Portland Playhouse Roald Dahl Matilda the Musical Portland Oregon

PNCA, Willamette U. will merge

ArtsWatch Weekly: Portland art school and Salem university join forces; curl up and read; deaths in the family.


THERE’S A NEW-OLD SCHOOL IN TOWN: Two high-profile Oregon private colleges, Portland’s Pacific Northwest College of Art and Salem’s Willamette University, have announced plans to merge, The Oregonian/Oregon Live reported Thursday morning. The boards of the two schools approved the merger on Wednesday, and PNCA’s faculty, staff, and students were told in a general announcement at 9:33 Thursday morning. The Oregonian’s Jeff Manning reports that the two schools have been discussing a merger off and on for five years, and the talks turned more serious 18 months ago. The Covid-19 crisis and PNCA’s failure to meet enrollment goals played into the agreement, The Oregonian said. The merger still “needs approval from regulators and the accrediting agencies of the two schools,” which is expected in 2021, Manning reported.

Pacific Northwest College of Art straddles Portland’s Old Town and Pearl District. Photo: PNCA

The two schools will maintain their own campuses and names. It hasn’t been so long since PNCA considered taking over the late Oregon College of Art and Craft, which folded after PNCA and other potential suitors decided against merging. PNCA also, after taking control of  Portland’s venerable Museum of Contemporary Craft in 2009, closed the museum down and took charge of some of its collections in 2016. Willamette University has been expanding quietly, Manning reported, including last year’s addition and move to the Salem campus of California’s Claremont School of Theology with its faculty and 300 students. This week’s announcement doesn’t define what this newest merger might mean to Willamette’s existing art department, or whether it will have any effect on Salem’s Hallie Ford Museum of Art, which comes under the university’s wing.


BETWEEN A PANDEMIC THAT’S A GOOD SIX MONTHS RUNNING and a disastrous fire season that’s left much of Oregon either scorched or in a haze of hazardous smoke, the urge to simply stay home and curl up with a good book (do people really “curl up,” like roly-polies?) is nigh unto irresistible. Ah, but what to read, in these parlous times, that can reflect our most unlikely moment in history yet also not cause our hair to (sorry; here it is again) curl up in fright? With no guarantees about the state of your hair, here are a few suggestions:


APOCALYPSE NOW, OR MAYBE LATER. Robert Frost famously posited that the world would end in fire or in ice, and made a plausible case for either. Looking around the American West in 2020, fire’s a good bet. But in his 1953 novel Out of the Deeps (British title, which I like better: The Kraken Wakes), the science fiction writer John Wyndham offers an intriguing variation: Melt the ice, and let the inundation begin. Wyndham, who’s maybe best-remembered for his sci-fi thriller The Day of the Triffids, tells his tale in classic H.G. Wells style, rolling out the most astonishing situations in a matter-of-fact reportorial manner.

In brief: Members of an alien race land their spaceships not near London or New York or Beijing, but in the depths of the oceans, from where, using their superior technology, they set out to overthrow Earth by melting the polar ice caps, causing spikes in temperatures, erratic weather patterns, and the flooding of land masses. It’s a page-turner. More pointedly, it’s an abrupt reminder that the basic concept of global warming was well enough known almost seventy years ago to form the plot of a popular thriller. Our current climate predicament did not sneak up on us.


THEN AGAIN, THE END COULD COME VIA VIRUS. Colson Whitehead’s been in the news lately because his latest novel, The Nickel Boys, won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, giving him two in four years following his 2017 win for his marvelous historical reimagining The Underground Railroad. But an earlier novel, 2011’s Zone One, seems particularly apt to our Year of Pandemic: A virus has swept the planet, leaving its victims in a painful half-life and forcing civilization to collapse into a rudimentary system of kill or be killed. Deftly balancing the traditions of sci-fi and literary fiction, Whitehead creates a compelling vision of the thin veneer of civilization overlaying mere survival, and writes what surely must be the finest zombie novel that doesn’t toss around the word “zombie” – in Zone One, they’re either “stragglers” or “skels.”


