After nine Portland art galleries and one museum closed down in 2016, local artist, writer, and art activist Jennifer Rabin saw a need for change. Why weren’t more Portlanders visiting galleries? As she asked around, she received responses ranging from misconceptions about gallery admission fees (there usually aren’t any) to the preconceived notion that walking into a gallery necessarily means walking out with an expensive piece of artwork.
Aside from monetary concerns, Rabin described people as being “generally intimidated to walk into a gallery, because they were afraid they didn’t know enough about art to ask the right questions.”
In an effort to address these perceived obstacles, Rabin dreamed up the Art Passport PDX program, designed to encourage Portlanders with varying levels of art knowledge to embrace and support the city’s arts and culture scene.
The program features a passport booklet with spaces for eight stamps, which can be acquired at the eight participating local galleries, including Blackfish, Blue Sky, and Froelick. Rabin chose galleries from different areas of the city and with different aesthetic foci to “provide the broadest scope of what gallery culture is like in Portland.” Traditional blue-chip galleries, non-profits, and single-owner galleries are on the list.
Additionally, all the galleries offer payment plans, and special collections for first-time art purchasers at affordable prices: "You don't have to be a Schnitzer to collect art in Portland." Rabin says she is "screaming this from the rooftops," because so many people believe collecting art isn't within their budget.
In order to receive a stamp, passport holders must visit each gallery, and engage in conversation about artwork with someone who works there. This may seem like an intimidating task for some, but Rabin promises the galleries she’s selected will provide welcoming environments for all visitors, and are prepared to approach the less-than-comfortable newcomers to engage them with the art.
“All the people at these galleries are expecting newcomers," she says. "They [passport holders] can ask any questions they’d like. There are no ‘right' questions. The idea is to get people to start feeling comfortable going into these places, and asking whatever question is on their mind.” And, for those who need help concocting a question to begin with, Rabin has inserted a handful of helpful sample questions into the passport.
The program's launch reception will take place on Thursday, March 16 at Blue Sky Gallery, with representatives from each participating gallery on hand to mingle with the passport holders, and introduce them to the program. Participants must sign up (for free) prior to receiving a passport via the program's website. Rabin says they have already had more people sign up than anticipated—450 in the first two weeks—and will likely have to print more passports to accommodate the flood of interested gallery-goers.
As for the gallerists, Wilder Schmaltz, assistant director at Froelick, is excited to see how the passports will increase people's involvement with the work and the spaces they're in. "I have a lot of faith in this idea," he says. "I'm looking forward to interesting conversations (with the passport holders)."
So, what does one get after completing their passport? Participants can enter for a grand prize of $1,600 to spend at any of the galleries. Subsequent "runner-up" prizes include two year-long memberships to the Portland Art Museum.
“The health of our galleries is a mirror of the health of culture in this city," says Rabin. "My goal is to get people more engaged with the arts here... people take for granted that our art institutions will always be there, but without our support they do in fact close. I'd hate to imagine a Portland without them."