Into the Breach

Corey Pearlstein says he's ready for the ConWorks challenge.

When you call Consolidated Works and ask to speak to one of its curators, you'll discover that there isn't any curator. There isn't, in fact, much of anyone at Seattle's multigenre arts center since the bombshell of founder and Executive Director Matthew Richter's dismissal went off back in February.

None of this ruffles Corey Pearlstein. Appointed by the board of directors at the beginning of September, ConWorks' new artistic director may be the master of undeterred understatement.

"A lot of people are interested to see what the new iteration of ConWorks [is]," he acknowledges over the phone. "It's an interesting time to be coming in." Any small amount of digging will unearth the reason for Pearlstein's cool.

"One of the things I really want people to know is, I've come into these situations," he says. "And I think they're exciting because you can make a space more radical and more dynamic."

Pearlstein forgedhis way throughpotential disaster during his last gig, artistic director of Allentown, Pa.'s Theatre Outlet—a company that, at the time of Pearlstein's appointment, had lost its founding artistic director and general manager, its funding from the city, and the impetus for a once-ambitious capital campaign meant to distinguish it as an urban arts outlet.

"They didn't have any particular direction to go in," says Kate Bemesderfer, who came on as Theatre Outlet's director of outreach and audience development about halfway through Pearlstein's tenure. "[Corey] managed to immediately produce a couple of shows, [and] he worked toward setting a season and re-establishing grant and donation income for the theater."

He also faced another challenge that he may wade into as he splashes around the small pond of Seattle's artistic community.

"Corey came in as an outsider and never lost that label," Bemesderfer continues, describing the tension in Allentown. "And, of course, [was] immediately confronted—not with criticism, but just with people saying, 'Well, you don't know what you're talking about because you're not from around here.' And he tried to work through that as diplomatically as possible. As someone who grew up in the area, I had great sympathy for him, but at the same time, he could not accept that, 'Corey, it's going to take you five or 10 years before this is going to go away.'"

Maybe a bulldog is what ConWorks needs if it's going to profit from the growth of the nearby South Lake Union neighborhood and become the force it set out to be in 1999. Bemesderfer praises the motivating force of Pearlstein's "intuition and intelligence"; Pearlstein promises he isn't out to reinvent the wheel so much as reinvigorate it.

"This is not going to be a drastic change in concept—what this is is what it has been," he says of ConWorks' immediate future and its reputation as an institution reaching to blend the disciplines of film, theater, visual arts, music, and lectures. "I'm not somebody who tries to make everything in my own image. I like things that are challenging for me personally, because that's what I'm interested in as an arts consumer. My vocabulary is working with artists and showing my commitment to them."

And what of finding curators—who, under Richter, were in charge of programming each individual genre?

"You know, I think that's going to be one of the parts of defining our goals," Pearlstein answers calmly. "I don't want staff burning out. And I have an interest in trying to see how we might see voices in opposition, a diverse set of aesthetic sensibilities. It might be more interesting to have two film curators. I'd like there to be a mix in such a way that people are able to really focus on the quality bar."

For now, at least, it's Pearlstein who is under intense focus. He's not worried.

"What I have found," he says, "is if you've built a good organization, it should be able to survive the institutional transition."

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