Vision 2020: Yaelle Amir

A promising curator makes her mark and then her job disappears. She rolls up her sleeves and begins to make her mark again.

After twelve years of curating and writing in New York, Yaelle Amir arrived in Portland in March of 2015 to be the curator of exhibitions and public programs at Newspace Center for Photography. The beloved Southeast Portland space had always provided classes, darkrooms, and studio space. Amir was hired to reenergize the exhibition programming, to make shows that people could engage with and be excited about. 

Amir organized several well-received exhibitions at Newspace, including Hidden Assembly, which considered the role of labor in contemporary culture, and In Response: Revisiting the DOCUMERICA Photography Project, which was an open call for artists to submit work based on an Environmental Protection Agency program from the 1970s.


VISION 2020: TWENTY VIEWS ON OREGON ARTS


And then, 28 months later, in July of 2017, Newspace abruptly closed. Like many arts nonprofits, the financial situation had never been especially rosy. Amir mentions that there had been “restructuring” and “tightening up” but that it was “never on the table, from the staff perspective, that we were going to close.” It was an immediate closure. Amir was out of town and returned to find her email shut down, the organization dissolved, and herself without a job. 

This could be a terrible story: A promising young curator comes to Portland and has her ambition shaken out of her. But Amir is resourceful and has continued to enmesh herself in and endear herself to Portland art communities. She started teaching contemporary art practices in the Art + Social Practice MFA program at Portland State University in 2018. In 2019, she curated a show of Dan Paz’s work at HOLDING Contemporary and started teaching curatorial practice at Lewis & Clark College. Along with Ashley Stull Meyers and Elisheba Johnson, she curated the 2019 Biennial at Disjecta. She does not have a full-time job, but she is always working. 

Yaelle S. Amir. Photo: Kaitlin Bodiroga

I spoke with Amir about her views on curating, Newspace, and the Portland art scene. 

What drew you to Portland and to the Newspace job?

I had been living in New York for 12 years doing curatorial work and academic work; it was my 20s and 30s so doing a lot of different things. Moving here gave me an opportunity. I was looking to leave New York and looking, for the first time to have a full-time position as a curator where I was in charge of a gallery. It wasn’t by any means a blank slate. It came with a lot of history, a lot of opinions and a lot of different ways that the space was used. But when I was hired, I was asked to treat the gallery as something that I was building up because I was the first curator for the institution and they wanted to do things that were more engaged with a contemporary art dialogue that wasn’t just focused on photography as a medium but on how photography is integrated in contemporary art and integrated in daily life in a way that is interesting, exciting, and relatable not just to an art audience but to the bigger public.

What was unique about the Newspace job?

My whole thing in curatorial work is how to make an art space a platform where people can get different things from it. How can the art space be a platform for education and a place where you can engage on many different levels even without understanding contemporary art. The majority of my job at Newspace was doing a lot of community engagement and using the exhibitions as a platform for different events and different strategies that engage an art audience and a non-art audience. It was my way of trying to open up the doors for anyone to see themselves welcome in that space. Everything was free at Newspace so the facilities had to function well and photography equipment breaks a lot. There’s a lot of wear and tear and there’s a lot of upkeep costs that weren’t balancing out on the spreadsheet, so the financial difficulties just kept advancing and advancing. And while the exhibition program was doing well in terms of funding, everything else was struggling and the problems had been building up over many years. It was a clean break, the organization was dissolved, it felt like one day to the next. It’s the Portland special. 

Yikes, the “Portland Special” – that’s not especially optimistic.

I have optimism about the work that is being done here but I don’t have a lot of optimism about the sustainability of the people who are doing the work. As someone who is working on projects and teaching as a primary source of income, I’m not really able to do much beyond that job.

Amir curated “Documerica” at Newspace before the photography center closed.

What was your impression of the Portland art scene when you arrived?

