The Farewell Tour: Terri Hopkins prepares to leave the Art Gym

In 33 years, director and curator Terri Hopkins made The Art Gym central to art here and secure for the future

As director and curator of Marylhurst University’s Art Gym, Terri Hopkins has followed the development of artists attentively in the Portland area since she founded the gallery with Paul Sutinen and art department chair Kay Slusarenko in 1980. Hopkins followed art here in the way curators do—specifically, openly, critically and imaginatively.

The Art Gym, 1980, before it became the Art Gym.

The Art Gym, 1980, before it became the Art Gym.

So, the announcement that she was retiring from this engaged vantage point at the end of this calendar year (though she says she’ll see the opening of one last exhibition in January through to the end) was alarming. Hopkins’ view of the city’s artists, distilled and clarified through some 150 shows in her 33 years on the job, has been an organizing principle for those of us concerned with local culture.

Hopkins’ accomplishments include:

  •  Getting The Art Gym started.
  •  Keeping it going financially while programming more than 150 exhibitions and overseeing (at least) the printing of more than 60 publications (from pamphlet size to much larger monographs) about Portland artists.
  •  Renovating The Art Gym space into the flexible, beautiful place it is today.
  •  Figuring out a way to endow her position so that her successor will be full-time.

“Not bad for part-time,” as she says, because she was never a full-time employee of Marylhurst. And she did lots more, of course, from personal encouragement of artists and curators to participation on various public panels. But when I talked to her this week, we focused on those four, especially since the last of these involved specific news: That the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation was going to endow her position at The Art Gym.

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ART-terri-hopkins-sq 2Slusarenko first imagined that a massive storage space, once used as a gym and a theater, in the Marylhurst administration building could better serve as an exhibition space for art, and according to Hopkins, talked the administration into giving it to the art department. At the time, Hopkins was Slusarenko’s assistant, hired in 1978, after studying art history (and playing the cello) at Oberlin College. She was the child her parents gave art supplies, even though she was more inclined toward music.

With the space in hand, $1,500 invested in its renovation and more than 400 volunteer hours of labor, The Art Gym was born.

What should its mission be? “We felt we could do a regional exhibition program well,” Hopkins said. “This is where we are; no one was doing it the way we could do it—carefully curated with publications.”

The first show was a Marylhurst art faculty exhibition, and maybe I saw that one, because Sutinen was the art critic of Willamette Week’s Fresh Weekly, where I was editing at the time. I know I saw many of the exhibitions those first few years—Mel Katz drawings, Lucinda Parker paintings (she was working with big pink triangles, as I recall), work by Jay Backstrand, Lennie Pitkin, Christine Bourdette and others. “They were doing us a favor,” Hopkins said of the artists. “That was part of the Portland art community.”

From that beginning, the next 30 years opened up, though Hopkins didn’t have a time period in mind as she curated The Art Gym: “I did this on an ‘as if’ basis: I will do this as if I have forever.” So, she followed the development of artists along, often including them in group shows before signing them up for a full solo exhibition of their own. The set of publications she produced provides a fabulous, ongoing record of artists here the past three decades, all available digitally.

Hopkins mentions David Eckard, Dianne Kornberg, Lee Kelly, Nanda d’Agostino (who has a show coming up in October), and many others. A glance through those catalogs is sufficient to announce the scope of Hopkins’ curation: Bill Will, Ken Butler, Judy Cooke, Linda Hutchins, Mike Russo, Carl Morris, Tad Savinar, Sally Haley, Bruce Conkle and Marne Lucas, Melody Owen, on an on.

The publication regime has picked up steam lately, thanks to sizable gifts from the Ford Family Foundation and ongoing support from the Schnitzer CARE Foundation, pushing The Art Gym overall budget (not counting Hopkins’ salary or the cost to run the space, provided by the university) close to $80,000. That was money Hopkins raised in various ways, mostly in small amounts, on an ad hoc basis or year-to-year, at the same time she was doing the myriad tasks involved in running an art gallery and curating its exhibitions.

