Elizabeth Thompson knows about detours, roundabouts and convergences. Her path to becoming the chief steward of Buckminster Fuller’s universal legacy was not exactly a straightforward journey. With a liberal arts degree from St. Lawrence University, she started her career in contemporary art, managing the John Gibson Gallery in SoHo. She segued into the world of performing arts as co-founder of Cucaracha Warehouse Theatre, an Obie Award-winning experimental theater company, where she was a producer and performer. “You can do anything when you’re twenty in New York City,” laughs Thompson.
After a decade thriving amid the grueling pace of the NYC arts scene, she moved to San Francisco in search of a change and picked up a masters degree in Comparative Philosophy. Along the way, she founded Planetwork, a non-profit enterprise working at the nexus of communication, technology, and ecology that eventually led her to her current post at BFI.
These days, she’s back in New York, spearheading a busy calendar of programs at BFI, including overseeing the highest prize for social good projects — The Buckminster Fuller Challenge. We caught up with Thompson while she was in the midst of planning the awards ceremony, held this year on November 20 at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn, NY. The 2014 winner is Living Breakwaters, an innovative climate change adaptation solution using “Oyster-techture” to promote climate resiliency in coastal areas.
What do you find most exciting about this year’s Buckminster Fuller Challenge winner?
It’s the first time that a woman-led team has won, and we’re ecstatic about that. It’s also the first time the prize is going to a New York-focused project. The more you explore their strategy, the more remarkable it is. They’ve identified a synergy between design and community process and negotiated a system to ensure its long-term success. Though they’re not the only firm engaged in this design approach, what sets them apart is this acuity for community stewardship coupled with an astute analysis from a policy perspective.
Do you find a personal affinity with this synergistic approach?
Absolutely. I’m an ardent defender of the lateral, wide-reaching intellectual appetite. Buckminster Fuller was a creative maverick and straight up genius who embodied this convergence of technology, arts, science—all in the context of addressing the planetary crisis. He coined a term, “omnidirectional,” that was very appealing to me.
What is your preferred mode of discovery?
I’m not very good at planning. When I’m traveling, I usually I like to wander. I wish I could do more of this kind of exploration in New York, but I have two small children and a dog. My discovery here is usually guided by what friends are doing.
How is an app like dsgnfix helpful to you?
To have recommendations from people you admire and whose work you follow is a fantastic concept. When you’re traveling, it’s a wonderful tool to have.
If you could recommend one place that’s currently not on your list of picks on dsgnfix, what would it be?
I just got back from the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, AK. I was skeptical about this place initially, but I haven’t had a more inspiring, soulful experience of art in a long, long time. The combination of the building, designed by Moshe Safdie, its location wooded hills where you can see the trees turning fall colors. Add to that this extraordinary collection of American art and this new show called “State of the Art,” where the curator logged 100,000 miles visiting 1,000 artist studios who were totally off-the radar of the contemporary art world— a profound exercise in listening and following recommendations of people in towns and cities. It’s amazing.
Access picks from a growing roster of esteemed curators, including Elizabeth Thompson's recommendations, via the free dsgnfix iOS app.