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“Change is Hard”: NW Film Center’s pivot to PAM CUT prompts dismay, confusion, and hope

What's up with the film center's relationship with the Portland Art Museum and its sharp but uncertain shift in direction? It's complicated – and not everyone's happy about that.

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Honorees of the inaugural Cinema Unbound Awards gather on the stage in March of 2020.

“Change is hard.” In the weeks since the Northwest Film Center announced its new name, PAM CUT, at the 2022 Cinema Unbound Awards, I heard that sentence, or some variation, from most of the more than a dozen folks I spoke with on the topic.

For some, the name change – it stands for “Portland Art Museum Center for an Untold Tomorrow” – served as an acknowledgment that the transmutation of the 50-year-old institution into something new was inherently difficult but undeniably necessary.

For others, it was followed by some form of: “I get it. But…”, leading into a lamentation of the procedural and/or substantive aspects of the announcement.

There are several reasons for the seeming abruptness of this change in direction under Director Amy Dotson, who was hired in 2019 following the retirement of longtime director Bill Foster. Some were unavoidable, most notably the pandemic-induced shutdown that so rudely interrupted Dotson’s first (and last?) Portland International Film Festival. Others, it seems to some, evince an intentional, or at least negligent, discarding of the Northwest Film Center’s institutional knowledge, employees, and core missions.

The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle, reflecting longstanding tensions between the Portland Art Museum and its cinematic partner as well as the tectonic shifts of the last several years in the way Americans experience and interact with movies and moviemaking. It’s hard to know what to expect with any specificity, since both the vision and the language used to describe it have been, perhaps inevitably at this point, very fuzzy. One thing seems certain: the direction that PAM CUT takes will be closely followed by a community of passionate filmmakers, educators, students, and cinephiles, all of whom will make their reactions known.

***

Amy Dotson, Director of PAM CUT and Curator, Film & New Media at the Portland Art Museum.

On the evening of March 8, as the third annual Cinema Unbound Awards honored, among others, Portlandia’s Carrie Brownstein and King Richard director Reinaldo Marcus Green, the URL www.pamcut.org went live, providing a sneak peek at the Northwest Film Center’s new moniker. Shortly thereafter, as the festivities came to a close, Dotson made the news fully public from the stage, although the inevitable chaos and chatter that accompany the final moments of an event such as that one meant that some attendees weren’t sure what they’d heard at first.

The initial reactions, as they often are on social media, were quick and unsparing. Among the most scathing commenters were many who had longstanding relationships with the Northwest Film Center, and whose emotions seemed to range from confusion to disappointment to anger. Days and even weeks later, those emotions were still raw.

“Everyone I know was just shocked,” said one longtime member of the Portland film community who requested anonymity to preserve professional relationships in that community. “I knew that something was coming once Bill retired and they hired Amy, looking at her history.” (Dotson’s resume includes stints at Brooklyn’s Independent Film Project and with the Vienna Biennale.) “I felt really good about her, but I also felt like what she was exploring was going to ruffle some feathers.”

Documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, who made a short film for a 1983 class with Professor Stuart Kaplan that was key to his acceptance at Columbia University’s graduate film program, has similar feelings. “I understand that organizations need to evolve. My concern is that the community needs to be involved. None of the filmmakers I know were consulted.”

Understandably, former employees of the Northwest Film Center, all of whom were laid off at the beginning of the pandemic shutdown and almost none of whom have been asked back, felt the sting the sharpest. One such person, who requested anonymity because they still work in the nonprofit film sector, “felt really sad about all that history just being washed aside for this new thing that pays lip service to film’s importance but is also going to do lots of other things.”

Enie Vaisburd, who worked from 1997 to 2009 as a lead instructor alongside the late Bushra Azzouz at the Northwest School of Film, still maintains close contact with her former colleagues, some of whom are working with her to put the finishing touches on Azzouz’s final documentary project.

She, too, was excited at the arrival of “somebody with energy that would hopefully see what the organization was and bring some renewal.” However, she continues, “I was hoping that people who were passionate about the place and excited about trying new things were going to be part of that. But that wasn’t the case.”

Dotson, however, disputes the notion that the rebranding process was exclusionary or abrupt. “This is not something that was done in secret, on the back of a bar napkin. This was an incredibly thoughtful process—we invited artists, curators, folks from the museum, folks from the entire Portland community, even kids, to contribute,” she says.

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Brian Ferriso, Executive Director of the Portland Art Museum.

Addressing the concerns about community input, PAM Executive Director Brian Ferriso says, “There was certainly an effort to reach out. I remember having conversations with folks, longtime supporters and users. To the ones who were left out, it’s unfortunate. If someone calls me up and says ‘I wish my voice had been included,’ I’ll make a note of it.”

