There’s a common thread between several downtown Portland exhibitions.
On the second floor of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE) on the North Park Blocks, objects and photographs from OJMCHE’s collection are bounded by sometimes somber, sometimes colorful presentations of the words and stories of Oregon’s Jewish community and Holocaust survivors. These installations comprise the museum’s core exhibition galleries.
Down the street, the Portland Chinatown Museum (PCM) focal exhibit, Beyond the Gates: The Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns, tells the story of how, despite systemic obstacles, Portland’s Chinese community built the second largest Chinatown in the United States. Among other immersive exhibits is a dining room vignette from Hung Far Low, the Almond Blossom restaurant, with a large graphic of its iconic sign that existed for nearly eight decades on NW 4th Avenue around the corner from the PCM.
Over at Portland State University in the new Vanport Building, featured at the entry is a permanent installation called the Spirit of Vanport, a collaboration between local memory activists Vanport Mosaic and artist Alex Chiu. Part exhibit and part memorial, it tells the stories of Vanport, once the second largest and most diverse city in Oregon and a place that holds a deep legacy as a touchstone for Portland’s Black community.
These exhibits are frank explorations of facets of our state’s history, not shying away from the injustices. But they have another thing in common: the visual presentation of each of these exhibits includes the work of Bryan Potter Design. This firm’s design work has woven its way through many of Portland’s arts and culture organizations over the past two and half decades.
Small enough, but robust enough
From the beginning, Bryan Potter Design showed a penchant for taking on projects in politics, the arts, and the environment.
Kansas-born Bryan Potter arrived in Portland in 1992, armed with a graphic communications degree from Kansas University and fresh off a stint in Boston with a design firm. He landed a job at Willamette Week, and spent a year and a half there as a graphic designer/art director.
When he had a couple of solid freelance projects to work on, he decided to leave Willamette Week and try going out on his own. One of the initial projects that helped the nascent Bryan Potter Design pay the bills was the monthly Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) TV Guide that lands in the homes of thousands of OPB members statewide each month. Bryan Potter Design continues to do this guide to this day and has produced over 300 issues. His other early project was working on the design for an environmental magazine his friend Paul Koberstein was working to launch, which became Cascadia Times.
Political projects began coming his way. Playing pick-up basketball with Erik Sten led to design work for Sten’s runs for Portland City Commission. Sten eventually won four terms. Campaign work for Sten eventually led to a longtime relationship with Mark Wiener, a political consultant focused on progressive candidates and causes, with Potter often designing over a hundred direct mail pieces in a single election cycle.
As his business outgrew its home office, Potter landed in a leaky, sporadically heated, but large office space in Troy Studios, a former laundry building in the Central Eastside Industrial District. Troy Studios was already a legendary place in the ‘70s and ‘80s as a Portland arts ecosystem providing affordable, collectively maintained creative space that fostered hundreds of artists and small businesses over the years, including puppeteer Michael Curry. It would be the home of Bryan Potter Design for 27 years.
His first museum client was one of the city’s largest. An acquaintance brought Bryan Potter Design in to work on a Portland Art Museum (PAM) print piece, which quickly became hundreds of print pieces and an almost-three decade relationship that continues today. The PAM work made Potter realize he needed help with the workload, and he convinced his brother Eldon, who was living in Eugene at the time, to come up and help manage projects. Bryan taught Eldon some design basics and soon he was fully sharing in the design work. While the business name didn’t change, Bryan Potter Design has been a collaboration between the brothers now for 25 years.
“We’re very loyal, and we’re fortunate to work with those who are loyal to us,” says Bryan. “Portland is small enough, but robust enough that building those loyal relationships has kept us growing. Keep working with us, and we’ll keep delivering. That’s really been the bottom line for our business success.”
