Portland Institute for Contemporary Art: How nomadic can it get?


Are Portland neighborhoods ready for TBA-like events?/Photo: Jennifer Erickson, courtesy of PICA

After Portland Institute for Contemporary hired a full-time artistic director earlier this summer and intimated that year-round programming of some sort was on the way, it became apparent that something was going on at the place, another change of direction.

But the details, dimensions and philosophy behind the changes were missing. Where was PICA going with this, and what would it mean for its Time-Based Art festival, which this year is drawing big crowds to Washington High School and other halls around the city?

While we’re still short of details — mostly because PICA itself hasn’t figured them out yet, according to executive director Victoria Frey and Michael Tingley, the chair of its strategic planning committee — it IS possible to sketch what this new version of might look like, especially with the news that PICA now has a $200,000 ArtPlace grant in its pocket to get things moving.

Why is this important? Because PICA is the city’s primary steward/curator of a certain sort of performance and visual art. It’s not that the wilder, more experimental, riskier side of contemporary art isn’t indigenous to the city and supported by lots of galleries, clubs and presenters. It is. But PICA, by bringing in the best examples of such work nationally and sometimes internationally, plays a key role in helping set “standards” and “best practices” in an area of art that tends to resist (or at least subvert) both.

PICA has had a history of change and a resistance to institutionalization. Was it about to go a more conventional route?  We don’t know for sure, but the philosophy at work and the plans afoot aren’t very conventional at all.
A little history

History is contested. We never quite get it right! So I venture into this section with some trepidation. The point is less the individual details (which I’m going to gloss over in any case) and more the direction PICA has taken since it began in 1995, because I consider it to be unusually creative among organizations its size (revenues around $1.1 million give or take).

PICA started in 1995 when Kristy Edmunds, already a hard-charging curator/artist/entrepreneur, basically took her Art on the Edge program, which she had curated for the Portland Art Museum, and went independent with it. Art on the Edge had two components, performance and visual art of various sorts, and so did PICA at the beginning and to this day.

Although the arts in Portland in 1995 were starting to blossom a bit as young artists and musicians moved to town (or grew up here and decided to stay), the organizations that supported more challenging work here, Portland Center for the Visual Arts and Portland State’s dance program, had collapsed (and White Bird was a few years away from hatching). So, I remember a lot of skepticism around Edmunds’ decision to light out on her own, though in retrospect it seems reasonable, especially given Edmunds’ charisma and the support she found around the city (both BOORA Architects and Wieden + Kennedy successively donated space for PICA’s offices, for example).

For the next seven years, Edmunds and her staff built PICA along two different lines. The first involved a performance series that brought inventive dance, music and theater to town, and by town, I mean various halls throughout the city. And the second was a visual arts program that also was peripatetic, installing itself in raw spaces in and around the Pearl District. By 2002, though, some problems arose. It was increasingly difficult to book performance spaces around the city, artists fees had risen, and PICA’s attempt to establish a permanent visual arts program had proven difficult to sustain.

That’s when the invention of the Time-Based Art Festival comes in. Rather than struggle to make the old model work, PICA killed off its performance series and gallery space and jumped to a new model altogether, the international performance festival, popular in Europe but less so in the U.S.

When Edmunds first told me about it, I remember being surprised — not stunned, exactly, more like “whoa!” — and a little skeptical. I imagined a tiny, insular little event of, by and for the most “experimental art-engaged” tenth of one-percent of the population, and I couldn’t figure out where its money would come from. Or, conversely, it would be aimed at a much larger audience and lose its avant-garde bona fides in the process. But I misunderstood how much creativity this model allowed Edmunds and her staff, and the first TBA in 2003 — I still remember Eiko and Koma in Jamison Square — was convincing, popular and adventurous.

PICA lost Kristy Edmunds to an important Australian festival in Melbourne in 2005, but by that time the model was in place and thriving. Now, we’re up to TBA:11, which, from the early returns, has been quite successful at attracting crowds to its events and to its Washington High School headquarters (this is its third year in the old high school) for art installations and late night performances. Why would PICA want to tinker with success? Why not continue to perfect the festival?


When I talked to strategic plan chair Tingley and Ethan Seltzer, former board chair and current board member, they said similar things, after beginning the conversation with assertions about the continuing importance of TBA to any “new” manifestation of PICA.