“Our museum really needs to be relevant,” Ferriso continues. “Relevance doesn’t mean throwing out the past, but adding to the past, understanding the past, and bridging to the future. And that’s what this evolution is.”

Given the chance to go through the process again, there isn’t anything that Dotson would change. “We tried our best to listen to as many voices as possible. You’re not going to hit everyone.”

***

One reason this transformation might have a bit of extra sting is the longstanding, simmering tension between the Portland Art Museum and the Northwest Film Center, a tension that certainly isn’t unique to Portland.

It was only in the late 1960s that cinema started being widely seen as a true art form worthy of inclusion alongside the traditional work of art museums. In 1971, the Northwest Film Studies Center (as it was initially known) became part of an initial wave of organizations across the country that took on the mission of promoting film literacy and providing the tools and community spaces that could enable filmmaking outside the traditional, commercial spaces. Over the next fifty years, it survived and even prospered. “We changed lives,” says Ellen Thomas, who served as its education director for 32 years and as its interim co-director for eighteen months following the retirement of longtime Director Bill Foster (who has opted not to comment publicly on the recent name change).

In recent years, for all the obvious reasons, institutions like the Northwest Film Center have had a tough time of it. SF MOMA dropped its film program last year, for instance. As Thomas notes, those that have survived have done so thanks to a parent organization, often an educational institution, such as the Pacific Film Archive’s home within the University of California. Another West Coast standby, the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco, has transformed itself into a workforce development program. “Colleges and universities that don’t have academic film programs have partnered with or created film centers over the last twenty years,” Thomas says, “because their students are really interested in moving image media and because they’ve finally developed a level of comfort with treating film as an academic discipline.” But film studies centers without that level of institutional backing have dwindled in number.

The Northwest Film Center’s Equipment Lab in use in 2012

A precursor of sorts to the sometimes awkward fit between the NWFC and PAM can be seen in the saga of the Pacific Northwest College of Art. PNCA had been under the museum’s umbrella since the school’s founding in 1909. It separated from PAM in 1994 after the purchase and eventual renovation of the former Masonic Temple that became the Mark Building. The perception emerged that then-director John Buchanan’s vision for PAM did not include a museum-based art school.

During the period when the Northwest Film Center and the PNCA both operated under the auspices of the Portland Art Museum, the differing fundraising priorities within the tripartite conglomerate sometimes led to conflict. The departure of PNCA was by all accounts painful, and could have been more so were it not for the space that benefactor Arlene Schnitzer guaranteed for the college. The school’s fortunes have fluctuated in the nearly two decades since, culminating in its merger with Willamette University last year.

One of the reasons the Film Center never followed suit was its dependence on the Whitsell Auditorium. After all, it’s hard to be a film center without a movie theater. For about a decade, the Film Center had the use of the Guild Theater thanks to a dollar-per-year lease agreement with theater owner and philanthropist Tom Moyer. There was a possibility that the Film Center would take over the Guild permanently, but after a trustee was appointed to manage the ailing Moyer’s estate, that idea was shelved, leaving the Film Center dependent solely on PAM for an exhibition space.

A crowd takes in a film at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium

Now, with the long-delayed plans for the new Rothko Pavilion linking the museum’ two buildings inching forward, the prospect of being without a venue during its construction looms in the not-too-distant future. Rumors have swirled about what contingencies are in the works, but PAM CUT has yet to comment on any of them.

According to those familiar with the process, PAM undertook a comprehensive assessment in 2018, designed to ensure that all employees were being properly represented and that compensation levels were within nationally comparable ranges. This happened before Dotson’s hiring, and the expectation was that the new director would institute any changes based on that data in the spring of 2020, after that year’s Portland International Film Festival had wrapped up. But then, of course, the pandemic showed up. “Brian [Feriso, PAM’s Director] and the board were put in a very tough position, and they did what they thought was right,” says that person, which was to move forward with the plan and rejigger the timeline.

That meant, in the moment, instituting broad layoffs that took effect on June 30, 2020. Although some other museum staff were also laid off, the vast majority were Film Center workers, and those were reportedly the only layoffs considered permanent as opposed to temporary furloughs.

The only NWFC employees who were brought back were Director of Artist Services Benjamin Popp, who had previously overseen the Northwest Filmmakers’ Festival, and Head Projectionist Arika Oglesbee, whose expertise was needed for the series of outdoor screenings that summer. Of the others I spoke with, none reported any communication from the museum in the intervening two years.

As other Portland movie theaters hesitantly reopened as the pandemic seemed to wane, there was very little communication from the Northwest Film Center regarding its plans. A second annual Cinema Unbound award ceremony had taken place, outdoors and livestreamed, in March of 2021, and a series of drive-in and other outdoor screenings kept projectors running. But it wasn’t until this year’s awards that any concrete information emerged. Even then, there wasn’t much about it that was concrete. That vagueness, understandable as it might be from an understaffed organization in a state of flux, has contributed to the sense of unease felt by many.