Another project that in their own words “made our fledgling business possible, successful, and deeply satisfying” was the iconic Chinook Book, a coupon book for sustainable goods and services at local businesses, which over time became readily recognizable by its brightly colored cover graphics. This successful collaboration with Nik Blosser and Celilo Group Media had a 20-year run, eventually spreading to multiple cities across the country and spawning an app, before succumbing to the COVID economic downturn. The Potters designed every print edition of Chinook Book, including 100,000s of individual coupons produced by longtime Senior Designer Mariane Zenker.
Museum work becomes exhibit work
A longtime museum partnership also brought them into exhibit work, work that would delve into different facets of our state’s history.
In 2004, their success at PAM caught the attention of Oregon Historical Society (OHS), which was gearing up for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial and needed more support in the run up to that event. What started with invitations and elegant collateral pieces grew into banners and exhibit panels.
With the guidance and trust of the then OHS exhibit director Marsha Matthews, BPD expanded their capabilities to include large format output, dimensional graphic fabrication, casework, window treatments, and full-scale original exhibits. With continued partnerships with OHS, Bryan Potter Design has designed, produced, and installed over 40 exhibits, exploring a wide range of topics with a variety of talented curators, vendors, and local creatives.
Highlights include Clink: A Taste of Oregon Wine, which examined the 150-year story of Oregon’s grape and wine industry; Oregon Rocks, a look back at our local music scene from N. Williams Avenue jazz clubs and The Kingsmen through Elliott Smith and Exploding Hearts; It’s Not Over: 40 Year of HIV/AIDS in Oregon, which this summer explored the past and present fight against HIV/AIDS; and We Are The Rose City: A History of Soccer in Oregon, which wrapped up an extended COVID-era run in the first floor gallery in Fall 2021.
Transitioning from two-dimensional print design to exhibit spaces has offered the firm the chance to create experiences that present information, but also draw visitors into a story and an immersive experience. It involves multiple sensory inputs, absorbing from a variety of sources, and morphing all these ideas to create a unified and engaging visual experience.
The key to a well-designed exhibit is a well-curated exhibit script, explain the brothers. The first thing they need to understand from their client is what pieces of the story need to be told. Then they need to understand what sort of content is available to present that story, such as oral histories, artifacts/objects, and photography.“ This step is crucial to the design process, but the story has to be historically accurate and well-written,“ says Eldon. “We have worked with amazing writers, researchers, community informants, curators, and museum staff over the years. It really is a collaborative process requiring a team with diverse skills and knowledge.
“Initial considerations for any exhibit plan are overwhelmingly and mundanely site-specific,” he continues. “Where will this exhibit live? How much space is there? Where are the walls and where are there not walls? How does the space lead to organization of content, themes, and visual elements? We are getting better at finding ways to overlap content in limited spaces, like projected video and digital interactives. We also are tackling more projects such as traveling exhibits that are up for a limited time, or street windows and other non-traditional spaces that are being tasked as displays.”
Two key dimensions the Potters put a lot of attention on are accessibility and impact. “Museum visitors tend to fall on a spectrum from skimmers — who take in a little and move on — to browsers to gorgers — who spend time with every element,” notes Bryan. “We try to provide multiple access points for as wide a range of viewers as possible, leveraging even simple elements such as text treatments – always pushing for fewer words and bigger type – to language ingredients, like writing to an appropriate comprehension level or using other languages, as well as hands-on elements.”
“When we interact beyond reading, we engage more deeply,” Eldon adds. “For impact we always want at least a few ‘wow’ elements that we hope viewers can’t miss. Sometimes it’s as simple as an expected use of scale, such as a huge photograph. Sometimes it is an understated surprise, like an everyday object that tells an extraordinary story, for example, OJMCHE’s permanent Holocaust exhibit includes a knife and fork smuggled out of Auschwitz by an Oregon survivor.”
Exhibit design “is an iterative process with the creative team when it comes to content, design, and fabrication,” says Morgen Young, historian and content developer/curator for Historical Research Associates, Inc. who has worked with the Potter brothers for over 10 years on dozens of exhibits for Oregon Historical Society and numerous other organizations. She says in the best exhibits that creation,content, and design need to inform each other from the beginning. “And the creative team needs to listen to the client and stakeholders. The Potters are great listeners and really put the client and other key team members first.”
