For a decade, Curtis Knapp quietly fancied the 1908 Yale Union Laundry Building at SE 10th Avenue and Belmont Street in his search for a warehouse where his artist friends could live and work, or as he puts it, “sharecrop” studio space. But upon finally entering the vintage Italianate gem in 2008 and bounding up to the second floor, Knapp discovered an expanse of sunlit space, he recalls. It instantly “asked for so much more”—50 feet wide, 188 feet long, wrapped in a 20-foot-high skin of exposed brick, punctured with dozens of 10-foot arched windows, and topped with a crown of clerestories—the kind of pure, glowing possibility that congregations long to pray in, architects crave to build, and artists dream of filling, not with their studios but with the best of their finished work.
And, so, Knapp, a 37-year-old poet, musician, and indie-record producer, called a longtime friend, Aaron Flint Jamison, a 31-year-old artist, writer and publisher, and the duo hatched a dream of turning what was most recently the home of Perfect Fit-McDonald upholstery into “a sustainable center for contemporary international avant-garde art.” They soon found a patron willing to spend $3.5 million to buy the building, lease it back to them rent-free, and put up several hundred thousand more in capital to help them get rolling. They brought on architects to design a $7.2 million historical renovation with galleries, a bookstore/café, and a 100-seat flex space, all of it aiming for a LEED Platinum designation courtesy of features like a geothermal heating system tapped from an aquifer running beneath the building. Last May, they hired Sandra Percival, a Portland native who has spent the past 30 years developing cutting-edge artists’ projects around the world. And at a catered affair on November 2 staffed by 40 volunteers, they revealed their plans for the YU Center for Contemporary Arts to 200 arts supporters, launching a drive for 100 “founding members” at $1,000 a pop.
Noting the auspicious, if odd, election-day timing of the event, Mayor Sam Adams introduced YU as “a great, bright beacon of creativity that is tangible and real that signals we are going to put our stake in the ground.”
Not since New Yorkers Paul King and Walter Jaffe airdropped White Bird Dance into Portland fully formed in 1997 has a new Portland arts organization lifted off with so much ambition. Knapp, Jamison, and Percival imagine YU as Portland’s version of top-tier contemporary art presenters like Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory Art Museum or the Kunsthalle Munich, commissioning bold new works by major artists from around the globe.