Spaces: Artists make room for the arts

Our series on artist spaces continues as artists try to figure out where to make art during the pandemic

Thirty years ago Ken Unkeles first began renting space in his family’s collection of riverfront warehouses to artists, starting with the Carton Service Studios on Northwest Front Avenue. 

Completed in 1911, the building was initially home to the world’s largest prune-processing plant, then during World War II it served in the U.S. Navy as a ship-building complex, and from the 1960s it was a Standard Steel warehouse. The Unkeles family took their Carton Service cardboard-box-recycling business to the space in 1984, and in 1990 began renting unused upstairs spaces to artists Dana Lynn Louis, David Airhart, and Kathryn Hathaway. Though the Unkles family sold the Carton Service company in 2006, they retained the building, and today all three original artist-tenants are still there.

Today, Unkeles rents studios in three more converted warehouses: the North Coast Seed building, River Street Studios and NW Marine Artworks, the last of which is expanding. Building 5, currently under construction, will be home to an artist and maker space anchored by the nonprofit FLOCK dance group when it is completed next spring. “It’s going to be a sensational situation,” Unkles says. “It’s going to be momentous, I think: something positive. That’s kind of our attitude: ‘Let’s do something positive.’”

Ken Unkeles will add Building 5 to the NW Marine Artworks studios in spring 2021./ Photo courtesy Dana Lynn Louis

Unkeles strikes an optimistic tone, but he’s never seen anything like 2020. “It’s quiet, that’s for sure,” he says, but amidst the pandemic “the studios are getting used, because they’re the perfect environment for distancing,” he says. “Everything is really spread out. Some people have caught on to that. They’re using it as a refuge and a way to hunker down. But some people are really struggling.”

While vacancy rates at his buildings have remained low, there has been a higher rate of turnover during the pandemic, with more people behind on rent and some tenants inevitably forced to pack up. One single-mom artist had to leave when her sales and a supplemental service job both disappeared overnight. “We’re trying to work with as many people we can to get them to the other side,” Unkles says. The implication is clear, though: not everyone does.

Crisis and Opportunity

We’ve all lived through recessions, including a historically bad one 12 years ago. But when 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment in late March, it shattered Labor Department records for seasonally adjusted claims (recorded since 1967). Though thankfully the unemployment rate has rebounded somewhat, the coronavirus recession makes even the Great Recession look tame.

In the past, artists and other creatives found that some recessions actually helped them economically by curbing inflation and real estate prices. Boom times, on the other hand, often displace lower-income creatives. This time around, the playing field is much trickier.

“As an artist, if you say, ‘Okay I’m going to rent a studio for $300 and I’ve got my barista or waiter job, none of that exists at the moment,’” explains Subashini Ganesan, the City of Portland’s creative laureate and founder of New Expressive Works, a performing arts rehearsal and performance space. “How do artists continue to gain money if the secondary sources are also not in existence with social distancing?”

In March, Ganesan and Oregon’s poet laureate, Kim Stafford, launched the Portland Area Artist Emergency Relief Fund to address the problem and have distributed $170,000 to over 400 different independent artists across three counties. The Regional Arts and Culture Council followed with its Emergency Fund for Artists and Creative Workers, offering awards up to $500 to each local artist who applied. The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art and the Portland Art Museum have also followed suit. “But it still means people are struggling,” Ganesan says. “We’re not being evicted, but we’re always negotiating with our landlords. Next year, we don’t know.” 

Yet the pandemic turned out to be just one of three historic 2020 dramas. In recent days we’ve been coughing and worrying our way through the worst wildfires in Oregon’s history. This came after a summer in which millions of Americans took to the streets to protest police killings of George Floyd and several other Black citizens, only to be met with violent crackdowns from local and federal authorities. 

Traditionally in trying times, art is our salve. Consider Orson Welles’s line in the classic movie The Third Man, that “…in Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.” 

If Unkeles is right that the pandemic is an opportunity for artists to incubate, this summer’s social-justice movement may also have created a catalyst for change.