The designers point to the evolution of printing technology that has changed exhibit design. The price point for expansive environmental graphics, sometimes floor to ceiling, has gradually become more affordable and accessible to nonprofits with limited exhibit budgets. This allows for a greater impact of the experience rather than just a panel on the wall. And Portland – with its rich tradition as a regional printing hub – has many talented environmental graphics vendors.
Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE) began collaborating with Bryan Potter Design over a decade ago based on a recommendation from OHS and has engaged them in numerous exhibits over the years.
“They are so extraordinarily talented that I’ve never had to say to them, ‘I really like this but it looks very similar to something you did for us two or three years ago.’ I think that’s an extraordinary observation to make about an exhibition design company,” says Judy Margles, OJMCHE Museum Director. “They have a recognizable look, yet every project that they create is unique.”
On the bar being raised
Portland’s arts and culture scene has grown as the city has swelled.
Eldon Potter says they have “rode the wave” as national interest in Portland’s culture grew—from arts to food and microbrews. But they have participated in this growth as well.
Bryan Potter Design started working for the Portland Art Museum during the tenure of executive director John Buchanan and his development director wife Lucy, who between 1994 and 2005 transformed the struggling Portland Art Museum both financially and physically. The Potters worked on campaign materials for the Buchanans’ three capital campaigns, which together raised an unprecedented $125 million in 11 years for renovation and expansion projects. The capital projects not only helped create a more modern and vibrant museum campus, but also shifted what the local nonprofit fundraising community thought was possible.
“They raised the bar on funding and exposure for the arts in Portland which may have influenced and bolstered exhibits of all kinds. Public membership, interest, and involvement has grown and expanded as a result,” says Bryan.
Interest and investment in museums and exhibits that explore a more diverse cultural history of our state has grown, too.
The Oregon Jewish Museum in northwest Portland merged with the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, and in 2017 relocated to a larger North Park Blocks space as the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Because of an established relationship with OJMCHE, Bryan Potter Design was part of the team that created their permanent core exhibits.
They participated on the team that created Beyond the Gates: The Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns, originally created as a temporary exhibit for the Oregon Historical Society by exhibit designer Carey Wong, curator Dr. Jacqueline Peterson-Loomis, and contributor Jennifer Fang. With the support of Oregon Historical Society, this exhibit was expanded and became the permanent exhibit at the new Portland Chinatown Museum.
Bryan Potter Design also helped design one of the inaugural exhibits at the Japanese American Museum of Oregon (JAMO, formerly Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center), which opened its doors in May 2021. The exhibit, Grace, Grit & Gaman: Japanese American Women Through the Generations, explored the stories of five generations of Japanese American Women.
The firm’s exhibit work has moved beyond Portland, too. In partnership with Historical Research Associates (HRA), they have created the Capitol History Gateway exhibit in Salem that tells the stories of native, ethnic, and national groups that call Oregon home. HRA and Bryan Potter Design also recently collaborated on a site-specific installation at the Pentagon on the history of the Army Corps of Engineers, and a 7000-square-foot exhibit in Ft. Sumner, New Mexico that tells the story of the Bosque Redondo.
In Oregon, watch for upcoming exhibits with Bryan Potter Design, including work with the Travel Information Council: “Oregon Trail Roadside Interpretive Kiosks”, “100 years of Association of General Contractors” at OHS and “A Long Road To Travel: The Service Of Japanese Americans During WWII” at The History Museum of Hood River County, as well as exhibits at JAMO and OJMCHE.
Thank you for this wonderful profile of Bryan Potter Design and the Potter brothers.
What a wonderful tribute to the worksk of Bryan and Eldon Potter. In addition to the many projects they worked on that are described in the article, Bryan Potter Studio designed all of the programs, posters and mailings for Portland Taiko for many years.
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