From the Oregonian, by D.K. Row April 21, 2008.

The text below is becoming an annual feature by Row, a clear, brief summation of the Portland art scene. I’ve republished it here because the Oregonian’s web site is unsearchable.

Like the roil and thunder of the stock market this year, the local art world has been experiencing its own kind of subprime mortgage fallout.

The beginning of last year hinted at great promise ahead –fueled by a several-year deluge of artists moving to Portland. That new talent resulted in the emergence of a vital nonprofit ecology and deepening layers of artistic engagement within the city’s galleries and institutions.

But by winter, budding prospects turned into a massive selloff. The city’s most recent and serious attempt to produce a contemporary visual arts nonprofit, the Portland Art Center, closed, because of a combination of internal politics and administrative miscalculation.

Then, in February of this year, the organizers of the art fair at the Jupiter Hotel announced it was closing, too. The 4-year-old gathering of local and national dealers was an insouciant, witty version of the traditional art fair that helped expose Portland to the rest of the art world, even if major collectors didn’t spend much on art at the Jupiter.

These developments have deflated the aspirational atmosphere that has pumped up the art scene since 2000. But there are plenty of oxygen-producing events left to ponder. These include:

* The delayed but impending opening of collector and patron Sarah Miller Meigs’ Lumber Room, a contemporary art space and artist-in-residence program that should intensify the city’s engagement with the international art scene.

* The Pacific Northwest College of Art’s ambitious plans to implement its own artist-in-residence program, called the Ford Institute for Visual Education, as well as acquire new buildings that will expand its Pearl District campus. Collectively, those efforts amount to an attempt to transform the college into a cultural center, not merely an art school.

* The gradual evolution of the Portland Art Museum under Executive Director Brian Ferriso, who is trying to create a more transparent and programmatically inspired institution. One of Ferriso’s unprecedented initiatives is the establishment of permanent endowments for every curatorial position at the museum.

Of course, there is still the uncertain future of the Portland Art Center, which may re-open as a roving presenter of occasional events and shows, and the Jupiter art fair, which may continue under the direction of local dealers and the owners of the Jupiter Hotel.

Still, recent events have provoked almost existential reflection on Portland’s fragile art scene by many prominent artists, dealers and curators, a reflection that teeters on frustration because the Portland art world is an active part of the national dialogue as never before these days.

In recent years, local artists have been selected for the Whitney Biennial, for instance. Portland dealers have been attending national fairs regularly. Our institutions and curators have also been connecting with their colleagues in the larger art world more frequently.

Low funding

Yet local arts funding and patronage remains low, even in this, Portland’s Gilded Age of development.

“We are in a big time right now,” says Kristan Kennedy, an artist and the visual art program director for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art. “Our community has taken a lot of hits. Maybe that’s our lot in life –to be challenged.”

Kennedy says that no one is to blame. Rather, the issue is how the art world can become more daring and inspire the public’s imagination.

“I want to see risks in general,” says Kennedy. “We play it safe. We wait for success to support something.”

Stephanie Snyder, the director of the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College, takes Kennedy’s challenge a step further.

“The problem with our society is that most of our energy is directed at getting people to spend stuff,” Snyder says. “So how do we get people to buy or spend stuff on art? What we really have to do is figure out how to redirect civic priorities so that it’s not solely about buying stuff but investing in culture.”

Snyder says that a major source of aggravation within the art community is the feeling that the arts are taken for granted by the public. Portland is a city driven equally by its arts and culture scene and its commitment to environmental and sustainability issues.

Yet that’s not accurately reflected in the city’s economic policies and general outlook.

Marketing the arts

Nick Fish, a candidate for Portland City Council and a longtime arts patron who is on the board of the Oregon Cultural Trust, agrees with Snyder. Fish thinks the key to greater arts appreciation lies in the power of marketing the arts to the public.

“Frankly, it’s about viewing the arts as an important component of our economic policy,” says Fish. “It’s about seeing in the arts the same opportunity as the culture of sustainability, where we can tap something unique in Portland and leverage it. That takes leadership from City Hall.”

Fish thinks the art community and its supporters have to engage the business community and challenge it to be partners in the city’s arts economy. As an example, too few local businesses, he says, take advantage of the tax benefits from donations made to the Oregon Cultural Trust.

Altering a public mind-set will take a sustained, collective effort, says Ferriso, the Portland Art Museum’s executive director. Ferriso says artists will have to fight, charge the battlements once again, but in a balanced, reasonable way.

“It’s important for artists to push and want more,” says Ferriso. “That’s how things happen. Artists have to fight for what they believe in. But the community shouldn’t be too hard on itself, too. It’s easy to say: ‘We aren’t doing this.’ You also have to say: ‘This is what we are doing well.’ “

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