Daydream Believer: Ann Kalmbach at Retirement

April 24, 2017 by

Ann Kalmbach is retiring, but you’d never know it. Without hesitation, she outlines her vision for Women’s Studio Workshop in 10 or 20 years.

“We’d have yet another building, and we’d own the property behind us, and we’d have a beautiful pavilion for kids programming, and we’d have the largest archive of women artists in the world, and the exhibition program would be fabulous, and we’d be having regular, thoughtful conversations in a really vigorous way.” She pauses. “We’d be a cultural hotspot. We’d have to fight people away.”

Ann has a lot on her mind, and over lots of coffee, a conversation with her takes several rambling detours. Her life is intimately entangled with the organization she’s run for the last 43 years, but she’s disinterested in taking any personal credit for the success of a truly pioneering nonprofit that has invested over 3.6 million dollars in the careers of women artists from across the world. She’d much rather talk about her ideas for WSW’s future. These range from the practical (would adding a door make the intaglio studio feel less like a hallway?) to the downright kooky (how about a resident cook who would whip up “magical” meals for everyone, Chopped-style, from potlucked ingredients?).

“OK, it’s a little outside the box. So what?! I am constantly operating in this lasagna-level thinking!” she laughs, reaching for a predictably unpredictable Kalmbach metaphor. “People see only the mozzarella on top, but there’s all this underlying stuff, everything is enmeshed deeply in layers. In the middle of it, for me, always: support our artists.”

As WSW’s Executive Director, Ann navigates challenges and opportunities filtered through a calculus of budget, personnel, facilities, brand, and mission. The last of the Workshop’s four co-founders to leave the organization, she’s now pondering how to logistically and philosophically transfer leadership to a generation that lives in a digital world; that’s wrestling with complicated notions of feminism, gender, and identity; and that lives in a climate of precarious support for the arts. Succession notwithstanding, she has a long list of questions, hopes, projects, and plans for the Workshop.

“I am really good at sitting here with my brain wandering around,” she says. “I can remember as a kid watching birds out the window and just, like, dreaming.”

Ann (left) in the silkscreen studio, 1984

Growing up in Rochester, NY, Ann learned to offset print at her church, churning out the flyers and bulletins. At SUNY New Paltz (where she met Anita Wetzel), Ann studied art education and planned to teach, but as soon as the BFA program was offered she veered toward art making and then an MFA in printmaking at Rochester Institute of Technology (where she met Tana Kellner).

“There was a clear difference between me and the other students,” she says. “I always preferred making the stretchers to painting.” Likewise, screen printing at the scale of six or eight square feet was the kind of complex problem solving that Ann thrived at: look at something, turn it, see it differently, fit it next to another thing, rotate until it all clicks into place. And though she’s pursued various artistic projects over the years—including books with Tana under the KaKe Art moniker—she’s primarily directed her creative energy toward the Workshop. Because for Ann, running WSW is one endless brain teaser.

“It’s exactly like doing the Jumble word puzzle,” she says. “You stare at random letters and suddenly a word appears, no question about it. MJORA is MAJOR. It’s art making. That’s why I always say that running the organization is my art practice.”

So starting the workshop—originally the Women’s Studio Collective—fresh out of grad school with Tana, Nita, and Barbara Leoff Burge seemed like a fitting challenge. (“When you’re, like, 25, you know everything.”) The question was how to creatively solve the problem of getting women’s work into the mainstream art conversation. They felt strongly that investing in the overlooked, under-supported artistic production of women meant they would need to be a little radical, and practice an integrity they found lacking in a New York City-centric, male-dominated, profit-based institutional and commercial art world. In Ann’s words, they’d have to be “separate and better.”

L-R: Barbara Leoff Burge, Ann Kalmbach, Tana Kellner, and Anita Wetzel

“In those days, the neighborhood kids would come around and play,” she says. “I used to think, ‘What if these kids grew up knowing that only women were artists? What would that be like, to shift thinking like that?’”

