Four years ago, Pioneer Place Mall did a very groovy “Portland” thing by beginning to provide and subsidize some of the empty spaces on the third floor of its Atrium Building to people and organizations wishing to open art galleries. Last month, the owners of the mall, General Growth Properties (GGP) rescinded that agreement with, Place, the first gallery that took them up on their offer way back when. Seems there was bad blood.
Oregon ArtsWatch’s Barry Johnson wrote about the closing shortly after Place Director, Gabe Flores, made it public on the gallery’s website. Since then, other arts writers have weighed in on this abrupt end to the gallery’s lease agreement, including Alison Hallett for The Mercury, Richard Speer for Willamette Week, and Jeff Jahn on his site, portlandart.net. There was also a short segment on the local FOX affiliate, KPTV.
I won’t go into all of the details of the dispute between the building’s management and Flores (that’s what the links are for) ), but it seems to stem from the content of the art from the final show in the White Gallery portion of Place’s two spaces, and then Flores’ response to the objections by the powers-that-be. It’s worth a read. (link) Flores adds that the reason given for his eviction was that GPP had found a tenant to pay full rent for the space (Place was only responsible for paying utilities), yet he remains convinced that this was nothing less than a bum’s rush. The only response from GPP that I know of (GPP evidently did not respond to requests for a statement for any of the above listed articles) is a rather cursory and noncommittal written statement given to KPTV: “We do not publicly discuss tenant lease agreements, but please know Pioneer Place is very much a fan and in support of the arts,” GGP General Manager Bob Buchanan’s statement read. “Our goal is to create a unique and enjoyable shopping experience for all our customers.”
Before I get too deep into this opinion piece, I should disclose that I had an exhibit of my own work at Place last year. I have also written about the gallery on a couple of occasions, for both Portlandart.net and Oregon ArtsWatch. (One review was less than glowing.) I have had many conversations with Flores over the years and have grown to admire his fertile mind and enthusiasm for the local art community, even though sometimes both can get the better of him. Sometimes it is hard to keep up with his torrent of ideas, and his desire for inclusiveness has resulted in more than a few half-baked exhibitions (more often than not due to the presenting artist). The first couple of years of programming did not give me much hope for his ambitious little start-up, yet Flores and the gallery persevered, and the programming gradually improved.
Much has been made about the supposed offensive nature of the exhibits by the artists Paul Clay, John Dougherty and Michael Reinsch . But Place has two rooms in which they run staggered exhibits, and this last month, Linda Kliewer, a member of the PNCA faculty along with Portia Roy, a recent PNCA graduate, had their work in the other gallery space. In contrast to the controversial, balloon-festooned gallery, both Kliewer and Roy exhibited sedate, contemplative work. Again, this is a testament to Flores’ relatively open-door, just-give-me-your-best-effort policy. It also demonstrates a faith in Flores on the artists’ part, for Kliewer is a mature artist who doesn’t have to settle for any ol’ venue that will have her. For that matter, Reinsch is a well-established artist in Portland, and from what I hear, a very good teacher as well.
More importantly, Flores has created a laboratory for artists to try out ideas and acquire some experience under their belts at hanging an exhibition. Ready to engage any and everyone in conversation, he provided an environment where an exchange of ideas was encouraged. So, there is not a small element of irony in this latest development where dialogue has been shut down.
In the exchange between GPP’s Buchanan and Flores, Flores goes to great lengths to explain the art that offended Buchanan (or maybe, the mission of the mall itself) while pointing out that certain elements of the show, namely coarse words and suggestions of violence, are also part and parcel of merchandising in the mall’s more commercial establishments. Flores provided photographs of said products in his correspondence. Who likes to have their double standards thrown in their face?
One may suggest —indeed, some have—that the outcome of this dispute should come as no surprise. After all, given that Place paid no rent, Flores bit the hand that fed him. Not that this was a losing proposition from the outset for the mall. I would like to see how these otherwise empty spaces in the mall are represented as a line item on GPP’s tax forms. Furthermore, having vacant storefronts in the mall would have sent a signal to retailers and consumers alike, which could be a potential detriment to the mall’s bottom line.
Two other galleries, Mark Woolley Gallery and Peoples Art of Portland, are on the third floor adjacent to the two spaces operated by Place. Both have made statements regarding the eviction. (Admittedly, whether we use the term “eviction” or the phrase “termination of lease” seems to rely on some speculation.) In short, both state they take the sensibilities of the mall-going public into consideration in their curatorial choices. Whatever that ends up meaning, their reluctance to come to Flores’ defense did them no favors, either.
