Weathering the Storm

Portland’s innovative photographic arts center Blue Sky Gallery rides out the pandemic

In his book The Gathering Storm Winston Churchill wrote, “The veils of the future are lifted one by one, and mortals must act from day to day.” He wrote these words about a time of immense danger and extraordinary uncertainty throughout the world, when fear, anxiety and hopelessness gripped nations and paralyzed faith and optimism for the future. It was a time of seemingly insurmountable crisis, much like what the world is experiencing today, when many of us feel powerless as events outside of our control threaten our security. In our own time of peril most of us are somehow finding the courage to soldier on and take some kind of action to move our lives forward as the coronavirus pandemic continues. But there is no roadmap for moving forward. We must all find our own paths through the crisis.

Many of us seek solace in the exploration of beauty, art and creative expression to help ease our feelings of stress, loneliness and sadness. Art galleries have often been treasured destinations for those who trust in the healing power of the visual arts. However, since the pandemic has compelled many galleries to close their doors, in some cases permanently, art has become largely inaccessible to the visiting public. The crisis has required galleries to re-examine the relationship between art and the ways in which viewers experience it. Since the quarantine started in late March, many galleries in Oregon and elsewhere have likewise had to rethink strategies for sharing art with their patrons.

Portland’s Blue Sky, the Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts has been in the vanguard of local galleries that have adapted successfully to the demands of the pandemic. As its patrons began sheltering in place, Blue Sky got to work figuring out creative ways to bring art directly to its audience. This is the story of how the gallery has weathered the coronavirus pandemic.


OREGON ARTS: COPING WITH COVID


Blue Sky Gallery, in the DeSoto Building, on Portland’s North Park Blocks. All photos courtesy Blue Sky Gallery.

BLUE SKY GALLERY BEGAN IN 1975 AS THE BRAINCHILD of five young photographers who banded together in search of a venue to display their collective work. They found their space in an old weavers’ cooperative, where they converted an empty room the size of a freight elevator into a makeshift gallery, chipping in their own funds to cover costs, deciding what to show, and taking turns staffing their exhibitions. The fledgling gallery was christened The Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts.

Although the name felt appropriate as an official title for the small nonprofit, the group desired a less formal moniker that more vividly evoked the feel of the Pacific Northwest, and they agreed upon Blue Sky as a suitable sobriquet for their emergent artist collective. From the start the gallery attracted the attention of the local arts community, and it quickly developed a national and international reputation.

The founders soon knew what they had: a venue for emerging and established photographers to showcase their work, and a new mission to help elevate the status of photography from a stepchild of the art world to a respected art form in its own right. The gallery continued to grow, and eventually moved into a modern, 3,700-square-foot facility in Portland’s historic DeSoto Building, presenting 20-25 photo-based exhibitions each year by artists from around the world. Today the gallery also showcases the work of regional photographers in the annual year-long Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers juried exhibition; offers artist talks; and provides many other programs that celebrate and promote the art of photography.

Blue Sky in its original location, 1976.
Craig Hickman, gallery co-founder (with Bob DiFranco, Ann Hughes, Chris Rauschenberg, and Terry Toedtemeier), 1976.

Blue Sky, the Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts, is a 501(c)(3) non-profit gallery devoted exclusively to the presentation of photo-based art. The gallery has a long tradition of offering two solo exhibitions each month of the year. To maintain its operations the organization relies on the financial support of institutional funders and its regular membership, as well as donations from photography enthusiasts, collectors and other patrons of the arts. The gallery’s mission is to educate the public about photography by offering exhibitions, a research library, photographic publications and various special programs, all free and open to the public.

Blue Sky Gallery, DeSoto Building: Sage Sohier, from the exhibition “About Face,” August 2013.

Blue Sky is governed by an eight-member board of directors, which includes two of the original founding members, Craig Hickman and Christopher Rauschenberg, who currently serves as board president. The organization also has an exhibition committee, responsible for selecting artists for the gallery’s monthly solo exhibitions and installing the exhibitions. This volunteer committee is made up of Blue Sky founders, other photographers, students, interns, staff, as well as gallery and community members.

The gallery’s operations are run by three full-time staff members. Executive Director Molly Newgard is responsible for fiscal management, focusing on fundraising, grant writing, and building partnerships with other entities. Amanda Clem, membership and gallery manager, builds and maintains relationships with the gallery’s members and donors, manages general gallery operations, and directs social media and other outreach efforts. Exhibitions Manager Zemie Barr participates in the selection of new artists and outside jurors, assists artists in the preparation of their shows, and oversees the annual Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers exhibition.

