Drawing Outside the Lines

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This arts aficionado brings avant-garde performances and multidisciplinary artists to Austin with the Fusebox Festival

Ron Berry doesn’t think of his job as just a job. His life’s work– as artistic director for the Fusebox Festival–is something he lives on a daily basis. It boils down to his philosophy of engaging the world around him, whether that means curating a performance, having dinner with friends or taking in a show.

“It’s about listening and being open and curious,” said Berry. “It’s about trying to program artists and events that encourage these same qualities–performances that engender a sense of possibility or spark some new way of looking at things.

His appreciation for the arts encompasses a range of styles and genres, and his enthusiasm and focused networking in Austin and around the country make him an ideal ambassador for all things cross cultural, cutting edge and boundary pushing.

The Fusebox Festival presents contemporary art and performances that serve as fertile ground for new ideas, artistic models, languages and approaches to allow artists to better engage with the issues that shape and inspire. It’s designed to be a risk-taking environment where artists and audiences can go off in, unorthodox directions and truly break the rules.

Sitting at Buenos Aires Cafe over a lunch of spinach salad and empanadas, Berry is relaxed and relieved, as he’s fresh off the heels of this year’s festival. He’s also proud of where he’s taken Fusebox and hopeful about its future. This year’s festival had its challenging moments, ranging from technical hurdles to concerns about money and whether or not the audience will materialize.

“Every day has its own special brand of nuttiness,” he said. “It’s exhausting and exhilarating. You’re also always worried about next year and the grants that you need to be working on right now.”

Although he has been a resident of Austin for 15 years, Berry’s family is from Houston. His father worked for NASA, but Berry and his three sisters are all artistically inclined: a floral designer, a singer-songwriter and an art director. Prior to joining Fusebox as its only full-time staff member, Berry worked for Thinkwell, a multimedia education company that’s also been a sponsor of the festival. At Thinkwell, he shot and edited their vidoes, which were generally short lectures taught by various teachers from around the country.

The festival has grown dramatically since its modest start six years ago with a budget of $6,000. It’s now a citywide 10-day cultural stew that easily attracts up to 20,000 attendees at a range of venues.

Berry studied theater at Earlham College, a small liberal arts school in Indiana, which he said was “like going to school in a John Cougar Mellencamp video.” He also studied theater and contemporary British literature in London for one year as part of the college’s cultural reimbursement program. Like many others, he moved to Austin to make art with his friends, and he’d always been interested in the conversations between different art forms.

Berry said the festival came about out of two needs: one was to address Austin’s relative geographic isolation by bringing outside artists here and the other was to create a multitude of conversations across different art forms.

The Fusebox Festival encompasses music, dance, theater and visual art. It partners with, among others, Arthouse at the Jones Center, test performance test, the Austin Museum of Art, Texas Performing Arts at UT-Austin, Art Alliance Austin, Ballet Austin and Women & Their Work.

Although Berry is the only full-time employee, each January he hires a few part-time staffers to work from that point through the festival (in April). His office space is actually in Thinkwell’s building off east 6th street, and Berry can frequently be found holding meetings or brainstorming with artists at places such as East Side Show Room.

“That was life changing. The first four years I didn’t get paid anything,” said Berry, noting that he was still freelancing for Thinkwell at that time. “It had reached a point where the festival couldn’t continue without a full-time person.”

Berry said it’s hard for him to unplug fully, given that he’s doing what he loves. A self-confessed movie buff, he enjoys going out to his parents’ house on the Llano River and reading about current events and politics. He’s currently working on a few screenplays, and, believe it or not, he even makes time for a personal life.

He met his partner of two years, Anna, on OKCupid.com. She’s a social worker for a mental health advocacy organization and spent four months working at a shelter for domestic violence victims outside Dubai. After exchanging a lot of email, it was clear that they were going to like each other.

Two events stand out for Berry from this year’s festival. One was the performance by Action Hero, a theater group based out of England, that put on a show at the Victory Grill exploring American culture by creating a Western in the bar.

“Part of that was the ordeal getting them here,” Berry said, noting that visa issues and the erupting volcano in Iceland were both problems. “it was just a completely ridiculous nightmare getting them here.”

His other favorite was the opening night, which he said really epitomized the cross-cultural mix that the festival strives for. It featured 200 two-steppers on the Capitol grounds followed by a free dance show at the Paramount with the virtuostic Japanese dance performer Kaiji Moriyama, renowned in the contemporary dance world, and the kickoff dance party with New York City’s Andrew Andrew–known to DJ with their iPads.

Berry was happily taking a moment to breathe after the marathon buildup and the actual event as he sorted through paper- work and made sure that everyone would get paid on time. However, he was already looking ahead to next year’s festival, with trips planned to Portland for the Time Based Art Festival and New York City for Under the Radar and Performa.

He has plenty in store for 2011 and wants to broaden the scope and reach of Fusebox. “I’m really wanting to engage with the culinary community and have some events where we pair specific artists with chefs and create experiences involving food. Similarly, I’d like to do something with the tech community and create a series of tech and art events,” he said.

Berry has formed many friendships with fellow artists and performers and as such, he doesn’t leave his work at the office. Blurring the lines between his personal and professional life doesn’t seem to faze him too much, though. “I deeply believe in the promise of live performance and art. I believe in what it can do and what it offers,” Berry said. “To me, it’s the most exciting platform I can think of to examine, create and challenge new ideas and conversations. These are the things I’m very passionate about.”

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