Peoples Art on Place’s Facebook page: “…we have made it our mission to make art more accessible without alienating anyone. Though we do exhibit challenging themes and topics it is not necessarily our focus or main agenda. We are always interested in creating an open and positive atmosphere that lets regular folks (and their kids) experience the creativity of art. We love all types of art, but we are working within the public realm, trying to keep it hip, and tasteful at the same time.”
“Tasteful,” you know, for “regular folks,” yet, with the occasional “challenging theme” thrown in, perhaps for the “hip” crowd. Doing so “without alienating anyone” as their “main agenda” is a task I would like to see accomplished. Maybe blank walls? Their statement can also be read as a commentary on Place’s curatorial thrust. I can tell you from my own viewing experience at Place, some of the supposedly “transgressive” art shown there was so amateurish, clichéd and/or poorly conceived it was in effect, ineffectual. No complaints from the front office then. (So, kudos to those artists who managed to ruffle feathers.) In any case, Peoples Art of Portland seems secure in their agreement with Management.
Mark Woolley in the Mercury article: “As someone who has had a number of gallery spaces over 20 years, I know that the best way to do exactly what you want is to have your very own stand-alone space… As the mall has subsidized us in a major way and it is a communal, retail establishment, we do not, understandably, have the same level of curatorial freedom we might elsewhere in private venues. That is the trade-off.”
Willamette Week’s arts writer, Richard Speer, seems to agree: “If you’re getting free rent, it might behoove you to pay attention to your landlord’s sensitivities.” But then he continues, “These are big issues with long histories: self-expression versus decorum, artistic merit versus popular taste, creative freedom versus Big Brother.” It is a shame that he did not examine these “long histories,” as they might have provided him a different perspective—indeed, a more nuanced take—on what is at stake here.
To overlook inconsistencies in the name of convenience and call it a pragmatic business or conscious curatorial decision can take one down any number of slippery slopes. Compromise can become edict. In this case, there is a call for a return to something along the lines of a 19th Century Salon model for art exhibition: Neither gallery nor Speer seem to recognize the value of risk-taking to broaden the dialogue beyond the immediately acceptable. Even the most successful commercial art dealers and galleries know the critical role divergent voices have played in the history of art, and to ignore or downplay this lessens the value of their own offerings. For those who would maintain they are engaged in a more contemporary arena yet equivocate in their support of peers borders on the unconscionable.
Still, to focus on the more controversial shows that Flores presented entirely misses the mark and does a great disservice not only to him but the artists and arts education entities that have had shows at Place.
Certainly Place has shown plenty of art that had the potential to upset those holding the purse strings. So why displace him now? It might have been all of the colorful balloons in the gallery that first attracted the management’s attention and led to closer scrutiny. Who among us doesn’t like balloons? And then to have that child-like glee dashed!
Or, maybe they really do have someone willing to pay rent on the space and were looking for any excuse.
At any rate, the timing may be perfect. Oregon Art Beat, the OPB weekly television program is celebrating its 15 year anniversary with an exhibit that was originally to be housed in the Peoples Art and Wooley galleries.” About 300 artists are reported to be taking part in this “curated collection of paintings, metalwork, sculpture, calligraphy, animation, pottery, woodwork, jewelry, performance art, music and much more.” The Facebook event page for the exhibit now shows the exhibit taking place in the “Pioneer Galleries.” It will be interesting to see if the former Place Gallery will be housing artworks for this exhibit. (Curious, I asked, but clarification from Peoples Art has not been forthcoming.) The event opens April 19 and will run for two months.
As I made my way through the well-attended Oregon Art Beat (OAB) exhibit at Pioneer Mall Saturday evening, which included installations in the former Place gallery spaces, I felt more like a cultural spy than an arts writer. I was reminded of one of those awkward parties where you have to invite the boss even though you know your superior is having an affair with your spouse. Most everyone at the party is aware of the not-so-secret tryst as well, yet they pretend to ignore it for the sake of having a good time. But that’s just me.
I do not wish to cast a pall over the exhibiting artists, for this is their party as well. (However, I do wonder if any artist declined the exhibition opportunity in protest of Place’s boot from the premises.) Nor will I single out an artist or two to comment on their work as stand-outs in this exhibit, because, quite frankly, the show is so crowded with art there is no room for any one piece to catch my eye without interference from others.
