The Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project: Examining the culture

The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission have founded a new website that focuses on art in the state

At this moment, any effort to preserve our shared culture is a noteworthy event. This is especially true of the arts parts of the culture. As Oregon Arts Commission’s Meagan Atiyeh noted at a symposium that introduced one such effort, the Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project, the state’s media has abandoned its commitment to full-time critics writing about the arts. And that means that both contemporary conversations about the arts and future investigation of our culture are/will be limited. What happens to a culture that doesn’t understand its past or its present? We are perilously close to finding out.

Backed by the considerable resources of The Ford Family Foundation and the Oregon Arts Commission—more than $50,000 since early 2014, according to Atiyeh, not including lots of staff time—the project intends to be an informal archive and an online magazine that takes the measure of the visual arts in the state. “The partners’ shared wish is to create an accessible, permanent, virtual collection documenting Oregon’s visual arts landscape,” the mission statement says, “and, to continue the metaphor, the interconnected realms of artist, institution, patron, curator, arts writer… which become that ecology.”

Ryan Pierce, From the Pockets of the Wanderer, 2014. Flashe on canvas over panel. Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery, Portland

According to Atiyeh (in an email interview), the website hopes to reach a broad public. “We designed a site that I hope can be rewarding for a highly invested artist or a curator who is looking for research materials and also a casual arts viewer in Oregon (or any spot on the globe, honestly).”

The new website met part of that public on Friday afternoon in a small rehearsal room in Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall for a program entitled “Our Imaginative Life: A Symposium on Art Writing and Criticism.” Atiyeh represented the arts commission and Kandis Brewer Nunn, the foundation. Atiyeh noted the collapse of writing about the visual arts in the state’s newspapers, and Nunn pointed out that this attempt to generate arts writing connects with one of the foundation’s visual arts programs, the Curator/Critic Tour, which brings “national curators and critics to consult with visual artists and to participate in community forums on visual arts.”

Anna Belle Crocker, Untitled (Self-Portrait), 1926, oil on panel, Gift of Miss Florence Crocker. Courtesy of the Portland Art Museum

Then Sue Taylor, art professor, wide-ranging critic and acting dean of PSU’s college of the the arts, introduced the four writers delivering the first of 12 commissioned pieces that will populate the website. Taylor and Stephanie Snyder, the curator and director of Reed College’s Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, co-edited those papers, choosing the writers but leaving the topic selection for the writers to determine.

Those first four essays were a diverse set. The first reader, Prudence Roberts, contributed a short history of the career and importance of Anna B. Crocker, specifically her role in establishing and leading the School of the Portland Art Association (later known as the Museum Art School and now the Pacific Northwest College of Art). Roberts, who teaches art history at PCC Rock Creek and has curated many important exhibitions here over her career, pointed out that Crocker also was the director of the Portland Art Museum at the same time she started the school, and she detailed some of Crocker’s thinking about arts education. Just as important for me was the company Crocker kept: the women who created and ran Portland’s important arts and cultural institutions during the first half of the 20th century, including Mary Frances Isom, Julia Hoffman and Sally Lewis.

In her paper Melanie Flood, a photographer and the curator of Melanie Flood Projects, singled out painter and environmental activist Ryan Pierce, who founded the nonprofit Signal Fire, which funds artist residencies in wilderness areas. “Pierce’s work vividly reimagines the world in the aftermath of cataclysmic climate change,” Flood writes. “Influenced by intensive research into environmental theory, his large-scale paintings depict complex new “natural” landscapes. Neither as apocalyptic nor as hopelessly dark as one might imagine, Pierce’s work expresses faith in human resilience, and his hope for a world in which humans live in harmony with Earth’s flora and fauna.” I’m not sure how many artists in Oregon deal with pressing environmental issues and concerns in their work, but it must be massive, and Pierce is a representative of sorts for them on the website.

ArtsWatch writer Patrick Collier wrote about outsider artist Kurt Fisk, who has created an imaginary graphic world (though he also has made short films) that depicts the world of the Monkey Fishes, drenched in pop culture references and personal yearnings.

“I asked Fisk to walk me page-by-page through several of his sketchbooks, and he was more than happy to oblige. As we began turning pages, it became clear that Fisk did not limit himself to his Monkey Fishes, for intermingled with those drawings were characters from The Simpsons and various other cartoons, creatures from the Alien films, robots galore, film stars, and television personalities. All seemed equally important to him. I didn’t ask him if he watches a lot of TV, but he offered that he likes ‘mostly the old shows.’ It is clearly his primary source of inspiration and, I suspect, a reflection of his insularity.”

Collier’s essay avoids a deep exploration of Fisk’s biography, which might tip us into sympathy for what Fisk can’t do at the expense of the unabashed joyfulness and considerable nuance of his work. And so the essay raises questions about the importance of biography to generate meaning for artworks and the path of the artist, whether a differently abled one or not. You can have a look for yourself.

Kurt Fisk, Monkey Fish Leader Model, 1991, ink-pen, marker on butcher paper, 9 x 15 in., courtesy of the artist

Linda Tesner, director and curator of the Ronna and Eric Hoffman Gallery of Contemporary Art at Lewis & Clark College, compiled some “Thoughts on a Museum of Wonder.” After noting that museums exist for two primary purposes, “to collect and maintain art, artifacts, or natural history specimens, and to educate the public,” Tesner proposed a third purpose: “I would like to think that there could exist a Museum of Wonder, where one consequence of art-viewing was pure joy.” An actual aesthetic experience at a museum? What heresy! And I enjoyed her development of the idea, which suggested an entirely different path for curators (and critics) to take, all the more exciting because Tesner herself is a curator and director of an important Portland exhibition space.

After the first 12 essays (the other eight writers: John Motley, Sam Hopple, Nick Irvin, Marci McDade, Jon Raymond, Grace Kook-Anderson, Mack McFarland and Sarah Sentilles) are posted during the year, The Ford Family Foundation will be working with Snyder to commission and edit new essays, an extension of their Curator and Critic initiative. Those will appear on the site, too, and the Oregon Arts Commission hopes to commission work as well, Atiyeh said.

At this moment, in addition to those four pieces, the website also has archived some material from various partners (Marylhurst Art Gym, Disjecta, Ditch Projects, among many others), mostly images of artworks. The full archive of the late, great Organ magazine is a highlight, for example. Atiyeh is attempting to add to the archive, and she said she is focusing on materials from the Pendleton Center for the Arts, the University of Oregon’s White Box gallery in Portland, and The Schneider Museum at Southern Oregon University in Ashland. Brewer and Atiyeh made it clear that the site is a work in progress and will depend for its growth on the arts community itself.

One website by itself is not going to solve the problem of the unexamined culture. (I imagine that Socrates would say that if the unexamined life isn’t worth living, then he’d also believe that the unexamined culture isn’t worth living in.) A healthy cultural ecology needs independent critics and arts writers, able to write freely about arts and culture and their intersection, without having to meet the expectations of anyone but the editors who serve them and the readers who read them. Oregon ArtsWatch is part of that ecology, for example, and strives to serve those writers and readers.

The problems that this project faces are similar to the ones we face. They include the hardest and most important ones: How do we become better and more creative at what we do? And, how do we break through the “noise” of the commercial media? Those are linked, at least in my mind, and it’s good to see that the Oregon Visual Arts Ecology Project is on the case. It shows that an important state foundation, The Ford Family Foundation, and the Oregon Arts Commission understand that a serious problem exists.

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