This is the wide aperture through which Ann sees the world: everything brimming with potential. As the founders settled into their roles, Ann, charismatic and outspoken, gravitated naturally toward thinking big. It would take a delicate balance over the next four decades: the Workshop needed the courage to be distinct, but also the willingness to grow beyond printmaking and the responsiveness to move with both specific local needs and broad changes in society and culture. And if things got tough they conjured all their resourcefulness and resilience, in the true spirit of collectivity and community, to pull through. A micro-revolution, working toward a shared, empowering goal.

“I believe in everything the Workshop stands for. I am totally loyal to the concept,” Ann says, and it’s impossible to doubt her. “Faith is an odd thing: once you sort of ‘get it,’ you don’t question yourself.”

This innate, fundamental conviction in what the Workshop does and represents—morally, ethically, and politically—is what Ann calls her “missionary zeal.” She is devoted to positively impacting people’s lives: at WSW, success means that more women have the time, resources, and agency to articulate their experiences of the world, whatever that looks like. It’s ambitious, but for Ann it’s above all an act of service.

“I think people can easily do good with what they’re given,” she says. “In that sense, I always thought of the Workshop as church work. It’s a safe place. It’s a voice and a community. If I’m proud of anything, it’s the sense that for some artists, the experience here has been life-changing.”

The puzzle Ann faces now is one of the most complex she’s tried to solve: How do you leave a place and a vision that’s in your bones, especially when you live just across the street? Ann won’t dwell on it: “Shall we go look at the new space instead? It’s pretty exciting.”

Walking through WSW’s new building, Ann describes how the expansion project ultimately aims to protect the near-sacred space of the studio for WSW’s residents, who are often working through their own artistic questions. “Making art is exciting and terrifying—it’s torture!” she says. “How do we support artists through that? How do we protect this environment and not be judgmental and just let people work?”

In the age of the tweet, Ann is existentially concerned with fostering slow, lasagna-level engagement with the world. It’s why she sees running WSW as her art practice, why she uses unexpected words like “interesting,” “exciting,” and “fabulous” to describe administration.

“We get to give someone an opportunity to think,” she says. “We give people permission to have pondering time. And it’s their thinking and work-making that become food for the rest of us—it’s what produces great art, great music, fabulous books. It makes life a little better. Helping people get stuff made, that’s the whole point.”

Alumna Zarina Hashmi prints The House With Four Walls alongside Ann Kalmbach, 1991.

That’s the rubric against which Ann evaluates WSW. Building this place was a bet against the odds. It’s a daily act of faith in artists, interns, teachers, community members, representatives, and investors; in the sincerity of artists’ work and the potential for it to enrich people’s lives. The principle of serving where you are with what you have is the banner WSW has been waving for the last 43 years, and, if Ann has her way, will be waving the next 43, and beyond.

Meanwhile, she’ll be reading voraciously about history, theology, wisdom, and generous listening. (Since WSW produced Amelia Bird’s Walden Marginalia, she’s been underlining and transcribing fragments of books.) And there’s gardening: she’s got 200 leeks that aren’t going to plant themselves. And she’s scanning her surroundings, finding the gaps in the local community where she can put herself to use.

“It’s my life’s work, it’s what I do,” Ann says. A few days later she adds in a follow-up email with the subject line “OK Last Thoughts (Maybe)”: “If you use the lasagna analogy, the missionary zeal is the red sauce…It penetrates everything.”

 Please join us in celebrating Ann Kalmbach
at WSW’s 10th Annual Gala & Auction, Sunday
May 21, 2017 at the Senate Garage, Kingston, NY.
Find more info and purchase tickets here.

About the author:
A California native, Jenn Bratovich came to the East Coast to study at the University of Rochester, where she earned her BA in studio art. At WSW, she worked as an administrative intern. After a year working at an art education nonprofit in Providence, RI, Jenn returned to WSW to lead online communications and to revamp the blog and online artist alumnae archive. She is currently earning her MA in art history at Hunter College in New York City and is the Exhibitions and Publications Manager at Hunter College Art Galleries.