Does Portland need a contemporary art center?
Posted by D.K. Row, The Oregonian August 30, 2008 13:33PM
The beginning of the school year at Oregon's colleges and universities makes me think about the one crucial planet missing from Portland's expanding art universe: A nonprofit contemporary art center blessed with courageous, world-class leadership.
Thank the art galleries at Reed College, Lewis & Clark College, Willamette University, Pacific Northwest College of Art and Marylhurst University, among others, for picking up the baton. They showcase significant regional artists and think-piece exhibits on issues of the day.
These exhibits more or less do for our area what contemporary art centers do in other places with more-developed art scenes: They immerse the public and the local art world in the most challenging national and international art currents. They show local artists what is being created beyond their backyard. They urge dealers and curators to take more daring artistic chances, and of course, they push critics to similarly write more boldly, thoughtfully.
But as good as these academic galleries are, they aren't enough to help situate Portland as a world class ecology of artists, dealers, collectors and curators.
Institutional independence is the main reason. Academic art galleries are directly tied to, and serve the missions of, their respective colleges and universities. So are their budgets, more often than not. Offering the public razor-sharp devotion to the most cutting-edge contemporary art probably doesn't fit into the varying missions and budgets of these colleges and universities.
That's why so many local curators, dealers and artists have complained in recent years that a thriving contemporary art nonprofit is long overdue -- our own version of P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center in New York, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles or the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. The pining has approached especially feverish heights as the determined Portland art scene has become gripped by an inferiority-superiority complex more suitable to Olympics-host China than laid-back Portland.
Indeed, maybe the most compelling underlying reason to have a nonprofit is psychological. A successful contemporary art center would just make us feel better about ourselves. Just as the 2008 Summer Olympics did for China, a sustainable contemporary art center in Portland would announce to the rest of the art world that we've arrived. Treat us as your peers, New York and Los Angeles.
What would it look like?
But even if the city's art community managed to get an art center working, there is another, even more salient question: What would it look like?
There are roughly three models. One is not unlike the Portland Center for the Visual Arts, the only successful visual arts center in Portland's history, which operated from 1972-87. Started by three of the city's most respected artists of that time, Michele Russo, Mel Katz and Jay Backstrand, PCVA operated both as a kind of programmatic counterpoint and as an adjunct to the Portland Art Museum. Some of that era's biggest contemporary figures, who would have usually shown at major museums, including Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd and Richard Serra, came to visit Portland at PCVA's funky Old Town space.
Another possibility could fashion itself after this current generation's version of a nonprofit, in particular the now-closed Portland Art Center. Besides presenting exhibits, these DIY-influenced nonprofits have embraced additional missions. The art center, for example, aspired to be a resource hub for artists. Need a grant? Visit the center to see what's available.
A third model would emerge from an academic situation. One of the best art centers on the West Coast is the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, which is the art gallery within the California College of the Arts. Unlike Portland's academic art galleries, the Wattis functions independently from the college. Perhaps the Pacific Northwest College of Art, which is in the midst of a major capital campaign as it tries to become both an art and design college and the city's main hub of intellectual exchange, is the best positioned academic institution to make such a contemporary art center possible.
The donor question
Which of these models, with vastly different donor bases, is most sustainable?
PCVA proved that serious contemporary art had an audience in Portland. But it came and went before the flood of new money that created Portland's current Gilded Age of consumerism featuring Pearl District condos, flashy retail shops and restaurants. After 15 hand-to-mouth years, it closed.
For new nonprofits like the Portland Art Center and Disjecta, sustainability is really a matter of focus and restraint. You can't fund multiple missions when you have difficulty paying the rent, especially if most of your donors are poor young artists. Art centers can't run solely on enthusiasm, after all.
All of these efforts might give the impression that money is the key to a thriving contemporary art center.
George Thorn, an arts consultant who advised the Portland Art Center, and recently, the Portland Art Museum, thinks that it would take a few million dollars, at least, to annually fund the operations of an art center. And that's after getting it going.
"I'm not sure there are enough resources here to support a contemporary visual art center at a level that's necessary to create something of significance," says Thorn.
Maybe Thorn's right. Maybe the money isn't here. Or maybe the money is here and what's lacking is something more fundamental, like leadership.
Since the era of PCVA and Portland's most emulated dealer, the late William Jamison, Portland has had just one charismatic, knowledgeable arts leader, and that's been Kristy Edmunds, who started the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art in the '90s. Inspired by PCVA, for a time, PICA featured a dedicated visual arts program before streamlining its limited financial resources to focus on the dominant part of its mission, the performing arts.
The city's newest attempts at nonprofits have been genuine efforts. But sheer earnestness, the sense of financial entitlement that arises from nonprofit status and splashy parties aren't enough. They haven't shown the kind of vision, administrative focus, quality programming and financial discipline that inspires the public trust. Simple questions should be answered with clarity and without hesitation: Who are you? What are you? Where are you going?
Few of this current generation of nonprofit directors could answer those questions like the fiery Edmunds, who bridged the gap between struggling artists and high flying businesses like Wieden+Kennedy. Of course, all good things have to end. Edmunds left Portland and PICA a few years ago for a new gig in Australia.
So, as you visit the new season of art offerings at Oregon's major colleges and universities, think about the great shows you'll see, but also the many questions for the Portland art world. Of those questions, only one needs to be answered right now: Does Portland have a great arts leader in its midst?
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