suburb in the U.S. except there’s a few more astronaut kids running around. I went to Earlham College for undergrad, a small liberal arts college in Richmond, Indiana. One of my best friends’ parents went there and it was all they ever talked about. I liked the idea of getting out of Texas, liked the idea of getting a good liberal arts education (wasn’t sure exactly what it was I wanted to do), and I liked the idea of going to a small school—my high school was pretty giant.
My time at Earlham was great actually. It was a bit like going to school in a John Cougar Mellencamp video, only more crunchy college kids. I studied theater while I was there—acting, directing, writing. My roommate was Michael Hall, of Six Feet Under & Dexter fame. So that’s a fun, random little tidbit. I spent my last year studying in London, which was transformative. There was a cultural reimbursement fund built into the program. Basically, if you saw or did anything cultural you would get reimbursed, so I was seeing performances seven nights a week. A really profound education.
After college, I moved to Austin with some friends from high school. The thought of trying to make it as an actor in NYC seemed overwhelming and awful to me. I really just wanted to make stuff. I had always loved Austin growing up so decided to give it a swing. My friends and I started a non-profit arts organization called Refraction Arts (we didn’t know any better). After a few years we converted an old warehouse in east Austin into a performance space and a gallery/exhibition space behind a Goodwill distribution center (what is now Canopy). The gallery was originally curated/managed by Peat Duggins and Dave Bryant under the name The Fresh Up Club. Later it would become MASS Gallery. My friends and I used the performance space to produce theater, dance, and everything in between. We would also show experimental films, host large installations, and parties. It was underfunded, DIY, rock-n-roll, messy, overwhelming, and when we weren’t drowning it, it was really fun. The festival came out of this.
TV: Why did you decide to start Fusebox Festival?
RB: In some ways the festival was my negotiation with myself to stay in Austin. I loved the city, I loved the community (still do). But also felt isolated from the world—particularly with regard to live performance and, to some extent, visual art. These are art forms that you need to be in the room with to experience and engage with. I think film and music travel much easier, plus Austin has a rich tradition of both of these. But in terms of engaging with contemporary performance, it’s really hard unless you’re traveling all the time to NYC, Berlin, Brussels, South America, Japan, etc. So I wanted to be a part of this bigger conversation that was taking place around the world.
From there, the festival really came out of two ideas. We wanted to 1) create a more meaningful exchange across art forms and 2) we wanted to create a more meaningful exchange between work that was being made in Austin and the world. We wanted to create a platform for local artists to have their work seen by curators and presenters from around the country/world, and we wanted to keep injecting new thinking into the local community by bringing in artists from all over.
So in a way, the festival was really about the exchange of ideas across artistic disciplines and geography.
TV: Over the past twelve years, Fusebox has not only stayed around, but has grown—while also not being shy of experimenting. You have office, staff, and recently were awarded a $400,000 ArtPlace America grant for thinkEAST. At this point in time, how has Fusebox exceeded your expectations? In what areas have you not gotten as far as you hoped?
RB: Well, I had no idea we’d do two festivals much less twelve. Never imagined this would become my full-time job. My career. Never imagined that we’d get invited to travel all over the world and speak at conferences, festivals, gatherings, etc. And maybe most importantly, the thing that has felt most exciting (and perhaps surprising), is that Fusebox is now very much a part of a larger, global community that is investigating, producing, and presenting the most vital contemporary performance happening today. Very exciting. Nationally, we partner and share projects regularly with the Walker Art Center, PS122, REDCAT, the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, On the Boards, The Chocolate Factory, Under the Radar, MCA in Chicago, etc. And so this has been super exciting both personally, but also as an organization. To connect Austin to this very vibrant, global conversation.
In terms of areas that still need to grow—I’d love to do some more significant public art projects. It’s something we’ve always done, we just haven’t always had the proper resources. In general, I think we can do more on the visual art side of things. It’s an important part of our mission/vision, but it’s a little outside my own core competency. The upside is there’s a real opportunity to work with more partners and curators from the visual art world.
Organizationally, we need to grow our capacity. There are a lot of super exciting opportunities emerging that I’d love to be able to take on, but we have steam coming out our vents as a staff. Can barely do what we’re already doing. So hopefully that will happen soon.
I’d also really love to generate a body of new writing about contemporary performance. I think this is a huge need. The public record of the work feels inadequate, but also, in general, the public dialogue about the work often feels uninteresting. So still have some work to do on this front.
TV: How did Fusebox get pulled into thinkEAST? How did it serve the organization, an organization that I assume to be mostly centered around producing the festival?
