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PICA: Out of the pandemic, into the future

Retiring Portland Institute for Contemporary Art executive director Victoria Frey and her successor, Reuben Roqueñi, discuss the venerable avant-garde arts institution's coming transformation.

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Reuben Roqueñi. Photo: Robert Franklin

By LAUREL REED PAVIC
and BRETT CAMPBELL


Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s longtime executive director, Victoria Frey, says that the city’s “enduringly scrappy,” forward-looking arts institution has undergone at least four incarnations: itinerant, gallery space, festival-centric, and permanent headquarters on Northeast Portland’s Hancock street. Now, she says, the 28-year old center is about to enter a fifth. 

Frey, who took over executive leadership in 2004, won’t be leading the next transition. Although Frey told ArtsWatch she thought she might “die with her boots on” at PICA, she’s decided to retire next month, and turn over the rudder to incoming Executive Director Reuben Roqueñi. New in this role but a familiar face in Portland, he was most recently the Director of Transformative Change Programs at the Portland-based Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF). He also serves as the Board President of New York City’s MAP Fund

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OREGON CULTURAL HUBS: An Occasional Series


At PICA, the 59-year-old Roqueñi will manage a panoply of programs and initiatives, including PICA’s signature Time Based Art Festival, which has kicked off the Portland arts season every September since 2003 but won’t be happening – at least not in the same way – this year.  “The event always offers an open invitation for increased contemplation, with experimental performances that probe at the sticky depths of my subconscious,” Lindsay Costello wrote for ArtsWatch last  year. “TBA is a recurring way to ask myself if I even know what art is, anyway, and a reminder that maybe I don’t.”

Beyond TBA, the institute also curates both visual and performing art, leans toward the cutting edge, offers space and resources to local artists and community organizations, offers diverse educational programs, fosters cross-disciplinary artistic interaction and creation through its Creative Exchange Lab, and even maintains a Resource Room for archiving, researching and discussing art and PICA’s own valuable history and achievements.

Over the past three decades, PICA has provided some of Oregon’s most memorable, often exciting, thought-provoking, sometimes perplexing, and mind-expanding artistic experiences. Now it welcomes new leadership as it reboots to meet the needs of a much-changed Portland artscape.

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ArtsWatch spoke to Frey and Roqueñi about PICA’s recent adventures, including navigating the pandemic, the future transformation of TBA, and the organization’s coming “fifth reinvention.” We’ve edited, arranged and organized excerpts from the conversation under the topic headings below.

Victoria Frey: retiring as executive director of PICA. Photo: Gia Goodrich.

Confronting Challenges

Victoria Frey: The last three years have been the most defining across the board — the COVID era, this movement for Black lives and the other political and social landscape is really, really changing institutions. It’s tough on people in all areas to survive with integrity. One good thing that comes out of this is that institutions like PICA seek their core values. 

We understood with the shutdown and our communities in crisis, what we saw was PICA come together in a very different way. It wasn’t about a transactional relationship. It wasn’t about making a work or things together, it was really about: How do we support our community? How do we keep it together and not falling apart? How do we support the livelihood of people and their artistic ambitions? How do we lift up the voices of artists and keep them producing, keep them making, thinking, helping us think about what this moment means in our future?

What PICA did is that we jumped into the social justice realm. If you looked at what was going on in the PICA building during the pandemic shutdowns, there were artists, there were community organizers, there were people feeding sex workers, there were people using our space. We jumped in to say: We’re going to open this space and we’re going to allow people to use this space because we have it — for things that benefit our community: feeding our community, distributing PPE, all of the things that are PICA values in art and creativity. We’re going to provide no-strings-attached core support, just pay your rent support to artists. 

We opened the doors to artists and we said, here’s all the equipment, people here can help you make something. What is it you want to make? How are you thinking about this time? How are you teaching us what this time means? How are you finding a safe place to land in a tumultuous time? We really doubled down on the work that we do with artists, which is about making and commissioning and supporting. What do they want to do? 

A lot of what we saw, right as the pandemic hit, is that things got really scary for people. People had had so much personal anxiety. There were many national peer and local artists who said, I don’t even know if I can make something. I don’t even know what it means right now. So we said, you don’t have to make something. You need to use this time and just to think about it, to live in it, and it will naturally have some impact on the work that you make. 