I felt like there was a lot of mutual support happening here. This was something that I was really interested in when I was in New York and in understanding how the mutual support can build a more sustainable art ecosystem. I was involved in a lot of discussions around that in New York so when I came here I thought this had a great foundation. I think part of it is a function of how you can go to a few events and see a lot of the same people. That’s really great. You can have conversations that happen over time, not “let’s schedule a meeting a month in advance” and you better make that meeting. I like the accessibility of the spaces and I like that things weren’t planned out five years in advance so you can do a lot in a short amount of time. This has its benefits, but also its challenges, particularly for artists in that they have to work on a much shorter timeline and so they don’t always have the opportunity to be as ambitious as they might want to be. But I liked the immediacy. When I worked at museums in New York, I would work on projects that I would barely see happen because they were so far in the future. Contemporary art here is something that is really about now, and that is exciting to me. 

How was your impression of the Portland scene changed in the last four or five years?

I think the mutual support part is very much still there and I participate in it a lot more actively now. But on the flip side of that there is an overreliance on that because of a lack of resources. Everyone wants to do a lot of things and for good reason, there is a lot of work to be done in this day and age – there is a lot of work to be done but there aren’t a lot of resources to back that up. So we end up being very reliant on each other for better or for worse, and that is a challenge as someone who is very much in need of financial stability. 

For example, the Biennial project was an amazing opportunity to be able to hand over to artists but everyone did so much with so little. Disjecta did their best and accessed what they could access but it is really hard. We wanted to give the artists the opportunity to be as ambitious as they wanted to be. We wanted to have as many commissioned projects as we could afford and the artists wanted to do and that is coming from a place of wanting artists to create new work through this opportunity. That is a challenge when there’s no money. In that case, there was money but it was never enough. There’s money and then you get more ambitious and you still want to do things and so you just do them. 

In New York, I went through a phase where I was going to say no to things because I had a full-time job and then I had other independent curatorial projects that I was doing, and I was involved with a lot of advocacy work around art and labor. I got to a point where I had to say no. Here, though, there is so much that I want to do and that everyone wants to do and there is so much work to be shown that it is hard to say no. If we were to wait for the resources to be available, I would never work again. 

So do you feel like you’re doing more work here for less money in order to get things done?

I’m just not saying no as much. There’s not enough resources for everything that needs to be done or wants to be done anywhere, not in New York or anywhere. Ambition is always greater than resources. Here, it feels like if I were to limit myself based on resources, I wouldn’t be able to do much, and I do want to do things.

What makes you most hopeful about the future of arts and culture in Portland?

The artists that are here are pretty committed to being here and I think for an art ecosystem to sustain itself, there needs to be a commitment. It’s not easy to be committed to a place where you feel like you’re being left out of the development of the city and the growth of the city, which is obviously happening here. The standard of living is getting higher; artists are being priced out of studios and priced out of their homes. Adjunct rates are staying very low and the majority of younger artists are sustaining themselves through adjunct teaching or stipends or, obviously, jobs that have nothing to do with the art world. If you can’t pay your rent, how are you going to make your work?

I also feel like there’s a big effort to showcase voices that are not being showcased. Ori Gallery is doing amazing work and them being able to stay open and keep doing that is a testament to the support that they are receiving and the relevance of what they’re doing. Places like PICA who have had to take on so much of the work that was lost when other spaces have closed is also impressive.

Sara Siestreem’s installation at the 2019 Bienniel at Disjecta. Along with Ashley Stull Meyers and Elisheba Johnson, Amir curated the exhibit of Oregon contemporary art. Photo: Mario Gallucci, Courtesy of Disjecta

You mention the artists’ commitment to being here as a highlight. Is there anything that you think helps to foster that commitment?

The quality of the work and the commitment of the people who hold the keys. If people of means don’t start investing their money in things that provide people with jobs or sizable award sums for the work that artists are doing and if they don’t start buying from the galleries that are here, none of this is going to last. There are amazing galleries in town but the commercial galleries are struggling in the same ways that nonprofits are struggling. The galleries need someone to walk into their brick-and-mortar locations and buy work from them, not just at the art fairs in Miami.

