About two years ago, T. Lulani Arquette, president and CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF), got a call out of the blue from Yoko Ott, a fellow former Hawaiian and a fellow figure working in the field of arts and culture. Ott had recently been hired as the new executive director of Yale Union, the nonprofit contemporary art organization, and she invited Arquette over to their headquarters on SE Morrison.
“I thought we were just getting together to catch up,” Arquette remembers, “and ‘talk story’ as we say in Hawaii.”
Instead, Ott had something much bigger in mind: she and Yale Union wanted to transfer ownership of their building, and the land it sits on, to NACF.
“I was stunned into silence,” Arquette says. “I was shocked. Pleasingly shocked. This has been a really amazing experience and very profound for all of us that are involved.”
The shockwaves have yet to die down since the transfer was announced this past Thursday, especially as their joint news release also included the detail that, at the end of next year, Yale Union would dissolve their nonprofit and cease operations.
That decision, as well as the building transfer, came as a result of long discussions that Ott had with Yale Union co-founder and board president Flint Jamison after she took over as executive director in 2018 after the abrupt resignation of acting director (and YU’s other founder) Curtis Knapp.
“Our conversations concerned problems around art institutions as well as society at large,” Jamison said, via email. “We talked about resisting the drive for growth, slowing down the pace of programming, insisting on different modes of earning funds to pay artists, and about the development we saw happening in our inner SE neighborhood. More broadly, we talked about just what role an art institution could play in proposing models for restorative social change. We didn’t want to put out any statements. We wanted to do something.”
The choice of NACF as the recipient of their goodwill gesture was a deliberate one. All of the land that Portland was built on was once the home of various Native tribes, including the Multnomah, Clackamas, Kathlamet, and Chinook, and the space that Yale Union occupies on 10th and Morrison was prime fishing and hunting ground for those original residents. The building that sits on that space now has further historical resonance as it served as an industrial laundry in the first part of the 20th century and became central to a 1919 labor strike and fight to unionize the workers, almost all of them women.
“We realized this is such an incredible opportunity when you think of what that place represents,” Arquette says. “The land that the building is on and what it was used for before it was built. It carries a memory.”
The building will soon become the Center for Native Arts and Cultures and the NACF’s new headquarters. As the press release announcing the transfer put it, it “will be a vibrant gathering place for Indigenous artists and local partnerships. It will provide space to present and exhibit, places to practice culture and make art, and areas for cultural ceremony and celebration.”
While Arquette says that she and her team can move into the building as soon as they want to, the bigger vision for the space is a long way down the road. NACF already has architectural and design plans for renovations for the interior of the building, including some much-needed seismic upgrades. And they’ve already chosen the construction company to do the work. Now, they just need to raise the money to pay for it all. When I spoke with Arquette last week, she was scheduled to speak with consultants about starting a capital campaign for these renovations. To see their dreams become a reality, she says, they’ll need to raise at least $15 million.
In the meantime, NACF and Yale Union will collaborate on some future exhibitions and events that will hopefully be open to visitors next year. Already in the works is a solo show from Marianne Nicolson, a Canadian artist and member of the Dzawada’enuxw tribe who blends modern media with presentations of Native art and expressions, that will hopefully open in the spring of 2021.
A huge source of pride for Arquette and her team at NACF in accepting this transfer and moving forward with their plans is that, by doing so, they’re honoring the legacy of Ott, who died from unknown causes a mere six months after accepting the role of executive director of Yale Union.
“This has been very profound for all of us involved,” Arquette says. “The tragedy and the joy of this process has been really powerful. Because of the nature of how this all started, we kind of feel like there was an angel sitting on our shoulders guiding us through this process.”