HOW LONG, HOW LONG, MUST THIS LOCKDOWN LAST? Think you’re itching to get out of the house? Consider the scratch-worthy situation of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, a gentleman of the old school in Amor Towles’s wryly humanitarian 2016 novel A Gentleman in Moscow. Rostov happens to live in civilized luxury in the Hotel Metropol in the center of the Russian capital. It also happens to be 1922 – and while the good count escapes a death sentence from the new guard for his aristocratic leanings, he is sentenced to house arrest – for several decades. The hotel is his, after a fashion. All other spaces are forbidden. From his well-stocked seclusion, Rostov witnesses the enormous changes occurring in his nation and the world, and discovers he can have a small but significant effect on the course of human events.


OF COURSE, THERE COULD BE A POLITICAL DISASTER OF MONUMENTAL PROPORTIONS. As we hurtle through smoke and disease toward the climax of a crucial political campaign, it’s good to remember that, as Sinclair Lewis suggested, it can happen here. Philip Roth got into the alternate-history game in  2004 with his audacious novel The Plot Against America, which posited that the antisemitic Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election and steers the United States into an isolationism that dovetails with the wartime desires of both Hitler and Japan. 


Portland Playhouse Roald Dahl Matilda the Musical Portland Oregon

But maybe you haven’t heard of the Canadian/English novelist Jo Walton’s splendid “Small Change” trilogy that came out one after another between 2006 and 2008: FarthingHa’Penny, and Half a Crown. Like Roth’s Plot, these three books follow the Western world’s plunge into antisemitism and fascism in an alternate 1930s and ’40s, but from a British rather than American perspective. Again, the wrong people win a crucial election. Again, appeasement and collaboration become watchwords. Again, a writer talks about the little corruptions and moral rot that can lead perfectly respectable people down a fatal path. Walton takes us from country manors to the heights of the London theater world to the back rooms of politics, imbuing her books with the familiarity of genre fiction as she dives deep into the annals of history and reveals how closely, really, the world came to taking a very different and disastrously destructive turn. 

Then again, it’s all fiction, right? Go ahead. Curl up and enjoy. 


Left: James McQuillen, classical music critic, 2019. Photo by Karl Blume via Facebook. Right: Glenda Goldwater, arts supporter supreme. Photo via Oregon Symphony

AN ARTS COMMUNITY IS MADE UP OF MANY FACES AND VOICES, and Portland’s arts circles lost two prominent and well-loved members who died in the past week: classical music critic James McQuillen and arts supporter extraordinaire Glenda Goldwater.

JAMES McQUILLEN, who died of natural causes, wrote for many publications, including a stint as the chief classical voice for The Oregonian; he also wrote occasionally for ArtsWatch. He did a lot of other things in his life, and had a lot of passions, but music was a constant. For several years he was a waiter at the legendary downtown hangout the Vat & Tonsure, which was known not just for its French-press coffee, smart wine list, and snappy staff, but also for the high quality of the operatic and other music that flowed from its sound system. James’s writing was deeply informed, deeply opinionated, often wryly funny, and committed to the possibilities for greatness in the world of sound. He wanted music to be the best that it could be, and was a passionate advocate for its importance and the importance of the people who made it. A couple of examples of his writing, for your reading pleasure: this 2015 piece for ArtsWatch about the choir Cappella Romana, in which he managed to make the phrase “hopelessly arcane and excruciatingly dull” seem almost a benediction; and this 2012 “critics’ conversation” for ArtsWatch with fellow writer Brett Campbell, rooted in their views of a concert by the fresh young band Brooklyn Rider. McQuillen talked about many things, including the quartet’s performance of a Philip Glass suite: “With loads of string tricks over its often churning rhythms, it endeared me to the group — it dispelled any notion that they’re banking on hipness, and suggested that they’re actually string nerds who happen to work very well together.”

GLENDA LOUISE GOLDWATER, who was born in 1932, was something of a late bloomer in Portland arts circles, but once she started there was no stopping her. A passionate Francophile who got her first of many tattoos when she was 78 – it was of the Citroën she drove while living in France – she came to live in Portland after retiring from her career as a librarian in San Francisco. “She found a welcoming arts scene that gave her opportunities to blossom and prosper as a volunteer, participant, and personality,” said Bruce Guenther, the independent curator and former chief curator of the Portland Art Museum. “Setting forth daily from her apartment in close-in Central Southeast, Glenda became an iconic part of the Portland ethos with her white hair, signature glasses, and always stylish attire. Her je ne sais quoi an inspiration.” From gallery and museum openings to concerts and the theater, Glenda was a ubiquitous, and deeply adored, part of the scene, her appearance at an event a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. And she collected art, by living Oregon artists, that lined her apartment walls. She even inspired a Facebook page called Glenda Goldwater Is My Hero. A lot of people smiled and nodded their heads in agreement to that.