“I think George Floyd’s murder and the protests and the antiracist social justice movement that has moved into the forefront are going to inform the new economy and ecology of arts,” Ganesan says, “I hope in our country but certainly in Oregon. Artists of color, artists who are LGBT, are saying, ‘We’re going to be clear about where our difficulties are and where we’ve been ignored.’ And people are listening.”

The combined effect of the protests and the pandemic, she adds, “might create a new ecology for artistic work and venues in our city and state. All of these are completely new things. So in a way we can be excited. In another way, I feel like we’ve thrown all the cards up in the air and we’re waiting for them to fall.”

Signs of the Times

The nonprofit Independent Publishing Resource Center exemplifies the rollercoaster of crisis and opportunity in recent times. Its business hours may be down, but even in an increasingly digital world, its influence is up.

Founded in 1998 by Chloe Eudaly and Rebecca Gilbert, the resource center for book, zine and art printing moved into an expanded home on Division Street in 2012. Only four years later, however, as Division gentrified with restaurants and high-end apartments,  the rent tripled and interim director Brian Tibbetts helped find a new home. 

The Independent Publishing Resource Center in its new space./
Photo courtesy of IPRC

“We had to scramble to find a new space,” recalls Alley Pezanoski-Browne, who leads the organization today. But the nonprofit’s past legacy created an opportunity. The owners of a Central Eastside industrial building at Southeast Third Avenue and Main St., already home to comic-book publisher Oni Press, offered space, in part because the owner’s daughter had learned to make zines at the IPRC. “We found in our archives a zine she made about him being in a band opening for the Beach Boys,” Pezanoski-Browne says. “It’s made what could have been a traumatic move instead something so much better, having the kindness and generosity.”

The center closed in March for the pandemic and did not open again until July, but since then its facilities have been available by appointment.  “We wondered if people would even want to be in the space, but we’ve been filling up for all of our appointments. People really do want to still come in and make art.”

It’s not just for self-fulfilment, either: many IPRC members are small businesses owners, unable yet to invest in expensive letterpress or other equipment and relying on its resources. What’s been harder to restore is in-person community events—workshops, classes—which virtual events can replace to a degree, but can’t replicate the physical equipment people are there for.

Public outreach events are particularly important as Pezanoski-Browne seeks to establish ties with more local communities. “There’s a lot that we want to bring forward, about accessibility and about the voices of other marginalized writers getting their work out,” she explains. “Early on we established a great tradition of reaching out to cultures of people with disabilities and incarcerated citizens and homeless youth to share their vital voices with the community. That was something I came in wanting to make sure the IPRC did for artists of color too. I’m a Black, biracial person of color. In the whitest [major American] city, in a very white state, there have to be very active moves towards racial justice even within the organization.” 

When Pezanoski-Browne took the job in 2018, she began with a six-month process of community surveys and discussions. The process revealed that indeed IPRC “needed to do better by artist community members of color,” Pezanoski-Browne says. An ensuing strategic plan was built around equity, including a new BIPOC artist residency. During the pandemic, that residency was preserved, even though physical access to the space is limited. “We’re trying to find creative ways to explore what our values are. In some ways the crisis has stripped away a lot of stuff,” Pezanoski-Browne says. “You have to look at what is at our core. Our core is being the best resource we can be for all of the community, no matter what they’re going through.”

A case in point: The IPRC’s July reopening came in part to help activists. The center’s printing presses have produced many signs, posters and other materials for protesters. 

The IPRC has helped produce Black Lives Matter protest signs since reopening. Marissa Perez, a IPRC teaching artist, left, Emmeline Eao, IPRC’s Membership and Community Projects Coordinator, show some of the work./Photo courtesy IPRC

“More than ever, we’re very mission driven and thinking about the role we can play,” the executive director says, adding that the combination of pandemic and protests have helped foster collaboration between the IPRC and other organizations. “In a lot of ways, it does feel like conversations have been open across Portland’s art ecosystem.”

A Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native, Pezanoski-Browne came to Portland by way of the Bay Area, which she says she left both because it had become so unaffordable and she felt the arts were more consumer-focused and commercially driven there rather than maker oriented. “I was drawn to Portland because it seemed like a place like people were collaborating and there was entry into communities. But I do think it can be fractured,” she says.

As a person of color leading a respected arts nonprofit, Pezanoski-Browne still often gets asked, “how it feels to look not like an executive director would look like—questions that would not be asked of people of other identities,” she adds. “But I also feel like I have come into a community at the IPRC at a time when industry-wide or community-wide, people are interested in challenging assumptions and changing things. When we’re doing the best work is when we’re perpetuating that generosity. I feel like we will survive by making sure that we are that generous, bold, brave organization that our community needs us to be.”

Incubation and Long-Range Plans

The thing about artist studios and printing presses is they’re not spectator venues. If Covid-19 has turned almost everyone’s world upside-down with telecommuting, home-schooling and toilet-paper shortages, places that sell tickets to plays, concerts, dances or even football games are suddenly finding themselves looking at prolonged reinventions and at least a year without audiences.

“I would say this is the crisis of my life,” said Imago Theater co-founder Jerry Mouawad during our first conversation, back in mid-March as quarantine life first set in. “Everything that we were doing is kind of on pause.”

Imago Theatre sits just off Burnside on SE 8th Ave./Courtesy Imago

Mouawad and co-founder/co-artistic director Carol Triffle were already facing a challenge even before the pandemic. Since the early 1980s, they’ve created a series of successful, family-oriented touring theatrical shows with dazzling masks and costumes like Frogz, ZooZoo, La Belle, and Lost in the World of the Automaton. The $3.5 million in international touring business that resulted in turn helped underwrite much of Imago Theater’s local operations. But in 2019, the last of those shows was retired. “Basically Imago’s primary revenue stream was suspended last year,” Mouawad explained.

To earn more revenue, last fall Imago began renting out its theater, which Mouawad and Triffle own and lease back to the company. Imago hosted performances by Artists Repertory Theatre, Profile Theatre, and other small theater companies before the pandemic, but then by March those cancellations began to roll in. The co-artistic directors have also been incubating a new family show to run over the holidays and tour internationally again, if possible. 

When I visited Imago in February, the theater was quiet but the seeds of a three-phase renovation plan had already been sown. The building, which Mouawad and Triffle bought from the late developer Tom Moyer (responsible for the Fox Tower, Park Avenue West and 1000 Broadway building downtown) in the early 1990s, actually has two performance spaces and an extensive basement. But because there is no elevator, ADA rules prevent Imago from holding performances upstairs. To hold performances or rehearsals in both spaces concurrently, the second-floor ballroom would also need soundproofing. But the basement also has potential as a leasable rehearsal space.

Imago Theatre has added a second floor performance space to its main floor theater./Courtesy Imago Theatre

“We are very close,” Mouawad said in March. “It’s very much a possibility as the city grows that a close-in, double-theater could be very sustainable. I’m dreaming, but it is a dream in scope.”

Talking to Mouawad today, six months later, the reality of a long pandemic had begun to set in, but the company has also received a bit of help, and slowly developed a sense of creative adaptation. “We’re fortunate to have received federal, state and local foundation relief support. That should keep us in business through next summer,” he says. 

Meanwhile, Imago has moved forward with a capital campaign to bankroll an elevator and other renovations on the building, and the company continues to build a new touring masked-theater family show. Imago is also preparing to announce its first radio play, to be broadcast on KBOO, with the hope of raising donations in lieu of tickets. And Mouawad is wondering more about socially-distanced performance venues.

“We feel like we’re ready for the next phase, which is getting together,” he says. “We have a large studio where we can social distance. If Covid is still going on we’ll consult people about the theater: ‘If people get dressed in this corner and meet in the middle, how safe is it?’” Another idea is to stage a series of short stage performances, maybe one-act plays running a half-hour, with small audiences.

“We’re artists so we should be creative,” he says. “We should find creative ways to keep theater alive.”

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