Visual Art

A Year after a Controversial Art Gallery Coup, Disjecta Focuses on the Positive

New director Blake Shell aims for more diverse representation—and a revival of the nonprofit's art dinners.

By Sarah Hutchins March 27, 2018 Published in the April 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

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Blake Shell and her pooch, Boros

year ago, the beloved North Portland art organization Disjecta fell into public disarray amid a bitter public feud between founder Bryan Suereth and the nonprofit’s board. 

Suereth blamed the board for laggard fundraising; the board accused Suereth of pursuing personal gain and insisted Disjecta needed “a different kind of leader.”

Enter Blake Shell, with more than 15 years’ experience running galleries, most recently Marylhurst University’s risk-taking Art Gym. She’s spent the ensuing year expanding Disjecta’s programming and bankroll.

The once-scrappy art org has grown in size—it’s occupied a 12,000-square-foot former bowling alley in Kenton since 2008—and stature, gaining a reputation for provocative, engaging work by contemporary artists from all over the country with its curator-in-residence program while supporting the best of local art in its space and through its stewardship of the Portland Biennial.

On his way out, Suereth wrote in a public statement online: “The path of Disjecta was seldom paved with roses.” Today Shell strikes a rosier note about her 12 months in charge. “More than challenges, I’ve really felt support, honestly,” she says. “Of course, people worried about the organization because they liked it as it was. But from the whole community—from the board, from the staff, from the artists—people are really rallying behind Disjecta.”

Early administrative successes include a new membership program and a record-breaking fundraising auction. Seattleite Julia Greenway, as this year’s curator-in-residence, has brought in works such as Portia Munson’s meditation on our environmental imprint, Flood, and the group exhibit A Situation of Meat, which commented on femme identity through sculptural installations. This fall, Shell will relaunch Culinaria, a series of fundraising dinners Suereth started at Disjecta in 2013, featuring local chefs operating in an artistic vein—at one dinner, the chef literally painted the dessert’s ingredients onto the table.

This month, Disjecta hosts a solo exhibition from Houston-based artist Sondra Perry that explores the intersection of technology and black history. Shell says she aims to enhance the “equity of representation” not only at the gallery but also at the Biennial, which has had its next iteration postponed to 2019.

“We’ve been looking at connecting with artists in black, Native, and Latino communities,” she says. “People have been underrepresented, and we’d like to shift that.”

She takes a practical approach to fundraising, acquiring grants, and approaching donors, but says that any changes she makes to the founder’s vision are to see Disjecta succeed into the next 10 to 20 years.

“The risk-taking and the commitment to artists having the opportunity to do something unique and bold is always at the core of what Disjecta is,” she says. “As you grow, you have to standardize some things and grow in your organizational capacity, but that should be in support of those original ideas and creative visions.”

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