I don’t think it changed the mission of PICA. I think we always had it. I think we emphasized that we were most interested in that side of the work rather than just presenting the work. I think that artists have always told us what they need. We’ve never done just presenting. We’ve always done residency, commissioning. But in a way, I think we realized in the crisis that artists needed more of this, they needed more space, they needed no demands for a product. How do we support artists, our core mission, more deeply, more holistically?  So everything kind of shifted to that. 

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sidony o’neal, TANP D’ÆR/SPLINE + ELEGY, 2022. Image by Evan LaLonde, courtesy of the artist

Sidony O’Neal is a perfect example — Sidony is somebody who has been part of PICA’s programs in the past. They came into residence through our Creative Exchange Lab program but then we invested in a two- or three-year project with them to fabricate and make and exhibit work. 

It’s been really rewarding. Not a lot of institutions did that. A lot of institutions said “yikes” and shut down.

Looking Forward: Partnering with Artists

VF: Coming out of a really difficult but important time, socially and politically — this time is really asking institutions to live differently, and we’re there for the hard work. We’re saying, yes, you’re right. It points out to us all the things that we value that we actually, unintentionally are not living. We’re going to be very intentional about everything. 

I see this moving forward in the partnership with artists. We’ve always described that sense of community but the community is much tighter now. We’re more interdependent now and I think that will impact how we look at the future. 

I don’t know what we’ll end up doing. It used to be as simple as dance: Artists didn’t have any places to rehearse. Well, there are a few of those now. Those are simpler things to navigate than this moment. Artists need different support right now. We’ve talked about all kinds of radical things, including basic rent support, monthly for a year, during the pandemic. We turned our re-granting support into just recovery support. Spend it however you need to spend it. But those are one-time gifts. We’re trying to find all the other ways we can keep supporting the artists in our community: we’re going to connect you to this, we’re going to commission you for that. But we’ve had some radical discussions that are in the field about how you support an artist through even just living expenses for extended periods of time. 

There are so many different choices but I do feel like the conversation really is focused on shorting up a cultural community. And the cultural community are the makers, the thinkers, the artists. What do and will they need? You have to follow their lead. 

Reuben Roqueñi: I do think that all performing arts organizations are, in this moment, thinking about how to reassess their bringing the work to a community. It’s not driven by ticket sales, it’s not driven by having vast audiences or something to that effect. It’s really driven around support for artists and their practices. PICA has always done well to bring in artists that are compelling, that are thinking about global issues, thinking about local issues that are reflected in global issues. And I think it’s time to really forefront the work that PICA has already been doing in terms of equitable practices in working with artists. 

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That comes through PICA’s small grant making programs that provide a lot of professional development space. There’s opportunities for commissions and for these kinds of moments for an artist to step back and think about themselves in a “retreat”-like way. There’s retreats happening around the grant-making, and to learn from each other to come together as a community in ways that artists have not always been heard around. Artists have been asking, “we want to be interfacing with each other.” They want to build their own communities and consider their own systems of support, and we are here to be able to allow for that.

When I first started [at Native Arts and Culture Foundation], our flagship programs were fellowship programs that provided unrestricted support for artists to do whatever they wanted and weren’t tied to a project or tied to anything — they could pay for their dental bills if they wanted. It was, in that way, liberatory for them to be able to just have the resources they need to do what they needed in their real lives. All of the artists that we supported turned around and made amazing work that year. It wasn’t just that they took money and ran, they put it back into their practices. 

We started to see that what the artists were doing spoke so much to all of the issues that were happening in the world. When we stepped back from our fellowship program after ten years, we began to consider this urgency that we’re all feeling in our communities globally. Thinking about climate change and the ways that we’re interacting with each other. Politics is a huge piece of this. And so we began to lean more into social change, into social justice and out of those reflections and that research we did with the artists, asking them, “What is it that you’re seeking? What is it that you need? What are the kind of things that you want to address in your work?”

And so [at NACF] we began to develop a program called Shift, which is now a new kind of flagship program that provides multi-year support over a period of time for them to take on bigger projects that engage their communities in deeper ways around the issues that are affecting our communities. Along with that, we’re providing professional development support, marketing support, opportunities for artists to come together. 