Besides, I had another reason for going. I wanted to see with my own two eyes how the Place galleries had been co-opted while imagining how this event might have been pulled off had Place still been in operation and its spaces unavailable. Also, having revisited the timeline of this exhibit in conjunction with the demise of Place and after listening to the OPB radio programs that featured (which, in effect, promoted the Oregon Art Beat show), I am not prepared to let this thing fade away. Not just yet.
Place’s Director, Gabe Flores, says he received his eviction notice, dated March 10, by mail on March 19. The 19th is the same day OPB sent out a press release for this exhibit.
A few things stand out in the press release: the event would be “celebrating the work of hundreds of Northwest artists who have all appeared on Art Beat over the last 15 years;” it would take place at “The Peoples Art of Portland Gallery, the Mark Woolley Gallery and the Art Beat Main Stage Gallery;” and “the exhibition will feature a curated collection of work from local artists.” An event page was created on Facebook by Chris Haberman of Peoples Art the same day as the OPB release. Initially, the location was listed as taking place in the “Settlement Gallerys (sic), Pioneer Place” in the mall, but was then changed that same day, March 19, to simply “Pioneer Place.” With Place soon to be gone from the picture, the use of the name “Settlement,” may have seemed unadvisable.
Flores offers this history: “’The Settlement’ was named by Gary (Wiseman), Palma (Corral), and myself. We named it in response to the word Pioneer, but we were also suggesting compensation the arts receive in a bad economy. The galleries were initially called Store, Trade, Place, and Peoples Art of Portland.” (Store and Trade were short-lived, experimental projects in cooperation with PNCA and a host of other alternative galleries in town.)
By April 2nd, two days after Place was out of the building, a more specific number of artists, “300+” was announced on the Facebook page for the event. That’s a lot of art to cram into two galleries with a combined area of maybe 5,500 square feet. A nineteenth century gallery might try to display that much art into 10,000 square feet, salon-style, but not in half that much space. (Well, maybe someone with primarily a retail —not a curator’s— sensibility would.)
As I wrote in the initial article above, I sent an email to Peoples Art (April 6) to ask if they would be using the former Place gallery spaces for their exhibit and received no response from them. My request was forwarded to OPB and I received an email of the original release, yet in that email my question about what spaces would be used was deferred back to Haberman. I asked because I wanted to verify information contained within a copy of an email I had received that had been sent to the OAB participating artists dated March 28. That email stated: “We are now using two extra spaces upstairs for the show (coined Art Beat Pioneer Galleries), so we have gone from a 3 gallery show to a 4 gallery show for the full exhibition.”
Three galleries to four galleries? What was the third gallery? Was there another empty space on the third floor I didn’t know about? Perhaps. It was a nagging question I had from the beginning: Where was the “Art Beat Main Stage Gallery” going to be located? It may be significant to note I found that stage Saturday; it was inside one of the former Place gallery spaces. If this was the plan all along, when was it decided?
Haberman eventually did publicly confirm the show would be using four galleries. This happened April 18 in his interview on OPB’s radio show, “Think Out Loud.” he specifically refers to an “enormous black gallery that houses most of the sculpture.” Even though he fails to mention it, this is the other Place space.
Nor was Place mentioned April 19 during OPB’s “State of Wonder” segment about the OAB exhibit. Curiously, somewhat later in the same radio show, the host, April Baer, did a very short story on Place’s eviction, stating, “If you do go to see Oregon Art Beat’s 15th anniversary retrospective, you might notice the absence of a gallery that brought art to the storefront for four years.” She then goes on to briefly outline the chain of events that led up to Place’s departure from the mall and offered up a tweeted, and therefore somewhat ephemeral, link to Flores’ correspondence with mall management. Bone thrown. However, it should be noted there was no direct reference to the fact the OAB exhibit is partly housed in the former Place galleries.
I still would like clarification. And, I suppose I could have again written to the mall, galleries and OPB to see if they had more to say than they already have. Yet, I’d rather this issue be addressed in a public forum more than in an article in which “cherry-picking” quotes might not further the conversation.
Instead, I’ll list questions and hope for responses as our readers and social media do their thing:
1. Was the timing of Place’s eviction due to the Oregon Art Beat exhibition?
2. Why was the buck passed or my question ignored when I asked if Art Beat was in fact using the old Place galleries?
3. Even once it was clear that these galleries were being used, why avoid mentioning it on the air and in publicity information?
4. Did anyone ever wonder whether it would be appropriate for Art Beat (and Peoples Art and Woolley Gallery and the mall) to profit from the demise of Place? Why was it decided that it is appropriate?
Convince us that this whole thing doesn’t smell funny.
Read more by Patrick Collier