Whether YU is a booster rocket for Portland’s cultural scene or a bright flare briefly flashing against the dreary economy remains to be seen. It will take millions more to fully realize Knapp and Jamison’s vision. But everyone who strolls the rhythmically windowed length of the Yale Union Laundry Building’s second-floor room seems to leave with the same infectious hope.
“I was blown away by that room,” says George Thorn, a Portland-based national arts funding consultant. “We can look at YU as a question of ‘Can we find enough money?’ Or we can see it as a question of ‘Can we afford to miss this opportunity?’ Having that building is a pretty good start.”
That start came courtesy of Knapp’s family connection to the late Colorado beef baron Kenneth Monfort and the Monfort Family Foundation. Made under the name Alter LLC, the contribution to YU is one-time and, Knapp cautions, is the family’s only stretch of largesse to Oregon, but will provide the building and operations money until YU can transition to other sources of revenue.
Beyond netting the serendipitous gift, YU’s founding duo are no strangers to accomplishment. Knapp’s label, Marriage Records, has helped launch a dozen innovative bands, most notably Dirty Projectors. A book of poetry he crafted with Tom Blood won a 2008 Oregon Book Award. Jamison has held prestigious artist residencies in Paris, Bern, and across the US; shown his handmade books, prints, and installations just as widely; and founded and published the art journal Veneer. But both artists acknowledge they’ve struggled to master the strokes necessary to swim in the pool they’ve jumped in. As Jamison puts it matter-of-factly, “We needed somebody people would trust more than us.”
Enter Percival. At age 60, the artist-turned-administrator has a long, international résumé. She directed Washington state’s public art program during the ’80s, filling Seattle’s new downtown convention center and the University of Washington campus with major works by such artists as Jenny Holzer, Mary Miss, Jackie Windsor, and Louise Bourgeois. She hopped the pond to London’s Public Art Development Trust in 1991, where she pioneered numerous collaborations with that city’s major institutions to develop often highly experimental public artworks. She returned to the US in 2005 to take over San Francisco–based New Langton Arts, where she launched several initiatives before that organization fell in the economic downdraft and closed last year.
Though her father’s family arrived via the Oregon Trail and her mother still lives here, Percival swats away the idea that she’s yet another native Oregonian circling back to the comfy fold. She visited, calculated YU’s possibilities with art-world insiders here and afar, and now believes it can help fertilize a similar cultural flowering she watched in London during the ’90s.
“When I arrived, London was at the bottom of a recession, but artists were making things happen on their own,” she says. “There’s a sense that things are percolating in Portland. I’m interested in places with potential and in ambitious, conceptual projects that engage artists in experimental ways.”