So it’s less about grant-making and more about a suite of services. How can we serve you and your whole life? How can we help you bring these projects to fruition? Besides the financial support, which is significant enough, we also wanted to be able to empower artists. Here’s the money — but you have to make sure that half of this money, half of $100,000, goes into your pocket. This is yours. The rest of the money doesn’t go to a presenter or anybody else. That is for the artist to negotiate. So again, the artist is in a position of being empowered to do their work. So I would bring [to PICA] those kinds of liberatory practices, liberatory in relationship to the way that an artist does their work and is able to complete their work and present it to the community.

I think it’s critical to meet an artist in that creative space. And sometimes that means maybe just being on retreat and having time to just think and relax and get away from the rat race. Everybody’s working way too much, and allow for them to really pull back and consider their practices in the ways that they really should be allowed to do. In a country where cultural policy is anemic, where artists aren’t allowed to have that time to do things, aren’t provided insurance or universal health care or all of the things that we’re fighting for as we look at underserved people in the broader fabric of the US.

Community Engagement

RR: I’ve always been drawn to PICA. I started volunteering. Eventually, I ended up on the board and then my relationship to PICA has just been maintained over the course of over a decade now. And as I’ve been watching PICA grow and change and learn, I’ve seen that really the way that I would frame PICA: Artistic direction is built around relationships, artists and supporting their work, taking the care that it requires for an artist to do their work, not only to perform but to built into the work, to develop it, to consider all of the creativity involved and to think about how to engage the community. And so, in that sense, I see PICA’s work as a form of movement-building, as a way to address liberation practices. That is true within the grant-making aspects, and in the presenting aspects. And so when I think about new directions for PICA, it’s less about new directions and more about coming in to really listen to where PICA sits now. 

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PICA does so many things well, from the festival to its visual arts programming. I think that my job is not necessarily to come in and make vast and rapid changes. My job is to come in and listen and guide PICA and its community through a process of thinking strategically about what PICA’s future looks like. I think that PICA has the opportunity to consider its work in a way that addresses its community, meets its community more directly. We have plans to engage the community around what they want from PICA. 

I think my hiring is symbolic of the kind of equity work that PICA is in the process of. Me, coming from my background, with my previous work experience amongst BIPOC communities. And so I see this as an opportunity for PICA to really consider those equity practices internally and externally. And so what I see in PICA’s future is bringing those marginalized communities into PICA in more accessible ways. 

Work by jaamil olawale kosoko, image courtesy PICA

The face of Portland is changing; there are lots of people moving, continuing to move here. There is a Black-er and Brown-er city in many ways and in many ways audiences at PICA are reflected in that. And I think that has to do, yes, with greater changes in Portland, but too in the way that PICA has really been dialing into how it best serves all the communities and not just a particular segment of community that is generally engaged in theater, dance, and performance art and all of the other kinds of performing arts that we’re seeing, except for maybe the music scene here, which is a whole other thing. 

I think PICA is a learning space. And so I think if PICA can begin to couch its work in a way that does offer an opportunity for folks to come in and learn, and yes, be challenged around that learning to be comfortable with the abstract, challenging issues that are offered from different voices, that’s exactly what they’re there to do. I think there’s a way to soften that entry when you make it about educational experience. That’s why I go there. I’m prompted by the weirder, the better, let’s go there. But I know that in order to make that more accessible to folks, it’s not about the experimental or the innovative. It’s about what’s inside of this work that might be compelling for you, how does it relate to your life. And then we can start to have the conversations about, if you don’t understand these aesthetic practices, how can we start to build out a community that is educated around it. I’ve seen PICA do that before, when they had artist salons where they spoke to their work. 

There was even one period where they were doing multiple conversations with artists that you could sign up for if you wanted. I remember when [TBA brought] Tanya Tagaq, Canadian throat singer who is a First Nations artist. People had no idea what throat singing was in the Native communities in the north, so it was an opportunity for them to come and learn about a culture that is different from theirs — what the practices are, where they came from and how that developed into Tanya Tagaq’s way-off-of-the-charts experimentation around a traditional practice. And even though you would think operating in these communities that I would know everything there is to know, it’s not always the case. And so, in my participation around that, then when I had all this background when I showed up to the piece, I was like “Yeah, I really get it.” I find the funnest thing about attending a work is being able to talk about it afterwards.

And for me, those are the most important moments, that’s when to really engage a community. 