“There was a concern within PICA that the festival was beginning to eclipse PICA as an organization,” Tingley said. “We asked ourselves, ‘Is there substance to PICA beyond the festival?’ Both the staff and board think so.”  And Seltzer put it this way: “PICA is not simply TBA, one event that happens and goes away for 50 weeks.”

The problem was that outside of a small circle of PICA true believers, PICA did cease to exist once TBA closed for the year. So, the organization decided to do some things that it hoped would project PICA farther out into the Portland community geographically and spread its programming throughout the year. The plan included:

  • Hiring a full-time resident artistic director, Angela Mattox, to replace its current system of part-time guest artistic directors
  • Moving to a new street-level space from its offices at Wieden + Kennedy, to encourage public access to its resource library and special artists events
  • Adding programming throughout the year aimed at neighborhoods outside the downtown core
  • Adapting various kinds of spaces for performance and exhibitions more efficiently and more appropriately to the needs of artists

Each of these plays an important role in the overall idea.

The hiring the first resident, full-time artistic director since Edmunds left was a critical first step. The visiting artistic director idea allowed PICA to get around the problem of losing its founder. Mark Russell and then Kathy Edwards both had excellent credentials in the small “advanced” contemporary art sphere of American culture, and they curated smart, idiosyncratic festivals during their three-year terms.

But if PICA intended to expand its programming, to keep the dialogue with its TBA audience going once the festival was over and to help build the “case” for the next year’s festival, which is how executive director Frey puts it, then it needed someone in place year-round to help make it happen.

The PICA “model” is about opportunism. Its events have jumped all over the Pearl District, downtown and the inner East Side, depending on what spaces, rough as they might be, were available to use. Artists, through PICA, then adapted the spaces for their use — in a way, most PICA events, especially since TBA started but even before, have been site-specific in one way or another. Seeing the possibilities of wider range of potential sites throughout the year and linking them to artists the festival might bring to TBA (or has brought in the past) requires the attention of a full-time curator. As Tingley put it, “Having that person in the offices full-time will open up new ideas, opportunities, thoughts about what PICA can be.”

Tingley considers Mattox an answer to another key PICA question: How do you widen your audience as you move your activities around the city? At Yerba Buena, the large San Francisco art center Mattox left to come to Portland, Tingley says, “She had a really strong connection to local and regional artists and strong ideas about building relationships with the audience and the community.” In her interview with Lisa Radon here at Oregon Arts Watch, Mattox said, “I am a firm believer in supporting provocative, sophisticated work, but I don’t want the audience to feel as if it were being pushed away. I like the idea of being welcoming, of a kind of generosity such that we are inviting a response. It is an invitation to engage.”
The geography of PICA

How far afield will PICA be looking? When I asked Seltzer, who is professor of Urban Studies and Planning at PSU among other things, he suggested “Sandy Boulevard from 11th to Parkrose” as an example, which means the entire city, really.

Not that PICA will establish art centers in neighborhoods all over the city. “We don’t have the resources to create the public library model,” Seltzer pointed out. But if PICA can be mobile enough to occupy empty lots and buildings for short periods of time, it can use its nimbleness to create the sense that art can happen anywhere in the city.

That’s the aim of the ArtPlace grants, according Carol Coletta, ArtPlace’s president. The grants come from a consortium of 11 national foundations (the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, the James Irvine Foundation, The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Rasmuson Foundation and the Robina Foundation as well as an anonymous donor), and Coletta said their intent is integrate artists and arts organization into local development efforts. The measure of their success will be “vibrancy.”

The thought train runs like this. Successful communities are marked by the presence of talent (of all sorts, presumably) and to revitalize a community, it’s necessary to educate, attract and retain talented people. Ultimately, they change the quality of the place and the quality of opportunity in the place, and when it happens, it creates vibrancy. “We believe arts and culture have central role to play in vibrancy,” Coletta said.

The 34 projects that ArtPlace funded include one to the Wing Luke Museum to help the surrounding small business community in Seattle’s International District, for example, and The Trey McIntyre Project in Boise, ID, received $450,000 for its Boise Bright Spot Project, which brings dance to unconventional sites, such as office parks and hospitals.

