Angela Mattox

Mellon Foundation grant will fund new Creative Exchange Lab

Portland Institute for Contemporary Art has received $500,000 to fund a new artist residency program

Large grants aren’t unheard of at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Arts. PICA received a $1 million Doris Duke Charitable Foundation grant in 2001, for example, to support commissioning new work, develop its residency program and aid its presentation efforts, and to establish an artistic programming endowment. But the three-year $500,000 Andrew Mellon Foundation grant that it received back in September (and announced a couple of weeks ago) is for a brand-new program, and that’s a first.

The Creative Exchange Lab is a residency program, but according to Angela Mattox, PICA’s artistic director, it’s one intended to solve a specific problem: As the boundaries between performance and other art forms have blurred, how can artists in different disciplines learn from each other and then have a place to experiment with what they have learned, without a specific performance or exhibition looming? So the Lab, which will welcome its first cohort of residents in April, will gather artists from various disciplines for a few weeks of work and talk.

Jennifer Lacey and Wally Cardona. Cardona is part of PICA's first Creative Exchange Lab./Photo by Ian Douglas

Jennifer Lacey and Wally Cardona. Cardona is part of PICA’s first Creative Exchange Lab./Photo by Ian Douglas

It will diversify in other ways, too, by age, nationality, and where the artists are in their careers. And slots will be reserved for Northwest artists. PICA will host two groups of 8 to 12 residents a year, including a Fall session that will overlap with its Time-Based Art festival. The grant will pay for artist fees and expenses, including studio and workshop space. The first group includes Wally Cardona and Myint Mo, Jibade-Khalil Huffman, Dawn Kasper, Holcomb Waller, and Lucy Lee Yim, a sort of test group that will meet for a shorter period than subsequent resident groups will.


Risking large: Angela Mattox and TBA

At Bright City Lights, PICA's artistic director explains why TBA isn't warm and cuddly

At Monday night’s Bright City Lights, the congenial moderator Randy Gragg interviewed Angela Mattox, the artistic director of Portland Institute for Contemporary Art on the little stage of Jimmy Mak’s jazz club in Portland’s Pearl District. Mattox has been on the job long enough to curate two Time-Based Art Festivals, develop out-of-festival programs (mostly of work in progress by artists performing in an upcoming festival), move to PICA’s new home on Southwest 10th, and help create the Precipice Fund, which turns PICA into a granting organization for small, unincorporated and unofficial artist projects. During their 90 minutes or so onstage, Gragg and Mattox touched on all of these and also a little of Mattox’s bio, because that’s so pertinent to her curating efforts.

Little of this was especially new if you’ve followed PICA, TBA and Mattox’s work very closely, but the summing up was helpful, even if you had. Gragg’s questions were pertinent and characteristically probing, and Mattox’s openness and sense of balance about what she was doing was refreshing.

What I liked best was the clear way Mattox talked about her approach to curating the festival and then after the question-and-answer period, the appreciation of how difficult her job really is. Why is it hard? Because if PICA sees its role as challenging and even subverting the cluster of conventional notions around performance, which it does, it risks offending its audience or missing them altogether, which it has. You don’t have to have a business degree to understand how precarious this particular model must be.

Angela Mattox at a TBA:13 Conversation/Gordon Wilson

Angela Mattox at a TBA:13 conversation/Gordon Wilson

What conventional notions am I talking about? A big one is the role of the audience: lots of PICA performers involve the audience directly in their artmaking and just about all of them address the audience directly, one way or another. If you want to be a silent, comfortable observer in your seat in the dark, many PICA artists won’t satisfy you. Others include the traditional demand for utter transparency and clarity, a simple structure, cultural references that are immediate (lots of PICA performers Mattox has programmed have come from Africa and South America), what constitutes “craft,” and what “good” means.

We use these conventions to measure and talk about performances, subverting them can be irritating. The audience didn’t offer lots of opinions or questions, really, but the judgments they did offer, including Gragg’s, indicated a fairly high degree of irritation about some of TBA:13. On the other hand, no one stood up and testified that any particular artist had moved or enlightened them in any way, which I found astonishing, mostly because I have experienced that reliably at TBA over the years, including TBA:13 (the latest version). If I hadn’t had my press hat on and been so busy taking notes, I might have given testimony along those lines, despite how accustomed I am to sitting comfortably in the dark and judging.

