Edited from an interview by Michael Popham
Ellie McKinney started with APM as the general manager of the Fitzgerald Theater. After a four-year detour to MoMA PS1 in New York, she returned to the Twin Cities and is now the manager of Live Events for MPR.
Q: Hi Ellie! Where did you grow up, and where did you go to school?
A: I was born in Minneapolis and grew up in the northeast neighborhood. I majored in Art History at Minnesota State.
I was very focused on contemporary art, because I had an incredible instructor who was passionate and lit a fire for me. That led to my first job at the Walker in Visitor Services. I worked before the building was re opened after the renovation, and was there during a particularly dynamic time – the energy after re-opening was so exciting – new people were coming to visit and we as staff got to introduce our community to a new space and awesome art and performance.
What I loved about the Walker was, you can see the people who visit – we could see our audiences and the impact everyday, in-person. It’s a little different here, because the bulk of the work here goes out into the ether; either on air or digitally – I think that is why I still love working in events – you can see the folks who are choosing to come and share in time and space with your work product – it is still gratifying for me.
Q: Did you go directly from the Walker to general manager of the Fitz?
A: I did, and the through line was Rock the Garden. I was in charge of the Walker side of Rock the Garden, the project and event management. I was a known entity here as a result of that experience.
My first year on that project was also the Walker’s first year partnering with MPR. The Walker had done the event for a number of years, and for them it was entirely membership-focused. If they had 3500 or 6500 people show up, that’s exactly what they wanted it to be. Adding MPR amplified it, made it more of a 10,000-plus kind of event, and really amplified every element of the project.
Q: How long did you manage the Fitz, and how did you end up going to the Museum of Modern Art in New York?
A: I was at the Fitz for 2 ½ years. There had been a curator at the Walker who was working at MoMA around this time, and that’s how I came to be on their radar.
MoMA PS1 is the contemporary art outpost, and it functioned as an independent entity from the 1970s until 2002. The woman who started it wanted to retire, and the easiest way for her to keep it going was to set up stewardship under MoMA. The art world was super aware of PS1 – is has been an incubator of so many artists, providing support and studio time, and encouraging artists early in their careers, so moving over to MoMA’s stewardship was something that had to be done right. MoMA had to keep it cool and special.
PS1 is in Long Island City, not in Midtown Manhattan, and I was there about four years after MoMA acquired it. During those first years under MoMA very little had changed – Alana [the founder of PS1] was still involved, and when I got there it was clear that we really had to get things sorted out and structured – without compromising the spirit of the place – what really made it special was that it wasn’t MoMA – that it was like the really cool kid sibling – supporting emerging art, not established art. There were only 28 full time employees at PS1 and we had 230,000 visitors a year. Those are similar visitor numbers to the Walker, but with only 28 full time employees – the Walker had between 140 and 180 full time employees. That was a crazy job. But it was also incredibly rewarding.
They had a summer program that was similar to Rock the Garden – except that it was held over 11 Saturdays in the summer. Between 4,000 and 7,000 people every Saturday, all gathered in the courtyard of the museum for this concert. Lots of New Yorkers would go, but there would also be all the regular gallery programming and activities. So I was the person who led all the front of house operations, all the staff, the relationship with the new restaurant café – a bananas amount of stuff – it was a very New York hustle kind of job – exhausting and super rewarding all at the same time.
Q: Did that experience help you when you returned here?
A: Definitely. Anything that pushes you outside your comfort zone – that challenges you to work in new ways with new inputs – that’s going to make you better. I’m usually a planner and love long lead times, that place pushed me to think differently and I still use skills from that experience regularly.
Q: What was your transition to New York and back again like?
A: A friend of mine once said, “New York is always either -6 or +12, there’s no 5”. There’s no middle. Either you’re having the best day of your life or your dog died. That’s part of the joy of living there. The way your boundaries blend in New York are so different than here.
Here, we all just move in our little cars to and from our houses, and we’re very much opting in to our social interactions with people. In New York you’re just forced to be in a space with people you’re not choosing to be in a space with.
Q: What do you like about working at APMG?
A: I like working at an organization that’s audience-oriented. That’s the through line in the arts world as well – I love supporting work that brings content to audiences, especially in real time and space – there is a special magic there for me.
Q: Do you have any hobbies?
A: I don’t really consider life and hobby as separate, necessarily. I don’t see anything you do as a dalliant space – I try to be really intentional with my time. I garden, but my garden looks like Little Shop of Horrors. It’s a Darwin Garden, where only the strong survive. I give everyone a good start, plant the seeds a healthy distance apart. It’s a totally tangled, chaotic garden. Gardening involves a lot of emotional investment at the front end – there’s so much hope and possibility in the beginning, and then anything can happen – a fungus can kill your whole cucumber harvest – heartbreaking! I love that my kid walks out there, and wants the step ladder from the garage so that he can get to the tomatoes that are just out of his reach. I love eating what I grow and love spending time outside in that space – it feels so right and so productive, but I am no master gardener.
Any special skills or abilities that would be handy in case of an emergency (e.g., a zombie apocalypse)?
A: I’d probably start organizing everybody. I can hem my own clothes. I can prepare delicious food. I could eat out of my own yard and pantry for a long time. I have a wide range of mediocre skills – a real general of a generalist.
Do you listen to any podcasts?
A: I like a lot of the first-person interview podcasts. I listen to Dear Sugar’s, I listen to TTFA – a lot of APM stuff.
I also listen to 2 Dope Queens, Death Sex and Money, Janet Lansbury’s Unruffled, Invisibilia, Radiolab, You Must Remember This. Bad With Money was another good one. But I’m always culling and trying to find something new.