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RECENTLY, OREGON ARTSWATCH CAUGHT UP VIA EMAIL with Barr, Clem and Newgard to find out how the gallery has been coping with the pandemic. The three collaborated in response to the interview questions. Responses are edited for length and clarity.

Talking Blue Sky, clockwise from right: Molly Newgard, Zemie Barr, Amanda Clem.

ArtsWatch: Many art galleries have had to shut down normal operations to accommodate social distancing requirements or stay-at-home orders, which has forced them to consider creative solutions to remain functional. How have you had to adjust your operations during the pandemic?

Blue Sky: Due to Oregon’s stay-at-home orders and the state’s mandate against public gatherings, we were forced to close our doors in March for the safety of our visitors, members, staff and volunteers. With our staff working from home, we quickly moved into problem-solving gear to adjust our exhibition schedule, create new online program offerings, communicate effectively with our public, and shore up emergency funding in order to stay in operation for the immediate and near future.

What kind of difficulties have you experienced in attracting continued patronage to the gallery?

Since the shutdown began, we have had to shift our efforts to appeal to audiences beyond the gallery walls. It’s interesting that because of this shift, we’ve actually been able to reach a broader audience that would normally be unable to participate in person in Blue Sky exhibitions and other events. So, while the majority of our membership draws from the local region, we are now able to share more of our activities with audiences around the country and the globe. We owe much of this new outreach to our expanded use of technology. We have been relying more heavily on social media and email to connect more quickly and effectively with our public. Also, our website has expanded to include more content and interactive programs, and our online conferencing platform (Zoom) has allowed us to create participatory workshops. Moreover, we have been recording more live programs for future audiences to enjoy, all of which are available through links on our website. So, by offering more expanded programming by virtual means, we have been able to attract a much wider audience than before the pandemic.

Daesha Devón Harris, “You bid me hold my peace And dry my fruitless tears, Forgetting that I bear A pain beyond my years,” 2016 (from the BSG exhibition, “My Soul Has Grown Deep Like the Rivers,” June 2018). 

What changes to programming do you hope to continue when the crisis is over? 

For decades we have been an art space that has thrived on in-gallery events that involve physical interaction with the public, including our monthly exhibitions, artist talks, and other programs. Prior to the pandemic our website was mostly confined to supplying general information about the gallery and archival material from past exhibitions. In addition to our website, we basically relied on social media (Facebook, Instagram) to promote exhibitions and events. However, besides sharing recordings of our monthly artist talks on our YouTube channel, our virtual programming was essentially nonexistent. The closure of the gallery forced us to re-evaluate ways to share the gallery with our regular patrons and experiment with how our content could reach more people. We had to find new and sustainable ways to illuminate the work of artists and engage our audiences for the duration of the pandemic. Some of the changes we have now implemented include monthly online exhibitions, virtual First Thursdays to introduce the new shows, and live artist interviews using Instagram Live.

We also started conducting free Zoom participatory workshops for the public, added more educational content to our website, and increased our use of email and social media to reach our audiences all across the world. One of our most successful ideas was to put out a call for submissions for our first-ever online members exhibition, Visualizing 2020, which was juried by our staff. We also created the Blue Sky Quarantine Inspiration Corner, which makes new use of our extensive photo archives by inviting participants to select ten images from almost 45 years of Blue Sky exhibitions and curate their own mini-exhibitions to share on our website. We have seen the value of these new programs, and we intend to marry the physical with the virtual in a post-pandemic hybrid model of gallery experience.

Jolie Goodson, “In My Forced Box,” 2020 (from “Visualizing 2020: Blue Sky’s Inaugural Online Members Show”).

The crisis has created a financial burden for art galleries across the country, forcing many to shut down permanently. How has the Covid-19 crisis affected your gallery financially?

We have not been as affected as other organizations that rely on ticket sales or admission fees. As a member-based gallery, we did anticipate that member renewals and new memberships would decline and that individual donations would likely decrease. Also, we were initially unsure of how our institutional funders would respond. However, with the support of the board, the executive director dedicated herself to finding new ways to retain staff, minimize expenses and offer new programming that would not have an adverse financial impact on the organization. So, we applied for and received a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan. We also received state and federal grants as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In addition, we have benefited from other COVID relief funds distributed by local foundations and private organizations, and we have received a few individual donations.

Alia Ali, from the series “Borderland,” 2017 (from the gallery exhibition also called “Borderland,” July 2018).

Have there been problems regarding sales of art due to the pandemic?

