Washington County is changing fast, and so is its arts scene. Case in point: the Washington County Museum, which last summer appointed a new young leadership team and this month relaunches under a new name and with an expanded mission that puts the arts at the forefront.
Last July, the museum board named two of its staffers — Community Engagement Coordinator Molly Alloy, 38, and Education Director Nathanael Andreini, 45 — co-directors of what’s now called Five Oaks Museum, whose history stretches back decades before its consolidation as Washington County Historical Society and move to Portland Community College’s Rock Creek Campus. They’re leading Five Oaks Museum in new directions that reflect its diverse community’s expanding perspectives.
VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS
The museum describes This IS Kalapuyian Land, its current exhibit and one of the first fruits of the pair’s new direction, as a re-tooling of the museum’s cornerstone historical display: “As viewers move through the space they will encounter hand-written edits and annotations made by [Guest Curator Steph] Littlebird Fogel to highlight errors, update language, and note important passages in the original content. Each edit points towards larger problems in our collective recollection of America’s and Oregon’s history.” Littlebird Fogel also brought in contemporary artworks from 15 Indigenous artists. Read Laurel Reed Pavic’s ArtsWatch review for an in-depth look at the exhibit.
Along with historical and artistic exhibits, the museum offers a research library and classes for elementary, middle school, and high school students from throughout the county and as far west as Forest Grove and Banks, and as far east as Portland.
What has had the biggest impact on arts & culture in your area in the past few years?
Molly Alloy: The loss of some of these robust academic arts institutions like OCAC [Oregon College of Arts and Craft, which closed this year], the Museum of Contemporary Craft [which closed in 2016]. They’re so close to us. We would do joint programming with them. One of our recent lectures was presented at OCAC. Now they are not there as a resource and a partner. We’ve felt the loss of that presence in the community. Coming on the heels of the Art Gym closing and the others, that had such an impact that we’re really increasing our arts programming at the museum. We’re prioritizing use of our spaces to be responsive to this need we see.
Nathanael Andreini: We’re seeing displacement too for those artists and students, faculty and staff who have been scattered around. We’re hoping to absorb some of the OCAC diaspora in a way that makes sense to us.
MA: Since Nathan and I have been here, we’ve emphasized the arts exponentially more. Those wonderful arts institutions closing requires institutions that are surviving to make room for regionally important artists. Those artists should know that we are part of that larger effort, that we are available, and that this is a place where you can grow your art.
What are your goals and expectations for the coming year in the arts, professionally and personally?
MA: The museum is undergoing a rebrand. Beginning the first (full) week of January, we have a new name and total new brand. The rebrand is part of growing beyond delineations that inherently prioritize one perspective — and in this case it’s the pioneer colonial perspective. We’re not distancing ourselves from telling their stories. But we cannot become a place that allows all stories to give broad perspectives while we are named after a designee of the one colonial authority. Instead of the rebrand being a paint job, we took it down to the stubs. We’re creating a place where every single thing we do is demonstrating the values we have expressed as fundamental.
A guest curator program is being launched as our permanent ongoing solution to curation. Instead of the museum hiring a permanent curator, we’ve reprioritized to create a new position devoted to taking care of the museum’s large collection of art and archives. (Editor’s note: In late November the museum filled that post, appointing Mariah Berlanga-Shevchuk, who leaves her position as associate curator at the Los Angeles Plaza de Cultura y Artes, as its new cultural resources manager effective in January.)
NA: We’ll have two guest curators per year. One exhibition runs the entire length of the school year, and then a summer show. A school year is long enough to enact these values of bringing arts, culture and history together. Our main revenue source is using art as a teaching tool by bringing in school groups.
MA: For each guest curator, we’ll have a call for proposals, and then a community panel selects from those proposals. The museum isn’t the sole decision maker. Community curation is in the hands of community leaders. They’ll be drawing from arts and history and cultural change makers to select content for the coming year.
Our current exhibit reflects that decentering of authority. We’re positioning ourselves as more of a platform and less of an authority, so that everyone can say, ‘I feel represented, reflected like never before, and I’m getting perspectives that I never had.’ We’re learning from the museum field how to be facilitating those more nuanced conversations from different communities of color.
NA: This IS Kalapuyian Land demonstrates that fully integrated way of exhibit-making, along with complex and nuanced discussions around history. By supporting those types of nuanced conversations, we’re demonstrating to the community that history and culture and art are deeply integrated — not separate, but concurrent. We’re deconstructing the binary between what is celebratory and what is struggle throughout history. Arts and culture can help us do that.
In the current sociopolitical moment, people are so hungry to experience things they feel are true, but they see barriers and divisions and disruptions. We want to see more integration of arts and history and culture. Direct interjection of contemporary voices — not depoliticized and decontextualized — tells incalculably more than dry authoritative history can possibly do. When you displace the singular authority, it allows arts institutions to be culturally embedded and give personal perspectives on history.