One representative comment was, “I don’t know what an untold tomorrow is and I don’t know why you would want to center it.” Another former employee feels that “the way the new concept has been presented is incredibly vague and purposefully noncommittal to anything.”

Other critiques have centered on what was called the “word salad” of PAM CUT’s mission statement, which includes sentences like “Of Portland, for all, we exist to expand the story and write our next chapter alongside our vibrant creative community who are no longer content to be contained.”

It’s fair to note that it has now been two months since the announcement, and the only screenings at the Whitsell Auditorium were for a pair of low-profile, seemingly randomly chosen indie films. Said screenings were, as far as this professional chronicler of Portland’s film exhibition scene could tell, barely promoted. The lack of solid information about future events has created a vacuum, one which has done little to reassure Portland’s film community.

It’s also fair to note that, like so many nonprofit arts organizations, PAM CUT is nowhere near back to a normal level of operation. And the reinvention of a part of Portland’s cultural bedrock is perhaps better undertaken slowly but properly than quickly and sloppily.

There’s also the issue of funding. Ferriso reports that up to 35% of PAM’s revenues came from event rentals, which were nonexistent during the pandemic. Obtaining the resources to build back up is a priority. “You have to be conscious of where philanthropy and sponsorships are going,” he says. “We just held a fundraiser, the Cinema Unbound Awards, and it broke all records. So there’s already been a very clear demonstration that the evolution of the film program is capturing people’s attention, and their interest, and they’re investing it.”

The open-ended future also creates possibility, especially for those who were frustrated by what they saw as an insular entity lacking in diversity. Jackie Weissman, the co-founder of Oregon Media Lab, moved here in 1998 and, she says, “would have killed to have an open, collaborative space available as a supportive clubhouse for creative expression.” She’s not the only voice offering support for the “inclusivity, equity, and dynamic programming and leadership being offered.”

Another is Weismann’s partner at Oregon Media Lab, Jen Tate, who sees much of the criticism as premature at best. “I hear everyone’s side on this,” she says, “but I’ve been frustrated by some of the vilification that was going around.” Tate counsels a certain degree of patience, adding, “They may not get it right the first time, but I refuse to be angry at people working passionately in the arts.”

The longtime employee I spoke with acknowledged that diversity “wasn’t a focus of the Film Center for its first 45 years. The Film Center and the art museum had been overwhelmingly white, heteronormative spaces, but we were really trying hard to move in a more equitable direction.” That person also expressed some qualms about the nature of the diversity being promoted, wondering if new forms such as podcasting and virtual reality may end up “replicating the same power structures.”

Thomas Phillipson, who served for sixteen years as the Film Center’s artist services manager, agrees that there are, and should be, “high expectations on PAM CUT to fix the diversity problems that most cultural institutions are wrestling with.” And although he, too, was saddened that his former colleagues have not been invited back, he says “it would be foolish to wish PAM CUT anything but success. I hope that when programming returns in earnest, it will be showing not only films that interest us but also wildly diverse offerings we might not have considered.”

Bill Foster introduces Raoul Peck’s “I Am Not Your Negro” on opening night of the 40th Portland International Film Festival.

As with exhibition, there are many more places today to receive an education in filmmaking. By that logic, the loss or diminishment of that aspect of the Northwest Film Center doesn’t need to be cataclysmic, even if it marks the end of an era that resulted in a unique, tight-knit community. As Lindstrom, who has spent his career chronicling society’s underseen populations, notes, “If the Film Center’s school and community programs aren’t in PAM CUT’s plans, I hope some other community-based arts organization will step up and put the means of storytelling into the hands of people who otherwise wouldn’t get to tell their stories.”

***

In sum, Dotson’s assertion that “the organization isn’t dramatically changing” doesn’t seem to hold much water for most observers. For some, that is an occasion for curiosity, engagement, and optimism. For others, no matter how much they want PAM CUT to succeed, it is an occasion for mourning.

Vaisburd wishes there had been more of an opportunity to grieve. “It would have been more transparent and straightforward to just say the Film Center is not what we want. That would be more respectful to the people who dedicated their lives. There would be a period at the end, and we could talk about that legacy. There was no room for a memorial.” Still, she hopes for the best. “I wish them well. I just think it’s a different animal. Don’t call it the same animal.”

Thomas, who gave as much of herself to the Northwest Film Center as anyone, also seeks closure. “Maybe the Film Center’s work is complete. Maybe the experiment of 1971-2021 worked so incredibly well that it truly achieved what its founders and leaders set out to do. Maybe we should take a collective bow and move proudly on, knowing that, without a doubt, our work changed Portland for the better, forever. I truly hope PAM CUT, in its own way, can do the same.”

Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.
Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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