TBA in Transition

VF: It is the time to have these bigger conversations about the format of TBA, about how we’re presenting and how we’re inviting and creating a sense of belonging. How is the design of the festival, that we designed in 2002 for implementation in 2002, relevant to now? How do we adjust it to be more relevant to now? 

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We founded TBA in response to 9/11. 9/11 happens and there is a social psychological landscape that’s really about wanting to be in proximity. The want to be together. We had a big Dada Ball scheduled for the 15th, so we thought, we’re going to cancel it. 9/11 happens, we’re done, we’re going to cancel this. And 65 volunteers showed up that day because they needed to be part of a community.

That changes during COVID now. There’s a whole different psychological landscape that’s informing us now. What does this reboot look like? Yes, we still want to invest in the kind of festival format. Where artists get to see each other and meet each other. But what does it mean to audiences now? What does our community need to have in this format now? It’s going to take some time to fix it. They’ve got the artistic pieces under way, the structure of it. Those are the things we need to look at into the future. 

We decided, in this immediate transition, not to do a TBA23, to do a series of works of all the things that we had committed to bringing to TBA already but doing them as a series throughout the fall. This is more investment, more duration, more commitment to these works. Will Rawls, going into the next Make Banana Cry and going into some local work. Part of that was that it’s a transition time for us internally. For a leader to walk right into this time, that is kind of brutal so we’re putting all of our investment now in 2024, TBA 2024. 

We are not branding the fall as TBA and not doing it in a festival format. So we’re working with some of the same artists but we’re not doing it in the festival format. So no late nights and beer gardens. 

RR: I think TBA is an important brand for us to maintain. It’s why I admired PICA from afar before I even moved here. I would get that catalog and just be like, ”oh my god, I love this place.” And I think it’s really important for people to really still be able to key into their pathways into PICA that they have been without losing TBA. But thinking about what are some other ways that we can provide TBA that maybe aren’t within one week. It’s great to have people all come together and I think that we will be able to do something like that in the future, but also to think about, what does it look like over time? We have the opportunity now with this building to conduct programming on a more year-round basis. 

I think PICA has done pretty well to have some continuity in what an annual calendar looks like. Maybe TBA takes up too much of that. Maybe there’s a way to stretch some of that over the course of a whole year.

I think that’s part of my role too — to come in and think about what PICA looks like operationally. How can PICA internally be healthier? How can we create spaciousness in our working lives to allow for our own creativity to thrive? And so that’s my hope. Moving forward in thinking about how PICA can change is really how do we move from a do-it-yourself everything to something where we can begin to call for the help we need and call upon our community to help build us to be a stronger organization internally? So that what we’re presenting to the community is going to be innovative in the ways that it always has been but in a way that just makes sense, is right-sized to PICA in the space that it’s in now. 

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Coda: Continuing a Legacy

RR: I see myself in a continuum of time at PICA and that it’s really important for us to honor our ancestors within the PICA community and all of the amazing work that has been done by Kristy [Edmunds, PICA’s founder] and Vic, yes, but also by the greater PICA community. I remember coming into it 10-13 years ago and just being amazed by the breadth of the community. Yes, there was what happened on stage and yes, there was the staff that I was getting to know. But when I’m sitting down at a community dinner, I think, “wow, look at all of this.” This is what PICA is; it is way bigger than what I understood it to be. And so I want to come and honor those legacies. Vic is incredible. And I think as we carry the energies of PICA’s work forward, there’s always that really strong foundation to build upon and their presence will always be felt no matter who comes into the office next. 

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Brett Campbell is a frequent contributor to The Oregonian, San Francisco Classical Voice, Oregon Quarterly, and Oregon Humanities. He has been classical music editor at Willamette Week, music columnist for Eugene Weekly, and West Coast performing arts contributing writer for the Wall Street Journal, and has also written for Portland Monthly, West: The Los Angeles Times Magazine, Salon, Musical America and many other publications. He is a former editor of Oregon Quarterly and The Texas Observer, a recipient of arts journalism fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts (Columbia University), the Getty/Annenberg Foundation (University of Southern California) and the Eugene O’Neill Center (Connecticut). He is co-author of the biography Lou Harrison: American Musical Maverick (Indiana University Press, 2017) and several plays, and has taught news and feature writing, editing and magazine publishing at the University of Oregon School of Journalism & Communication and Portland State University.

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