Seltzer compares the effect of the arts in a community to that of a community garden. The individual working her plot gets different personal satisfactions from producing her own food. “But something else happens,” Seltzer said. “People stop to talk, and the gardens become mechanisms for starting conversations and the conversations are pretty positive.” So strangers start to react to each other in positive ways.

Art works the same way, he says. “People learn more, get more engaged or just give neighbors something more to talk about.” Art can help “re-frame” place, he said, by changing the reasons they meet to engage each other. And Coletta said that part of the appeal of PICA’s grant proposal is that it could mean that art isn’t a “special occasion” for people — it’s around them all the time. That’s a theme of Mattox’s, too. “I’m interested in art and the everyday, about it being part of everyday life, connecting with people over daily rituals,” she told Radon.

Time-out for an argument

Most American cities that have figured out that the arts are good business, have gone the Big Box route.

They build big, expensive downtown cultural “districts,” preferably with museums and concert halls designed by big-name architects. Dallas is the poster city for this approach, though many cities are investing in Big Buildings in their downtown core as a way of generating traffic and economic development. Maybe even more important: They want to send out the message that they are “real” cities with sophisticated cultural offerings, hoping to attract “knowledge-economy” businesses in the process.

The problem is this: How do you attract people to the district who aren’t already engaged with the arts somehow? And those who don’t have a lot of disposable income? And those who are younger? And those who aren’t white? And if you build these cultural districts for elites, on what basis can you ask non-elites to support them with their tax money?

A lot of American cities, including Portland, have witnessed the following pattern. Young artists move into a rundown neighborhood, attracted by cheap, available space for studios and living quarters. A few galleries pop up, then a coffee shop or two. And in a twinkle, full-scale redevelopment is underway, because people are attracted by the activity. In Portland, it happened in the Pearl District and Alberta St. and then on Mississippi, changing those areas completely in the process. But this “unplanned” kind of change has drawbacks (foremost: dislocations of both original residents and the schools built to serve them), along with the benefits, and cities, including Portland, rarely think about how to mitigate those problems.

The direction PICA wants to go is entirely different, if I’m reading them correctly. PICA wants to enter existing neighborhoods, locate abandoned buildings or lots, place artists and exhibitions or performances inside them, encourage conversation, suggest that interesting, creative activities can happen there and then move on to the next place. And in the long run, maybe, someone is inspired to develop something new, too, not an art center probably (though that happened in the Pearl in the BodyVox building, which was “pioneered” as an art space by PICA), but something that increases the “vibrancy” (to use Coletta’s word) of the neighborhood.

Pull this trick enough times, inspire enough people, and you change the city — the whole city and not just the downtown core.

Are the provocations of PICA artists ideal for this sort of business? At first, I thought, probably not. When I thought about “planting” the arts in Portland, neighborhood by neighborhood, which I’m very interested in seeing happen, I imagined less subversive art forms — more traditional theater, dance, music, not classical necessarily, but familiar. But now I can imagine that Jesse Sugarmann’s experiments with cars and large cushions might be just the thing to get conversation going in Irvington or Kenton or Parkrose.  And when it leaves, someone is going to want to do something creative with the block he left behind.

Now, I’m crazy enough to think that the city, through its planning and development offices, should be helping this sort of activity along, helping neighborhoods establish more permanent locations for art to happen, partnering with schools, colleges, libraries, clubs, movie theaters, parks, community centers, and local business districts to spread the arts throughout the community.  And the effect will be impossible to predict, but as Seltzer says, “pretty positive.”

Another way to talk about this: Do you put money into arts buildings or into arts programming? Ultimately, you want to do both, Seltzer said. But at this point a good argument can be made for programming as well and as widely as possible.

Back to PICA: Mobility and the new space

Executive director Frey said two more important things about PICA’s future in our conversations. They may seem contradictory.

The first: PICA will use the grant money to become more mobile, to be able to stage and administer their performances and exhibitions and residencies more easily around the city.
That may mean a new van, a better computer system for ticketing, risers and collapsible stages or inflatable exhibition spaces. Tents! OK, I made a few of those things up, though they are all in keeping with the general idea. It’s probably more cost effective to rent things like lights and stages and sound systems, maybe, but they want the apparatus around their events to be much easier to deploy.