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A view of David Eckard's "Deployment," Art Gym

A view of David Eckard’s “Deployment,” Art Gym

Five years ago, Hopkins told administrators at Marylhurst that she was thinking about retiring, and at that point they would have to decide whether to continue The Art Gym or close it down. If they chose to continue it, then two things would have to happen. First, the space itself needed a major renovation to make it appropriate for all kinds of art. The high ceilings (remember: “gym”) and numerous huge windows always made the big room problematic for art. Second, she thought her position needed to be endowed for the long term and made full-time. “We needed to prepare the gallery and prepare the position,” in Hopkins’ formulation.

The university wisely agreed, and the renovation work started. Although the HVAC is ultimately contingent on upgrades to the entire building, the rest of the renovation is almost done (three windows remain). The David Eckard show last year demonstrated the flexibility of the space for various kinds of art (Eckard’s work is particularly diverse) and its general elegance and simplicity.

The endowed position was an entirely different proposition, just because of the cost, more than $1 million. The participation of the Eichholz foundation started with a much smaller gift, $10,000, still a large sum for The Art Gym, which arrived in the mail out of the blue. As Hopkins said, “Moral Number One: Open your mail.”

The check came from the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation, and Hopkins knew Michael Davidson, who sits on the foundation’s board and is a principal of A&E Tax Services as well as Mercedes Eichholz’s son. Davidson had visited her classes at Marylhurst to talk about how artists need to prepare for the business part of their careers. They had a drink together, and the subject of an endowed curator position arose, among other topics.

Perhaps because the foundation had funded the curatorship for modern and contemporary art at the Portland Art Museum in 2012 (now held by Bruce Guenther) with a $2 million gift, Davidson thought the board would be open to funding Hopkins’ position, too. He helped the university shape its proposal, and the result was this week’s announcement: a $250,000 gift outright, and a $1 million matching gift, distributed over four years, which gives the university time to match. The gift is the largest Marylhurst has ever received from a foundation.

One more point of intersection: The new full-time curator will also be responsible for the Belluschi Pavilion at Marylhurst, a small house designed by architect Pietro Belluschi in 1951 and moved to the campus. Mercedes Eichholz was a friend of Belluschi’s when she lived in Portland in the ‘30s and ‘40s (she now lives in Santa Barbara), according to a story by David Row about the art museum gift, so the inclusion of the pavilion in the mix made sense, both personally and theoretically.

In the press release, Davidson explained the gift this way: “It is our hope that this grant will honor Terri Hopkins’ life’s work and will allow The Art Gym to continue to be a powerful force in the arts of Portland and the entire Pacific Northwest.”

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Fernanda D'Agostino's "Imagining the Other Side," 1996.

Fernanda D’Agostino’s “Imagining the Other Side,” 1996.

Before she leaves, Hopkins has some work ahead of her. The 2013-14 season opens October 6 with a preview reception for Fernanda D’Agostino and her exhibit, “The Method of Loci,” and in January she opens a show dedicated to Native American artists, including Joe Feddersen, Robert J. Gehrke, Rick Bartow, Wendy Red Star, Nicholas Galanin, and Terrance Houle. Both are complex and challenging to install.

And then? “Do you want to hear the answer people like to hear?” Hopkins asks. She’ll continue to work on individual projects and panels, keeping an eye on Northwest art as she’s always done. “Do you want to hear the answer people don’t like to hear?” She’s going to spend some time just staring out the window.

“I’m a daydreamer; I’m a really good daydreamer,” she said. Which fits with her approach to looking at art. “It’s like reading: What I’m looking for in art is for it to trigger a train of thought I have not had … Why does this work? What are they thinking about?”

Hopkins’ approach hasn’t been theoretical or particularly academic. “I go to the movies, but I don’t know a lot about film. I want people to go to art galleries they way they go to movies.” Or ski. Some slopes are double diamond expert trails and some are for beginners, she said. “I don’t believe in accessibility. People are smart. If they see enough art, they will figure it out.” Which is why visitors to The Art Gym don’t face lengthy wall panels explaining the art (though if they want, they can often get a publication that will explain things in detail).

I think what I’ve liked about shows at Marylhurst is that they seem fresh, even the retrospectives, as though they are at some sort of starting point for the artist. In a way, that’s what an exhibition can be, a fresh start, either for the artist, for those of us looking at the art in this new context, or both. And maybe that part of it was all in the daydreaming.

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