On the Town

Room With a View

A former Southeast Portland laundry building inspires a major new arts organization.

By Randy Gragg November 17, 2010 Published in the December 2010 issue of Portland Monthly

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Sandra Percival (from left), Curtis Knapp, and Aaron Flint Jamison in the inspiring surrounds of the new YU Center for Contemporary Arts

For a decade, Curtis Knapp quietly fancied the 1908 Yale Union Laundry Building at SE 10th Avenue and Belmont Street in his search for a warehouse where his artist friends could live and work, or as he puts it, “sharecrop” studio space. But upon finally entering the vintage Italianate gem in 2008 and bounding up to the second floor, Knapp discovered an expanse of sunlit space, he recalls. It instantly “asked for so much more”—50 feet wide, 188 feet long, wrapped in a 20-foot-high skin of exposed brick, punctured with dozens of 10-foot arched windows, and topped with a crown of clerestories—the kind of pure, glowing possibility that congregations long to pray in, architects crave to build, and artists dream of filling, not with their studios but with the best of their finished work.

And, so, Knapp, a 37-year-old poet, musician, and indie-record producer, called a longtime friend, Aaron Flint Jamison, a 31-year-old artist, writer and publisher, and the duo hatched a dream of turning what was most recently the home of Perfect Fit-McDonald upholstery into “a sustainable center for contemporary international avant-garde art.” They soon found a patron willing to spend $3.5 million to buy the building, lease it back to them rent-free, and put up several hundred thousand more in capital to help them get rolling. They brought on architects to design a $7.2 million historical renovation with galleries, a bookstore/café, and a 100-seat flex space, all of it aiming for a LEED Platinum designation courtesy of features like a geothermal heating system tapped from an aquifer running beneath the building. Last May, they hired Sandra Percival, a Portland native who has spent the past 30 years developing cutting-edge artists’ projects around the world. And at a catered affair on November 2 staffed by 40 volunteers, they revealed their plans for the YU Center for Contemporary Arts to 200 arts supporters, launching a drive for 100 “founding members” at $1,000 a pop.

Noting the auspicious, if odd, election-day timing of the event, Mayor Sam Adams introduced YU as “a great, bright beacon of creativity that is tangible and real that signals we are going to put our stake in the ground.”

Not since New Yorkers Paul King and Walter Jaffe airdropped White Bird Dance into Portland fully formed in 1997 has a new Portland arts organization lifted off with so much ambition. Knapp, Jamison, and Percival imagine YU as Portland’s version of top-tier contemporary art presenters like Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory Art Museum or the Kunsthalle Munich, commissioning bold new works by major artists from around the globe.

Whether YU is a booster rocket for Portland’s cultural scene or a bright flare briefly flashing against the dreary economy remains to be seen. It will take millions more to fully realize Knapp and Jamison’s vision. But everyone who strolls the rhythmically windowed length of the Yale Union Laundry Building’s second-floor room seems to leave with the same infectious hope.

“I was blown away by that room,” says George Thorn, a Portland-based national arts funding consultant. “We can look at YU as a question of ‘Can we find enough money?’ Or we can see it as a question of ‘Can we afford to miss this opportunity?’ Having that building is a pretty good start.”

That start came courtesy of Knapp’s family connection to the late Colorado beef baron Kenneth Monfort and the Monfort Family Foundation. Made under the name Alter LLC, the contribution to YU is one-time and, Knapp cautions, is the family’s only stretch of largesse to Oregon, but will provide the building and operations money until YU can transition to other sources of revenue.

Beyond netting the serendipitous gift, YU’s founding duo are no strangers to accomplishment. Knapp’s label, Marriage Records, has helped launch a dozen innovative bands, most notably Dirty Projectors. A book of poetry he crafted with Tom Blood won a 2008 Oregon Book Award. Jamison has held prestigious artist residencies in Paris, Bern, and across the US; shown his handmade books, prints, and installations just as widely; and founded and published the art journal Veneer. But both artists acknowledge they’ve struggled to master the strokes necessary to swim in the pool they’ve jumped in. As Jamison puts it matter-of-factly, “We needed somebody people would trust more than us.”

