On (not) Seeing Kara Walker Speak at Reed College

The hall was full and the reporter makes a resolution


Kara Walker is a genius. The MacArthur committee made it official when she was 28, and they were right. Walker makes very smart, terribly beautiful, and consistently disruptive and disturbing work, some of which is on show at Reed College’s Cooley Gallery right now.

On Tuesday evening, just after the announcement of this year’s crop of MacArthur geniuses, Walker visited Reed to give a talk. And I should have known to watch out. I should have guessed. The last time I went to see Kara Walker’s art, I waited in line at the Whitney, outside the Whitney and around the corner actually, and I set aside the whole day for it. Because Kara Walker is a genius and a bright challenger of received opinion and even in Southeast Portland on a Tuesday night, everybody, or close to everybody, showed up.

I got to the lecture hall a respectable (I thought) 15 minutes early, but the atrium was already filled with the disappointed. People milled around looking alternately frantic or disheartened, some of them attempting to scoot past the very kind and very adamant door-minders, others squinting at the over-full overflow room, willing more folding chairs to appear. It’s probably unsurprising that Reed students would be avid to see Walker speak, but there were all sorts in the crowd. Students, certainly, but also a series of perplexed older couples, a group of women in their 30s looking amused amid the confusion, various more established folk, some looking very arty and others not arty at all.

Really, close to everybody showed up. And everybody looked surprised and a little impressed. This is Portland. This is Tuesday. We show up for the arts, but we don’t typically line up.

I waved to some lucky acquaintances who’d anticipated better. I wandered around with the Other Disappointed, vaguely imagining that someone might set up another live feed. But, no. Finally, I made my way over to the exhibition and found it likewise crammed, a long line wending out to the student mailboxes. I decided to hold off and went home hungry.

But you know, I’m delighted. Because I’ll go back to the gallery and see Walker’s show on a quieter evening. And the Cooley Gallery, in it’s kindness and wisdom, plans to post a recording of Walker’s talk on their website in a week or so (Editor’s note: we’ll let you know when!). I’ll get to hear what she had to say after all. And in the meantime, I’m delighted that Portland is keyed-in and committed and curious enough to overwhelm the expectations of Reed College, the Cooley Gallery, and all the diligent, disappointed parties who showed up 15 minutes early thinking there wouldn’t be much of a crowd. I hope we all listen to the recording and come back for the show, and then we can chat about it while we’re waiting for things to start the next time everybody shows up. 30 minutes early.


The Cooley Gallery at Reed College is showing “Kara Walker: More & Less” through Nov. 18. The gallery is on the main floor of the Reed Library and is open noon-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Admission is free.

One Response.

  1. Kara Walker’s talk is now up on our website. I’m sorry you weren’t able to hear the talk in person, but I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it online and coming back to visit the exhibit in the Cooley Gallery.


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