Northwest art awards and biennials: a panel discussion

Chris Antemann. image via:


It was less a panel discussion and more of a three-legged stool of a Q & A on Sunday at the Portland Art Museum when Bonnie Laing-Malcomsen, the Harold and Arlene Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art, posed questions about the shows that recognize regional art to Rock Hushka, chief curator at the Tacoma Art Museum, and Beth Sellars, curator of Suyama Space in Seattle.

Bruce Guenther, chief curator and curator of modern and contemporary art at the Portland Art Museum, was a no-show, which was a real miss because Guenther could have provided the institutional history for PAM that we didn’t have otherwise. After all, this was a program held on the occasion of the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards (CNAA), currently hanging in the museum. Guenther oversaw the Oregon Biennials that predated the more focused CNAAs at the museum. Apparently, he was on a plane to Japan on a trip related to a show that’s coming to the museum.

It was a delight to have Beth Sellars on the micro-panel because her work as curator at Suyama Space is stunning. She has a wide range of experience serving on juries for regional exhibitions and so has a broad and considered perspective. And Rock Huschka’s clear ideas about the purpose of surveys and award shows was an important part of the conversation.

Sellars felt that both focused award shows and broader surveys were valuable for different reasons. The small show gives the viewer context for what the artist is doing while the inclusive shows have enormous benefits for artists, especially getting their work in front of curators, dealers, and collectors. The jurying (or curating) process itself does that, but both Sellars and Hushka pointed to the value for the artist’s career of the publication, the show catalog that is circulated more widely among arts professionals who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance to see work by the included artists.

When asked, Hushka said he prefered a more honed show, giving him the chance “to make a refined statement, a judgment.” Several times he used the word connoisseurship when talking about the intent of a biennial or awards show.

For this year’s CNAA, Laing-Malcomsen received 296 nominations from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming. 241 applicants then sent 20 images, and 30-40 sent three videos each. From these, she chose 28 finalists and seven winners. One striking thing is that both Laing-Malcomsen and Hushka talked about spending just a couple of weeks on the selection process, although Laing-Malcomsen said she continues to do studio visits.

In some ways, the conversation was as if we were eavesdropping on new curator Laing-Malcomsen (who has only been on the job a matter of months) drawing on the experience of the other two. She asked questions about their most challenging survey, about fees for artists to enter, about the value of having a curator vs. jurors — that kind of thing.

Sellars told a great and awful story about having Henry Hopkins as guest curator. Hopkins selected so much large-scale work that when it was hung, it was almost touching on every available wall…and the show had to be cut at the last minute by perhaps half. Sellars pointed out that jury panels are a bad idea because they result in compromises that don’t serve the strength of the exhibition.

Hushka co-curates (he used the word juror) the Northwest Biennial at the Tacoma Art Museum with a professional from outside the region. He valued the critical dialogue about “what’s good” that this dynamic duo strategy promoted and noted that his co-curators, “know quality. They’re good at connoisseurship.” And that it was the “combined wisdom” of the regional expert and the national eye that worked.

Laing-Malcomsen said she appreciated other eyes, too, noting that she appreciated the nomination process for getting a “larger opinion.” Hushka did say that he felt the broad call-for-artists was important because it put the onus on the artist to self select. Those who understood it as important for their careers would step up to get their work before the juror(s).

Both Sellars and Hushka were adamant about the value of publications. Hushka said simply, they’re the “record of our time.” And he noted the kinds of low-cost publications strategies that new technologies like print-on-demand and PDFs make possible. Sellars talked about how important documentation was for the artist’s careers, that Suyama’s publications are distributed to curators and galleries in NY, SF, and LA as well as to museums. And Hushka noted that Tacoma uses catalogs for acquisition decisions.

I asked about whether the move to a greater NW biennial, rather than the all-Oregon survey of the past, wasn’t a factor of institutional ambition. Hushka answered that in the case of the Tacoma Art Museum, that was absolutely the case: It was a board policy and part of a five-year plan to extend its reach (next into B.C. and Alaska).

It was noted that in looking at the history of artists working in the Northwest, one finds a number of examples of artists in dialogue with others in the region; Carl and Hilda Morris, Kenneth Callahan and Mark Tobey were in touch with one another. Laing-Malcomsen talked about the regular interchange throughout the region. Hushka noted that if we look at the history of Native art that the language groupings of course have nothing to do with these arbitrary state lines.

“People always ask me, ‘What is Northwest art?'” Laing-Malcomsen said. “And I don’t have a definitive answer.”




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