RB: At the heart of the thinkEAST project are so many of the most vital issues facing us as a city, from affordability, to historic segregation, to transportation, displacement, the eradication of culture, etc. We were interested in these issues that felt so crucial, especially living and working in east Austin. In fact, it felt impossible to ignore these issues. We were ultimately interested in trying to imagine a different way of developing real estate in a more responsible, equitable fashion.
We wanted to see if we could continue to program adventurous, cutting-edge artists, while also addressing some of the most vital issues facing us as a city. I was less interested in making a performance about affordable housing, and more interested in figuring out how to actually make more affordable housing possible.
In a way, all of this comes out of an ongoing investigation of “festival” as an idea, as a platform. What are things festivals can do that other platforms cannot? And what are somethings that our specific festival can do that other festivals cannot or choose not to? Our Free Range Art initiative came out of this inquiry. As did thinkEAST. We wanted to use our festival as an opportunity to look at these issues in a fresh, creative way, and hopefully produce some out-of-the-box solutions. Which is happening. Super exciting!
Ultimately, we are interested in exploring how a twelve-day festival can remain relevant and in conversation with its community year round. How can we become a more vital, more indispensable part of civic life?
And the end result of the thinkEAST project will ultimately be something that not only benefits Fusebox, but also the larger arts community, as well as the neighborhood, and the city as a whole.
TV: What does your average month look like, juggling the production of the next Fusebox with thinkEAST? I assume that you’re not sitting at a desk 8 hours a day.
RB: I’m not sure I have an average month! It’s all pretty varied. But I spend very little time behind my desk. Much of my time is spent meeting with artists, curators, colleagues, city officials, our real estate partners, and various community partners. Some of this is artistic research, some of it is community building, some of it is specifically related to thinkEAST and trying to figure out how to make it all happen.
I also travel quite a bit. We are part of a three-year cultural/curatorial exchange with Japan. It’s basically a three-year research project. So I travel to Japan and South Korea twice a year. I also travel to festivals, shows, and conferences all over the country/world to see work and meet with colleagues. It’s a real joyous part of the job. I do like traveling. And I love seeing work and talking to people about their work.
And then there’s a fair amount of my job that’s related to fundraising, and crafting language, etc. And of course the curating of the festival. There’s three of us total on staff (year-round) and we each wear many hats.
TV: You function in the community as a leader in the performing and visual arts. What kinds of similarities (successes and struggles) do you see in both? Considering the challenges, what do you think could help shift things forward/upward that you don’t see organizations or individuals doing?
RB: Hmmmm…great question. Well, I think there are definitely some real similarities and some real differences between these two worlds, for sure. The systems, the economics, the practices, etc., are all pretty different in many ways. But I do think there is a real need for more writing about these two art forms. I’m so grateful for/excited by the work you all are doing. This is a huge need. We need more of it.
I think there’s a need for more critical writing about the work, and for more critical discourse within the community in general. To me that’s a real act of generosity, especially if you’re doing it out of love. Love for the person, for the art form. We owe it to each other to engage with each other and hash out the ideas being explored in a vigorous fashion. Of course there’s a time and a place (perhaps not opening night) and there’s trust required. But this is something that I think both communities could benefit from.
Both communities are really struggling with affordability right now. This is certainly happening in Austin, but also all over the country. I think there’s an advantage on working on this problem together.
TV: When you’re not working, what are you doing? And more importantly, what have you read recently?
RB: The lines between work and play and my personal life are pretty blurry. I love my work deeply. It really feels like a big, ongoing art project. But when I’m not “working” I like to eat + drink delicious things. I have several writing projects I’m cobbling away on—currently two screenplays and two TV show ideas. We also have two giant dogs (basically direwolves) that I like to spend time with. I’m also a sports fan, which often surprises a lot of friends.
Just re-read Robert McKee’s book on screenwriting. Definitely a super specific, straight ahead look at telling stories for the screen. I find it interesting and helpful. It’s a real departure from most of my work with Fusebox, which tends to focus on non-linear, non-narrative works. Kind of fun to read about how the other half lives! Actually, just took a workshop from him in NYC. There’s a scene in Adaptation based directly on these workshops. They’re sort of legendary. And he did not disappoint.
Thao Votang is co-editor of Conflict of Interest. Votang is the Director of Communications at the Department of Art and Art History at UT Austin, which houses the Visual Arts Center, and co-founder of Tiny Park. She was a super awkward intern for Fusebox Festival around 2008, tries to drink frequently with Ron and his partner, and doesn’t go to enough Fusebox events!