That perspective has let us retool how we teach our curriculum. It had been more script- and lecture-based learning at the lecture hall. Now when teaching youth and older adults in the museum, we’ve revised our model to be more encouraging — more inquiry-based, more arts-based, object-based. And we’ve added some outdoor education around the PCC campus.
What we’re ultimately looking for is for anybody who comes to this museum — whether neighbors or tourists or coming from over the hill — to get the sense that they’re situated in a very local culture, and at the same time feel an affinity or alignment with a broader scope, well beyond the Pacific Northwest. Where we live is a microcosm for much bigger conversations globally. We’re positioning ourselves to be both macro- and micro-focused. Whereas a county history museum would have been thought of as doing storytelling restricted to its particular locality, we feel instead that our locality is part of a deeper conversation not restricted to local history.
Our current exhibit is a great example: it focuses on a specific geologic site of this valley and a specific Kalapuya culture, built around the exact shapes and life of that land. But bringing [Littlebird Fogel] in to do this kind of clawback and re-do the voice in which the story is told speaks to a global movement of rendering visible colonial impact and the kinds of power dynamics that exist between marginalized communities and institutions. That story is part of a larger dialogue.
What issue or issues in your community would you most like outsiders to understand?
NA: One thing we want a tourist coming to our museum to understand about our area is that it’s its own dynamic cultural zone. It’s not a footnote to the Portland cultural scene. An urban planner might be dismissive of the suburban communities directly adjacent to Portland. There’s a notion in Portland that anyone living outside Portland is a Klan member. There are problematic pockets of a few people that draw attention, but in fact the small towns and rural communities here are incredibly vibrant and resilient. Those rural perspectives are really valued and integrated into the landscape of Washington County. We find ways to include those perspectives in the types of artists we exhibit.
MA: There’s the ongoing demographic shift — the fact that Washington County is the most diverse county in Oregon and continuing to diversify faster. And there’s the cultural shift in the type of attention various cultures are getting. A report by the Coalition of Communities of Color in 2018 gave such clear direct asks to the community about how to better support communities of color, and how to create a platform that allows people to present their own culture and perspectives and voices, rather than filtered through others. That report propelled how we approach work in the museum. In every project we plan, we’re asking: who do we represent and how do we allow them to give their own perspectives without interfering?
I have found that in Washington County and other Portland-adjacent areas, the core infrastructural cultural work is led by communities of color. Whereas in Portland, those communities have been so marginalized for so long that they have to spend all their energy organizing for themselves. In Washington County, they’re leading the cultural tide. In that way I find it to be ahead culturally of Portland. The cultural shifts we see here will come to Portland soon.
If you could make one thing happen in the 2020s, what would it be?
NA: Tualatin Valley Creates produced a study last year that compared spending on arts and culture in Washington County to the rest of the country and region. It had the highest income demographics in the tri-county area, yet the least amount of arts and culture spending per capita compared to Multnomah and Clackamas. Maybe there are fewer places to spend money on arts in Washington County. In response to that, people are driving into Portland. We want to see that change. We’re asking ourselves: where does the museum fit into that?
This is the tenth in a series of twenty interviews in twenty days with arts and cultural figures around Oregon, creating a group portrait of the state of the arts in the state. It looks at where we’ve been, where we are, and what might or should happen culturally in the 2020s.
- Rachel Barreras-Kleemann. The “small” goals of the Newport dance teacher, who learned African-Brazilian dance forms in Brazil and performed with the marching samba band Lions of Batucuda: keep kids motivated to dance, give low-income kids a place to go.
- Niel DePonte. The Portland percussionist, composer, and conductor for more than 40 years thinks about thorny issues ahead, and how to tackle them.
- Darcy Dolge, Sarah West, and Nancy Knowles. Three leaders of La Grande’s Art Center East, which helps serve a sprawling ten-county stretch of Eastern Oregon, say funding cuts could have been dire in their rural area, but the community stepped up to keep arts thriving.
- Maya Vivas and Leila Haile. The founders of North Mississippi Avenue’s Ori Gallery “often joke about how we would love to not be the only Queer, Black-run art space in town.”
- Christopher Acebo. The longtime key figure at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and recent chair of the Oregon Arts Commission talks about diversity, funding, and who controls the gate to the castle.
- Yulia Arakelyan and Erik Ferguson. Beyond the arts bubble, the Wobbly duo see a dangerous world: “Hate based crime directed against people with disabilities has gone up.”
- John Olbrantz. The director of the Hallie Ford Museum of Art talks about the museum, Salem’s lively arts community, and its “blessing and curse” of being near Portland.
- Joamette Gil. The lowdown on the Power & Magic of creating an indie comics universe that tells tales of life, love, and adventure in a nonbinary culture of color.
- Rachael Carnes. The Eugene playwright, who’s written more than 80 plays in three years, praises her city’s bubbling arts community but fears it’s getting harder to break in: “Access is the foundation for a vibrant arts scene.”