Mattox’s curatorial approach seems based on her wide familiarity with emerging performing practices in various parts of the world, her decision that certain artists she encounters have something profound to tell us, the relationships she establishes with those artists (lasting for years sometimes before manifesting on a stage), and their mutual selection of ideas to develop into performance, often for the first time at TBA.

“We throw words like experimental and risk around all the time and it’s lost all meaning,” Mattox said at one point, before pointing out how truly experimental and risky this process is, especially when it comes to bringing projects from North Africa or Chile here, as Mattox has done. And for me at least, she threw down the gauntlet: “We’re not in this work to hear, ‘this is great.'” Which I thought was about the riskiest thing I’ve ever heard an artistic director in Portland say, when it comes right down to it.

What I think Mattox was saying is simply that she offers no guarantees—that you’ll get it, that you’ll like it, that you’ll be able to sit through it, that your mind won’t wander, that you will have a transcendental moment. Actually, these are subjective responses (Mattox used the word “subjective” a lot), and when you think about it, NO art work can offer guarantees of this sort. What she offers instead is an experience that will be new in one way or another, maybe even profoundly new, upsettingly new, irritatingly new.

In this subjective, subverted world, how does the audience gain traction? Mattox worries about that, though I think it’s as much because she wants to protect the artists as help the audience, though in a way these are overlapping missions. So, TBA offers daily conversations with the artists during the festival, those works-in-progress events before the festival starts, a website full of links to previous work by the artist and commentary about them, its own blog during the festival, and probably other paths to understanding that I don’t know about. Of course it’s ridiculous to show up at a performance by Moroccan choreographer Bouchra Ouizguen without having done ANY research and hope to fully understand what’s going on, what’s at stake, what her cultural resources are, what social, political and economic conditions shape the work. The sort of “art” that requires NO research is the Hollywood blockbuster, which only counts on us understanding the idea of revenge to understand fully. Ouizguen, who appeared at this year’s TBA Festival, operates at the margins of her own society and performance traditions, commenting on them as she reacts to them. We need some knowledge to enter her world with her.

Is that too much to ask? To find out enough about Ouizguen to be able to interpret what she’s doing? To trust Mattox that Ouizguen’s work will offer rewards once we do? That’s a personal question, sure, but also a question for the society. How simple do we want our art experiences? How warm and cuddly? How immediate must our gratification be?

The TBA Festival is uncommon because it trusts its audience to take responsibility for itself, to do what it needs to do, even if it means leaving a show, as Mattox said, but then to come back and try again. On my bleaker days, I think this trust is misplaced. How can the Portland audience, even the odd sliver that TBA attracts, be different from audiences everywhere else, audiences that demand escape, sweet and salty snacks, something that anesthetizes them? But TBA is successful within certain parameters. It draws good crowds during its 11-day run, not gigantic ones but solid. Gradually, it has become an important international festival and nurturing ground for performance that breaks with convention, that comments on our politics, our values, our ideas about what fits into the category “art,” the tiny particularity that resides within the big word “international.” That’s mostly because we support art of this kind, get its value, arrive open-minded even after leaving the last performance perplexed or even vaguely put out.

Ultimately, I do believe in the particularity of Portland and its tradition of support for and positive enjoyment of maverick work of all kinds, which frankly is what makes ArtsWatch so much fun. I think PICA and Angela Mattox must share that faith, along with their faith in the artists they bring.

I’ve been working on a couple of stories lately, outside of News & Notes, on two of the state’s major arts institutions. In one way or another, these are going to start to unfold during the next couple of weeks, some of them right here in News & Notes, so this is a good time to discuss very briefly the context of those stories.

