Level Ground Festival: Breaking Boundaries and Igniting Empathy With Art

The free annual celebration is an experiment in “trying, failing, and tinkering with who we are and what we do.”

level ground festival dancer

Samantha Curley is the Executive Director of Level Ground, an LA-based award-winning arts cooperative that produces the Level Ground Festival. The diverse, multi-genre festival aims to provoke conversation, empathy and inspire cultural change.

2019 marks the sixth year of the Level Ground Festival, spanning three nights in LA during the month of October. This year, the festival features three artists whose art takes place “between spaces” that explore the connection between Mexican, Spanish and Angeleno ancestors, the socialization of Afghan American girls and the culture that technology and community creates.

The festival is open to the public and free. RSVP at

As Curley explains “Since 2014, Level Ground has hosted six annual festivals in Los Angeles and seven roadshow festivals in cities across the country. We’ve collaborated with over 200 artists, welcomed over 5,000 diverse audience members and moderated discussions with acclaimed artists in every medium. We are thrilled to introduce our fearless artists at the 6th annual Festival in Los Angeles.”

Curley shared her thoughts with Homegirl Talk about the Level Ground Festival, why it’s a game changer, and the importance of celebrating women, diversity, and more.

Samantha Curley of Level Ground Festival

Tell us about the Level Ground Festival. How did it come about? How did you make this all happen?

Level Ground is creating experiments in empathy and the festival is our yearly celebration of those experiments.

We showcase work from the Level Ground Collective, including immersive gallery shows from our resident artists, screenings and presentations of production projects, and anything else we’ve created throughout the year.

Our goal is to invite the public to participate in crucial cultural conversations and provoke everyone to see themselves and each other – in a new way. 

Because the festival reflects the experiments from the Collective, every year it’s a totally new and different experience. Like everything Level Ground does, artistic collaboration is what makes it all happen! 

Part of your vision is creating experiments in empathy. What does empathy teach us? How does it inform artists?

Roger Ebert said that movies are empathy machines. Joyce Carol Oates said that art should provoke our sympathies in ways we do not expect and may not even desire. There is a powerful and mysterious connection between art and empathy.

At Level Ground we call it an experiment because we don’t think there’s a template or formula that makes art effective in transforming people. We want to provide space for artists to work outside gatekeeper institutions and create what hasn’t been tried before. We also don’t want to get stuck doing the same thing over and over again. 

Not only are we working with artists to experiment in empathy, we regard Level Ground itself as an experiment. We’re always trying, failing, and tinkering with who we are and what we do.  

Level Ground Festival

Tell us about some of the artists you’ve worked with over the years who have had a major impact on your life.

Level Ground is an especially relational organization. That means every artist we’ve worked with has had an impact on the evolution of Level Ground, and on my life personally. That’s one of the things I love most about what I do! 

A few artists of note – Mac Shannon is a visual artist and poet who was my first friend in the queer community. My friendship with Mac (along with his art) is what inspired me to start Level Ground.

I met filmmaker Chase Joynt in 2013, a year before the very first Level Ground Festival. I still think about his short film, I’m Yours, whenever I meet someone and want to know more about their lived experiences. Chase has been a significant artistic voice in Level Ground’s evolution, especially when he invited me (and Level Ground) to produce his film Framing Agnes, which premiered at Tribeca this year.

Leslie Foster, who is Level Ground’s Residency Director, has also been part of Level Ground from the very first festival. As an experimental, queer filmmaker of color, Leslie’s art has taught me to be more flexible and open to the nonlinear. 

What do you think are the most challenging aspects of being a young artist trying to make it in life while making their mark in the art world? 

I think the biggest challenge for young artists is living in a hyper-capitalist society that doesn’t value artistic exploration and development. The pressure of bills, high rent, and student loans, plus an educational system that isn’t equipped to help most young people manage a household economy, let alone when you’re an artist, is incredibly depressing and isolating. 

I find that many of the young artists we work with at Level Ground need practical resources concerning finances and self-care. They also need mentorship and encouragement around growing their careers as artists, and also their development as humans.

Many of them haven’t gone to art school and are also looking for artistic collaborators and community, which can be challenging to find in a city like Los Angeles. 

Woman at Level Ground Festival

How do you prepare artists for their Level Ground Festival experience and their artistic endeavors in general?

One of the fun things we get to do at Level Ground is give artists the freedom to be artists. While we manage production, fundraising, and marketing logistics, we challenge artists to think big and not limit their ideas because they aren’t sure how to make them happen (practically speaking). 

We also help artists think about who they want to be in front of an audience. How will they speak about their work? How will they walk into the gallery and interact with audiences? 

As producers, Level Ground is taking so much off the plate of an artist so that they can actually be the artist. It might sound simple, but making that leap is brand new, challenging, and also particularly powerful for many artists.

I think this is also why so many of the artists we work with stay connected to Level Ground across multiple years and projects. They trust us, respect us, and want to reciprocate our generosity and friendship. 

What would you most like to change in the world with Level Ground and the festival?

I think history shows us that social progress only takes root when we are in relationship with people who are different from us.

There are not many places in our society where someone can go to make new friends, especially across any kind of significant human difference.

I hope that Level Ground inspires open-mindedness and solidarity by facilitating conversations and eventually relationships across our differences and disagreements. 

In friendship, I hope we are provoked towards empathy. With empathy, I believe we can make the world a better, safer, more loving, and more equitable place for everyone. 

Get more information on the 6th Annual Level Ground Festival.

Written by Mar Yvette

Mar Yvette is an on-air host, lifestyle expert, writer and editor with 10+ years of experience working with some of the world’s most recognized media companies.