The hope is that the money is here. With the development of a city, the money is here. I’ve seen it in San Francisco and I’ve seen it in Seattle. It takes forever for money to trickle back to the art world but it does happen eventually. What are all the spaces we’re going to lose in the meantime? It feels like there is an ongoing loss. 

It is harder to sustain the DIY culture that has really defined a lot of the art spaces here. They’re quick to come up and quick to close because the affordable spaces are just not accessible. But despite that, you still see spaces opening all the time and that is evidence of a somewhat hopeful upward trajectory environment. 

Are there artists and curators about whose work you are particularly enthusiastic? Who and what should we be on the lookout for in 2020?

  • I’m always excited about the artists Melanie Flood Projects curates. I’m particularly looking forward to the exhibition by New York-based photographer Becca Albee. 
  • PICA will hold an exhibition of new work by multidisciplinary artist Carlos Motta, co-curated by Roya Amirsoleymani and Kristan Kennedy.
  • I’m excited to see what Ori Gallery has in store for 2020. I think their curatorial model is really exciting and almost everything I’ve seen there so far has been meaningful.
  • Sarah Turner and Nanda D’Agostino have been organizing an ambitious public art project called Mobile Projection Unit in which they pair local moving image artists with video mapping programmers to collaborate on projecting their work onto cityscapes. I’m particularly looking forward to Sharita Towne’s collaboration that will take place in 2020.
  • I’m looking forward to HOLDING Contemporary‘s 2020 program, directed by curators Iris Williamson and Tiffany Harker.
  • Also looking forward to the 2020 programming of Chingada Gallery, curated and run by rubén garcía marrufo and Diego Morales-Portillo.

What are your goals for 2020?

To be employed (laughs). I want to keep working on a local level. One of the reasons I wanted to move away from New York is that while I was getting a decent amount of curatorial jobs, it was curating for people that I knew and for people that knew a lot about contemporary art. What I like about Portland and what I think is important in general is to engage a broader audience in an art space. The curator tells a narrative about the art but is also responsible for engaging the community, for getting people who may not be as well-versed in contemporary art into the gallery and to engage with art. For any type of art, that is the goal and that is what I want to do.

I’m always looking for different ways to broaden the reach of engagement with the arts. What matters to me most is working towards making art programming more approachable to wide, non-art audiences through exhibitions that speak to current concerns and programs that are a result of collaboration across fields.  

The other thing I would like to keep pushing for is more equitable and fair labor conditions for art workers in Oregon. This includes not only promoting honorariums for artists, curators, and other contributors to an exhibition or public program (that end being mostly symbolic), but a fair wage that at the very least begins to represent and honor the labor that went into the project at hand and the value it holds for the hosting venue and audience. 

***

This is the fifteenth 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.

Previously:

  • 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.”

  • Molly Alloy and Nathanael Andreini. “There’s a notion in Portland that anyone living outside Portland is a Klan member. … in fact the small towns and rural communities here are incredibly vibrant and resilient.” A new generation of leaders takes the renamed Five Oaks Museum deeper into the arts and into the diversity of culture around it.

  • Ella Ray. “There is this level of resistance coming from formerly colonized people who are marginalized, and I feel something bubbling under the surface,” the art historian and museum activist declares.

  • Martin Majkut. “The current generation of concert-goers is the last one with solid music education in schools.” Rogue Symphony Orchestra’s conductor talks about audiences, money, and music for troubled times.

  • Ka’ila Farrell-Smith. The Southern Oregon artist, mentor, and anti-fracking activist creates visual art “rooted in Indigenous aesthetics and abstract formalism.”

  • Sean Andries and Carissa Burkett. The leaders of Newberg’s Chehalem Cultural Center provide “a fertile ground for people of all walks of life to cross paths and connect,” from performances to visual and culinary arts.


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