YU’s origins and ambitions—and its cultural moment—echo an earlier effort in Portland history: the founding of the Portland Center for Visual Arts (PCVA). From 1971 to 1988, PCVA developed nationally acclaimed exhibitions and performances by such notable artists as Richard Serra, Vito Acconci, and Alice Aycock. It was founded by a trio of artists (Jay Backstrand, Mel Katz, and the late Michele Russo), run by a native-born but well-connected director (Mary Beebe, who had cut her curatorial teeth at the Harvard Fogg Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), and housed in 5,000-square-foot Old Town loft that artists loved and the owner offered up rent-free.
Contacted at the Stuart Collection, the internationally renowned assemblage of contemporary outdoor sculpture she’s overseen at the University of California-San Diego since 1981, Beebe recalled PCVA’s high ambitions but also its bootstrap, DIY techniques. With an annual budget that rarely crested $100,000, she bankrolled basics like insurance by enlisting the help of exhibitors: Robert Rauschenberg, for instance, made posters PCVA sold for $100 apiece; sculptor Carl Andre let Beebe sell off pieces of his seminal 1973 Minimalist show, 144 Blocks and Stones, for $100.
“I have more hope than optimism for YU,” Beebe says. “But if you find the right artists and give them the right opportunity, it doesn’t take lots of money to get them to make new work. Sandra is really dedicated, and determined. And Portland needs a space like that.”
Indeed, several organizations have aspired to fill the still-lamented void PCVA left—from the Portland Art Museum’s one-time Art on the Edge program of the ’90s to more fledgling, current efforts like Disjecta. Within its annual, nationally lauded Time-Based Art Festival of performances, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art has done more modest group shows of international visual artists. But YU could be the first effort with enough muscle and connections to recast the PCVA model for a new era.
Yet when it comes fundraising, YU enters a crowded field with the Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Oregon College of Art and Craft, the Portland Art Museum, and the Portland Center for the Performing Arts all positioning new capital campaigns in a hoped-for economic recovery.
“The good news is that, in spite of the recession, Portland’s arts ecology has been expanding,” says arts expert Thorn, who will consult on YU through a Regional Arts & Culture Council program. “We have developed a reputation as a ‘foodie city.’ Could we do that for contemporary art, too?”
The pile of unclaimed name tags for dozens of local patrons who passed on the November 2 kickoff event suggests the slippery local terrain that lies ahead. So far, YU has netted 30 of its hoped-for 100 founding members. But Percival says she has major horsepower in the wings with outside consultants like the powerful San Francisco collector and fundraiser Steve Oliver and a former director of the Henry Gallery in Seattle, Richard Andrews.
Meanwhile, she, Knapp, and Jamison can build gradually, Percival says. They’ve already begun. Soon after the purchase of the building, Knapp and Jamison built a sound studio where Explode Into Colors, Parenthetical Girls, and other local bands have recorded. Jamison and Reed College instructor Emily Johnson have set up a printing shop with an array of vintage presses where, among other projects, Jamison has produced seven issues of Veneer. And without spending a cent on renovation of the 41,000-square-foot warehouse, Percival can mount exhibitions under city fire codes as long as no more than 300 people come at one time. They plan to launch YU’s first exhibit next year.
“We already have a great foundation in the building,” Percival says. “When people walk in, they stop worrying about the problems and start talking about the possibilities.”