The first is simply the public’s right to know what is going on inside organizations that were established in the public interest—and the reasonable limits of that right. My perception of this right to know animates both stories, with very different results, because they involve very different situations. Although there are legal rules and standards that apply to this public right, I’m not going to utilize them in either story, meaning that I’m not going to sue anybody to get information or make a wide-ranging public records request. I am going to push for and publish information that I think directly applies to the public right to know, though, tell you what I’ve decided not to share and why, and let you know how interested in sharing information people have been.

Freely available information is crucial to the effective functioning of a democratic society. Unfortunately, many of our institutions don’t behave democratically, either in this larger sense or in their internal structures. That’s the second context for these two projects: to encourage systems that are more open, both to the public and to their employees and stakeholders.  I’m not an absolutist about this: Sometimes decisions must be made without the participation of others, but a good rationale must be advanced to justify them. And that rationale should be available for discussion later. As a general rule I believe that the more widely issues are discussed the more likely we are to arrive at better solutions and build the support it takes to execute those solutions in complicated situations. Both of the situations I’m looking at are relatively complicated.

Finally, I think both of these areas are important to investigate because they both bear on the health of the state’s artists and arts organizations  and the health of the culture as a whole. I consider both of the organizations at the center of the stories to be central ones. A lot depends on their success. Their failure would have wide-ranging consequences. In short, as a citizen of the state, I want both of them to succeed.

OK, enough of that. I have a few more interviews to conduct before I post anything, or I would have begun yesterday.


Randy Gragg, my old colleague at The Oregonian, has just accepted a new post directing the John Yeon Center at the University of Oregon (Brian Libby’s interview with him outlines his new post and responsibilities), but he’s also remaining as editor-at-large for Portland Monthly, and in that capacity will continue to host the Bright Lights: Discussions on the City series of onstage interviews. Which is excellent news!

TBA13 2This month Angela Mattox, the artistic director of PICA, will join Gragg on the stage of Jimmy Mak’s, 221 NW 10th Ave.: 6 pm Monday, Nov. 18, free. For newcomers to ArtsWatch, Mattox’s responsibilities include designing PICA’s Time-Based Art Festival every year, a collision of fine and performing artists from all over the world. That means that Mattox herself has to do a vast amount of research, because the edgy and emerging artists she and PICA favor are hard to find. They aren’t necessarily promoted by their countries of origin. The intellectual demands of understanding and making a coherent program out of these artists is also intense: The traditions and current cultural resources they draw on aren’t widely understood in the West.

The press release says Mattox, who has worked on the last two incarnations of TBA, “will discuss her evolving views of the city, its taste in art, and her own evolving aesthetic. She will present some highlights from 2013 TBA Festival along with work artists she believes are defining the current international dialog.”


dozano 2Next year, Blackfish Gallery, the artist-run cooperative in the Pearl District, celebrates its 35th anniversary, which I find personally noteworthy because the gallery started the same year I moved to Portland! These two anniversaries have nothing much in common actually, except that we’ve both seen a LOT of changes in the visual arts landscape during that time. Some of these emerge in this Blackfish By the Numbers, the gallery recently distributed.

  • Year in which Blackfish opened its doors: 1979
  • Estimated number of other art galleries operating in Portland at that time: 3
  • Estimated number of galleries operating in Portland today: 250
  • Number of artists who founded Blackfish: 18
  • Number of founding artists still showing at Blackfish: 4
  • Number of artists’ surnames combined to form the Blackfish name: 2 (Barbara Black and Julia
  • Fish)
  • Number of galleries—including Blackfish—that started First Thursday in 1986: 7
  • Total number of First Thursday goers who visited Blackfish exhibits in 2012: 7032
  • Year Blackfish moved to its current Pearl District location, 420 NW 9th
  • Number of artists who have made their professional debuts at Blackfish in our annual Recent
  • Grads exhibition: 540
  • Number of years, and counting, that Blackfish has hosted the Recent Grads exhibition: 18
  • Number of exhibitions Blackfish has mounted in the Czech Republic: 2
  • Average number of arts and education-based organizations that Blackfish offers its space to—
  • rent free—each year: 37
  • Years between the current oldest and current youngest Blackfish artists: 50
  • Estimated number of artist/members in Blackfish’s history: 158
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