Not really, as selling work is not a primary goal at Blue Sky.  Our principal mission has always focused on promoting the work of artists and educating the public about the art of photography through our programs. Certainly, exhibiting solo artists can offer their work for sale during their exhibitions, and the gallery retains a 50 percent commission on these sales. Since our closure in March, we have had one exhibition in the gallery: John Baldessari’s photo-based prints from the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and his Family Foundation. These prints are not for sale. However, the prints offered by the regional artists in our Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers are available for sale. Throughout August we have promoted special sales of work in the drawers, in which the artists receive their standard 50 percent commission and Blue Sky offers a percentage of our own commission to two local organizations, Sisters of the Road Cafe and the Black Resilience Fund. This is our way of both promoting our artists and giving back to the community.

John Baldessari, “Money (with Space Between),” from the series “A French Horn Player, A Square Blue Moon, and Other Subjects,” 1994, shown in the Blue Sky exhibition “John Baldessari,” March 2020.

Has the pandemic changed the way you select artists for future exhibitions?

We continue to accept submissions from photographic artists who wish to be considered for one of our future monthly solo exhibitions. There is no fee to submit work. The gallery receives hundreds of submissions each year, and each proposal is reviewed by our exhibitions committee. The committee still meets on an ongoing basis to review submissions, although the group has held its regular weekly meetings via Zoom since the start of the pandemic. Blue Sky’s guiding endeavor continues to be to select for exhibition the work of emerging and established artists exemplifying the finest in photographic vision and innovation.

And Blue Sky has earned accolades for carrying out its mission. One such tribute came from Anne Wilkes Tucker, photography curator emerita at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, who noted that Blue Sky has “the best record of discovering new photographers of any artists’ space in the country.” Currently, our exhibition schedule is established for the next full year, and we will resume our regular in-gallery solo exhibitions in September with shows by photographers Geralyn Shukwit and Kiliii Yuyan. We should also point out that work exhibited in our annual Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers is always selected by an outside juror, who invites more than fifty photographers to present portfolios of ten prints each to display for a full year in their own dedicated drawer space.  

Geralyn Shukwit, “Zelita e Niños,” 2017 (from the upcoming Blue Sky exhibition, “O Tempo Não Para,” September 2020).
Kiliii Yuyan, “Waiting for Sea Ice, Herald Island,” 2019 (from the upcoming exhibition “Rumors of Arctic Belonging,” September 2020).

How does the pandemic compare to other unexpected hardships your gallery has had to deal with in the past?

Blue Sky has always been fairly adaptable, building itself up from a nascent artists collective to a premier, internationally recognized photographic arts gallery. However, the past five months have been one of the most challenging times the gallery has endured over the past 45 years. Our organization has always relied on being an open and available physical space that allows visitors to see and experience photography in a very direct, and often tactile, way. The unpredictable nature of the pandemic has forced new directions and considerations for the foreseeable future—in operations, programs and fundraising.

As we are now into the sixth month of the pandemic, to what extent have you reopened your doors to in-person visits?

As of August 15 we have reopened the gallery to visitors on an appointment-only basis, although walk-ins will be accommodated if our capacity of ten visitors allows. We are adhering strictly to COVID-19 safety precautions: Visitors must wear a mask and abide by social distancing requirements while viewing our exhibitions. And we provide disposable gloves for patrons wishing to view prints in the Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers. We are very anxious to see if the art-going public is ready and willing to visit the gallery.

The Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers, inside the gallery.
Amelia Bjesse-Puffin, “Dana,” 2018 (from the Pacific Northwest Viewing Drawers, 2020).

Do you think the pandemic has altered, positively or negatively, the ways in which art galleries and photographic art will be considered by artists, galleries and patrons of the arts in the future?

We think that remains to be seen, but we know that people do miss seeing and interacting with art in person. Yet, the solutions we have implemented as a result of the crisis have also provided us with an opportunity to connect with our audience on a whole new level. Our public has been very receptive to the changes we have offered, and they seem genuinely appreciative of discovering alternative ways to experience art.

However, we have come to learn that Blue Sky’s unique mission to support the work of a diverse array of photographic artists, as well as to educate our audiences about inspirational and captivating visual art, compels us to be continually inventive and responsive in the face of unexpected crises. While this has been an extremely challenging time, the staff, board of directors and volunteers have worked tirelessly to solve problems. And somehow we have found the hope and creative inspiration to move forward in a time of great uncertainty. Our commitment to the photographic arts, to our community of artists, to our supporters and to the general public remains our driving ambition.

Sarah Grew, “Coronavirus,” 2020 (from “Visualizing 2020: Blue Sky’s Inaugural Online Members Show”).

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