Enter Percival. At age 60, the artist-turned-administrator has a long, international résumé. She directed Washington state’s public art program during the ’80s, filling Seattle’s new downtown convention center and the University of Washington campus with major works by such artists as Jenny Holzer, Mary Miss, Jackie Windsor, and Louise Bourgeois. She hopped the pond to London’s Public Art Development Trust in 1991, where she pioneered numerous collaborations with that city’s major institutions to develop often highly experimental public artworks. She returned to the US in 2005 to take over San Francisco–based New Langton Arts, where she launched several initiatives before that organization fell in the economic downdraft and closed last year.

Though her father’s family arrived via the Oregon Trail and her mother still lives here, Percival swats away the idea that she’s yet another native Oregonian circling back to the comfy fold. She visited, calculated YU’s possibilities with art-world insiders here and afar, and now believes it can help fertilize a similar cultural flowering she watched in London during the ’90s.

“When I arrived, London was at the bottom of a recession, but artists were making things happen on their own,” she says. “There’s a sense that things are percolating in Portland. I’m interested in places with potential and in ambitious, conceptual projects that engage artists in experimental ways.”

YU’s origins and ambitions—and its cultural moment—echo an earlier effort in Portland history: the founding of the Portland Center for Visual Arts (PCVA). From 1971 to 1988, PCVA developed nationally acclaimed exhibitions and performances by such notable artists as Richard Serra, Vito Acconci, and Alice Aycock. It was founded by a trio of artists (Jay Backstrand, Mel Katz, and the late Michele Russo), run by a native-born but well-connected director (Mary Beebe, who had cut her curatorial teeth at the Harvard Fogg Museum and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts), and housed in 5,000-square-foot Old Town loft that artists loved and the owner offered up rent-free.

Contacted at the Stuart Collection, the internationally renowned assemblage of contemporary outdoor sculpture she’s overseen at the University of California-San Diego since 1981, Beebe recalled PCVA’s high ambitions but also its bootstrap, DIY techniques. With an annual budget that rarely crested $100,000, she bankrolled basics like insurance by enlisting the help of exhibitors: Robert Rauschenberg, for instance, made posters PCVA sold for $100 apiece; sculptor Carl Andre let Beebe sell off pieces of his seminal 1973 Minimalist show, 144 Blocks and Stones, for $100.

“I have more hope than optimism for YU,” Beebe says. “But if you find the right artists and give them the right opportunity, it doesn’t take lots of money to get them to make new work. Sandra is really dedicated, and determined. And Portland needs a space like that.”

Indeed, several organizations have aspired to fill the still-lamented void PCVA left—from the Portland Art Museum’s one-time Art on the Edge program of the ’90s to more fledgling, current efforts like Disjecta. Within its annual, nationally lauded Time-Based Art Festival of performances, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art has done more modest group shows of international visual artists. But YU could be the first effort with enough muscle and connections to recast the PCVA model for a new era.

Yet when it comes fundraising, YU enters a crowded field with the Pacific Northwest College of Art, the Oregon College of Art and Craft, the Portland Art Museum, and the Portland Center for the Performing Arts all positioning new capital campaigns in a hoped-for economic recovery.

“The good news is that, in spite of the recession, Portland’s arts ecology has been expanding,” says arts expert Thorn, who will consult on YU through a Regional Arts & Culture Council program. “We have developed a reputation as a ‘foodie city.’ Could we do that for contemporary art, too?”

The pile of unclaimed name tags for dozens of local patrons who passed on the November 2 kickoff event suggests the slippery local terrain that lies ahead. So far, YU has netted 30 of its hoped-for 100 founding members. But Percival says she has major horsepower in the wings with outside consultants like the powerful San Francisco collector and fundraiser Steve Oliver and a former director of the Henry Gallery in Seattle, Richard Andrews.

Meanwhile, she, Knapp, and Jamison can build gradually, Percival says. They’ve already begun. Soon after the purchase of the building, Knapp and Jamison built a sound studio where Explode Into Colors, Parenthetical Girls, and other local bands have recorded. Jamison and Reed College instructor Emily Johnson have set up a printing shop with an array of vintage presses where, among other projects, Jamison has produced seven issues of Veneer. And without spending a cent on renovation of the 41,000-square-foot warehouse, Percival can mount exhibitions under city fire codes as long as no more than 300 people come at one time. They plan to launch YU’s first exhibit next year.

“We already have a great foundation in the building,” Percival says. “When people walk in, they stop worrying about the problems and start talking about the possibilities.”

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