The second: PICA is going to move out of its home in Wieden + Kennedy for a storefront space with room to give the public access to its extensive resource library and to stage lectures, residencies and informal performances, as well as provide its administrative center. The organization has a space in mind, but the deal hasn’t been cut yet. But it IS a real space, not an Airstream trailer or something. Frey said the lease PICA is negotiating is for three years with a possible option for three more.

The advantage of storefront is pretty obvious: To get to PICA now, you have to go through the second floor front desk of a very busy ad agency. “We do lack presence in the community,” Frey said, and a storefront helps to make that presence known (and so does the neighborhood programming and the TBA festival, of course). The disadvantage: Wieden + Kennedy has been the most generous of landlords (just as BOORA was before them). “The Wieden + Kennedy space and relationship has been an incredible gift,” Frey said, and Tingley and Seltzer echoed that gratitude.

And while we are on the subject of moving, Frey said that this is likely the festival’s last year in Washington High School. Art DeMuro’s The Venerable Group and Portland Public Schools are trying to redevelop the campus, and Frey says their plans may not involve TBA next year. And, she said, PICA itself may be ready to pioneer a new site, even though Washington High has been an excellent home, because it’s difficult to keep from programming around the building instead of the artists, once you settle into a space.

The nomadic model

PICA has always seemed more vital the rougher the spaces it inhabited, and over the years, it has occupied some pretty rough warehouse and parking lot spaces. For that matter, Washington High School isn’t exactly pristine (though I’ve been assured that the bones are solid). So, when Tingley says that PICA may be “an organization that in its DNA is itinerant,” that may not be hyperbole.

How mobile can you get? Thanks to computers, administrative functions can be highly portable. And if you are partnering with the city or landlords with developable spaces, the costs of staging events and residencies can be much smaller than those associated with big contemporary arts centers. At least, that’s the idea.

And it’s not just about the money: It’s an invitation to be creative on a wider scale than arts organizations often are. And somehow, make no mistake, we in the audience know when an arts organization is being creative, and it makes a difference to the experience, somehow. At least it does for me.

This course isn’t for everyone. The symphony, for example, probably ought always to be arguing to perform in ever-better acoustic environments, and that doesn’t involve big tents, it involves carefully created and expensive concert halls. Shakespeare in the park is great, but so is Shakespeare in one of the beautiful theaters of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Sometimes, we’re in the mood for one and sometimes for the other, but the investment involved in the latter is one we’re glad to be making.

But the experiment that PICA is undertaking may be useful to other organizations — including companies, according to Coletta. “PICA is modeling this way of being temporary,” she said. And that means, in an era of shrinking resources for arts organizations, finding cheaper and still effective ways of having an effect in their communities becomes really important.

And it is an experiment, maybe more with a different mindset than anything else, although year-round programming around the TBA festival and moving deeper into the community are big steps. How mobile can an organization’s “mind” be? How nimble? How much like that of an artist?

I liked how Tingley described it: “We’re in a cocoon and we’re not sure what we’re going to become.” And a little later: “The changes we are taking on wiill change PICA in ways we can’t predict now and they will be pretty profound.”

Transformation. Experiment. Re-invention. Although we may love the sound of these words, deep down we know they come with a lot of difficulty. Watching PICA deal with the inevitable obstacles will be instructive for the rest of us.


1. Just to be clear: “Contemporary art,” defined simply to mean “art of our time,” involves the widest possible range of visual arts, media and performance styles. For example, for the past few decades some of the most interesting work done in classical music involves a re-investigation of early chamber music instruments and styles. In a strange way, that became “edgy.” PICA is about today’s most “advanced” art practices: “PICA acknowledges and advances new developments in contemporary art while fostering the creative explorations of artists and audiences.”

2. I’ve written about neighborhood-based arts initiatives before, mostly as they relate to ideas of Christopher Alexander.

3. I wrote about this story first for The Oregonian. It appeared in two versions: the longer was for OregonLive; the other appeared in the Friday, Sept. 16, Living section of the newspaper.

4. Kristy Edmunds became artistic and executive director of UCLA Live, a major arts presenter struggling with focus and a large deficit, this spring. And, of course, I had some thoughts about that, too.

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