Mr. Kent Ford, bringing the history home. Photo: Brandon Chadney

“I CAN’T TELL YOU WHERE WE’RE GOING,” Mr. Kent Ford told a small crowd of people on a walking tour of Portland’s Albina District one recent weekend afternoon, “but I can tell you where we’ve been.” Mr. Ford, as Monica Salazar reports for ArtsWatch, knows a lot about that. In the 1960s he was a founder of Portland’s Black Panther Party, fighting for racial justice and helping to set up such community programs as free medical and dental care and free breakfasts for school children. Since 2005 he’s been leading his “Power to the People” tours through an increasingly gentrifying Albina – once the core of Portland’s Black community – linking Black Portland’s past, present, and future, keeping alive what’s happened, and teaching new generations. Mr. Ford looks approvingly on today’s Black Lives Matter protests for social justice and against police slayings of Black people. “If we had dealt with this back then, we wouldn’t have to deal with it now,” he told Salazar. “Keep bringing it to them, keep it in the streets. Let’s teach them a lesson they’ll never forget. Let’s put everything on the table.”  

Protesters march outside Emanuel Hospital in 1971, demanding jobs for the community and keeping a health clinic open. Photo: Oregon Historical Society


The Burrows House, 1895, one of the Lincoln County Historical Society’s museums.

A FRESH FACE FOR AN OLD SOCIETY. ArtsWatch’s coastal columnist Lori Tobias talks with Faith Kreskey, the new executive director of the Lincoln County Historical Society, about what’s new with history at this coastal repository of culture, which encompasses three distinct home bases: the Pacific Maritime Heritage Center, above Yaquina Bay on Newport’s old waterfront; the Burrows House Museum; and the Log Cabin Research Library. Kreskey, who grew up on the Oregon Coast in Reedsport, about 70 miles south of Newport, comes to the Lincoln County society from a post as chief of the curatorial department at the Lane County History Museum in Eugene. “My focus is always on how our ties to place bring us together, and what we can learn from the lives and actions of those who came before us,” she tells Tobias. “A big important thing for me is making history relevant and interesting to people, growing interest in younger people in history. I think it’s a really great time to be working in local history. People want to learn more. They’re really open to it. I like finding interesting topics, and reframing people’s understanding of history. Making the stories more personal is really important to making history seem real and applicable to people in their everyday lives.”

Bicycles below the bridge along the coast. Photo: Lincoln County Historical Society


Inside Wapato: Filming from a distance in a lockup space. Photo courtesy Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative

ANTIGONE BEHIND (AND BEYOND) BARS. Director Patrick Walsh and Northwest Classical Theatre Collaborative like to take shows on the road, and they like to perform those classics in prisons. They did so a couple of years ago with a modern retelling of The Iliad, to enthusiastic response, and planned to do it again this year with Antigone. Then Covid-19 came along. Walsh and crew responded by turning to film, shooting the production at a distance inside the old Wapato Jail, which is being transformed into a homeless shelter. The finished video version will then be shown at every prison in Oregon, as well as other places. Bennett Campbell Ferguson talks for ArtsWatch with Walsh and crew about how the whole thing’s come together.


Shakespeare sets the table: The complete works, as performed by stuff in your kitchen. Photo courtesy TBA

2020 TIME BASED ART FESTIVAL. TBA, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art‘s annual fall fest of out-of-the-mainstream performing and visual art, is moving into its second week of mostly virtual but sometimes in-the-flesh programming. Its 25th season keeps at it through Sept. 30, and right now we’ve got our contemporary yet oh-so-Elizabethan eye fixed firmly on Table Top Shakespeare , the “At Home” version of Forced Entertainment’s Complete Works. From Sept. 17 through the 29th a series of free live-streams will bring you Macbeth, Pericles, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet, King John, Titus Andronicus, and Much Ado About Nothing. The actors? Let TBA explain that part: “A salt and pepper pot for the king and queen. A vase for the prince. A matchbox for the servant. A toilet roll tube for the Innkeeper. A water bottle for the messenger. A kitchen table for a stage. In this ‘At Home’ edition of Complete Works the dramatis personae of household objects return to a domestic setting in a unique staging directly from the performers’ homes to yours.” Go ahead. Stick a fork in it. See if it’s done As You Like It.

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Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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