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Monday 04.16.07

« PSU MFA Monday Night Lecture Series • Tonight: Walter Lee Projects Presents: A Night of YouTube | Main | Oh Valentine's! »

Goodbye Oregon Biennial, Hello CNAA

pleat.jpg
As I mentioned earlier, the Portland Art Museum has ended the Oregon Biennial and yes they are evolving it to cover more of the Pacific Northwest in keeping with its Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Northwest Art. Last year, curator Jennifer Gately inaugurated the Apex program which has already produced nice if small shows by Roy McMakin and Chris Johanson. Though respectable, the final Oregon Biennial (also curated by Gately) seemed to be more of a recap or bookreport of a living scene that is simply too dynamic for any museum to handle en masse. Instead of leading, it was following with a fine "museum seal of approval" which is more of a kind of community tokenism that perpetuates a glass ceiling for artists here. As a reflection of higher standards in Portland it seemed like something had to change to really make the Museum relevant to the important discussions in contemporary art going on here. For those who saw the Oregon Biennial as their one hope, I hate to say it but it wasn't. Many who have been in them before saw the biennials as nice diversions but not central to their goals. Whereas something like a Turner Prize gives outsiders something they can really latch onto. Why not let some less authoritative organization take on the messy task of putting up a Portland Biennial?

Basically, less focused regional shows like Greater New York or the Oregon Biennial just became tools for galleries as a way to spotlight and accentuate a mass of artists thrown at a wall and waiting to see who sticks (There are reasons MoMA doesn't host GNY and PS1 does). In New York that's fine but in the Pacific Northwest (where we have many artists who are superior to similar East Coast or even California fare) it has resulted in missed opportunities, a lack of clear routes to national exposure and seen as an overall lack of cultural conviction.

The new format is way more focused and has evolved into something resembling the Turner Prize and SECA awards. Its called the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards or CNAA (phonetically it sounds like "nah" which I think is funny since this is a great deal more focused and hence exclusionary take on the show). Get used to it people. Note that the first word is "Contemporary" and the last is "Awards". To me that implies points will be given for contemporary relevance and excellence... it's infinitely more competitive, as it should be. It will effect how artists work in the studio as many will work on more ambitious projects that don't necessarily pay off in the galleries or many of the more rambling ad hoc group shows here. It encourages major statements.

Here are the important details:

It is still held every 2 years in the special exhibition spaces of PAM, opening June 2008-ish (i.e. get crack'n studio visits are coming very soon)

The region will be defined as Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, when I pressed about the British Columbia question the curators mentioned it was an extremely tough decision to not include them for the first version of the show but left the door open to evolving that way in the future.

Curatorially this first version will feature PAM's Jennifer Gately and guest, James Rondeau (Art Institute of Chicago), as the special curatorial advisor for this inaugural run. This is great as it provides an entre for curators outside the region.

The show will be assembled from a shortlist of artists earmarked for studio visits. That shortlist will be culled from a list of regional nominators made of other curators, critics, dealers, academics and artists etc. Each nominator can select three artists. As in the Turner Prize the shortlisted nominees who get studio visits will also be made public (oh the drama). Right now the museum is leaning towards keeping the nominating committee a secret. I think it's a good idea to keep it secret because every informed art person in the region has more than 3 artists they really respect. Instead, the defining issue is how on fire the best of the best are? Are they cooking or coasting? All formats have tradeoffs and this will usher in an a lot more general ass kissing amongst from artists directed at potential nominators who will be called on to select from their immediate area (the nominator list has not been finalized yet). I think this is a lot better than slide sumissions.

All of the artists selected for the exhibition will have a lot of time to prepare for the exhibition and receive a stipend. Nice move.

On the night that the show opens one artist will be selected to receive the $10,000 Arlene Schnitzer Prize (very similar to the Turner Prize in structure, it will provide even more drama)

All in all this is part of Portland growing up. Cities exist to find and highlight talent, not just massive group shows which anonymize the scene. Since the last Biennial there have already been a # of great shows:

like this

and this

and this

and this

and this

and this

and this

and this

and this

and this...etc

...that were all better the the last biennial and I think the focus on artists making statements is a great way to separate those who seem to produce work only to insinuate themselves. Also, though those shows were very good, none presented the kind of opportunity the CNAA does.

Yes, this is a bold move and Id rather it included our Canadian friends but I register it a 8 out of 10 in terms of ambition and that's pretty good for a museum testing the waters (disclosure I serve as a VP of Programming on PAM's Contemporary Art Council). A 10 would have been a full on Pacific Rim biennial, the last biennial ranked as a 5 ...respectable but not very distinguished (also note: Portland no longer has any kind of art scene inferiority complex to Seattle, actually their scene is sleepy compared to us but it produces some good stuff and it is different). Why not play stonger cards? Both the Turner Prize an SECA awards have proven they can create international interest and this is a good move, all whiners will be referred to the bureau of "get to work." In theory instead of a biennial being a ladder for local attention it will become a platform for serious international discussion of this region's best work. Portland isn't so guarded, weve got the goods... so let's see if CNAA can deliver something a little bigger than local pride?


**Update: it's definitely not a "biennial" even though its format is on a 2 year schedual. Also, some the serious artists in town that Ive spoken to about this have been almost unanimous in their enthusiam for these changes... the facts are art can't be merely a community love fest with a maximum # of participants to create a crowd. At the end of the day important art persists because it survives all of the handling, advocacy, controversy, criticism, history and institutions that surround it. By taking stand for important art this will change how art is manifested and presented here (both in this show and others). Good for PAM taking a stand for the seriousness of art not some instant attendance boosting extravaganza.

**Update Update

This news has stunned many of the 10,000+ artists in Portland and this is what I'm hearing:

Routes to recognition: Some feel this is a power play by the museum and removes the ladder for lesser known artists... well yes but should the museum really be in the talent scout business? Undoubtedly some younger institution will swoop in and do a Portland annual or Biennial and many artists feel that the likely suspects here lack the commitment and art expertise to do a decent job. Some artists feel the museum has created a vacuum. I agree and I think the museum is challenging other institutions to step up by creating a void. I like this and I feel some institution focused on Portland artists should take this on... just remember the last biennial was merely good... without a muesum's impremature your gonna have to earn the perceived importance that was once held by the Oregon biennial.

Will this suck: Many artists feel that the show will fall victim to bureaucratic cronyism... the only way to avoid this is to choose fresh art, by artists who are really swinging for the bleachers. It needs to have some unpredictability and guts. It's as much a test of the museum and region's art professionals sophistication as it is the artists.

Regionalism schmegionalism: Others artists feel the inclusion of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming simply look funny. Some want the Canadians to be included and some hate that idea and would have rather seen California added, making it a West Coast award. It's true a lot of work needs to be done in Oregon and Washington and I'd like to BC involved sooner rather than later. California already has several cultural organs elevating their artists to the national stage but if you know me you know I'd rather see something even more competitive (why not add the entire Pacific rim as a true international biennial in Portland some day?... the CNAA doesn't have to do this... and [via Tyler Green] New Orleans is already trying something like that).

How Important: Suddenly every show around here counts more. Many major artists here have said they would postpone their solo shows slated in 2007 and 2008 so the could concentrate on the prize if they were shortlisted for the final CNAA show in 2008. Also, suddenly every show opportunity is more important again. For example, there is a group show at NAAU in June called The Hook Up, featuring a number of A and B list artists. Its curated by Jesse Hayward and includes: Brenden Clenaghen, Sean Healy and Jacqueline Ehlis as well as others like Ellen George, TJ Norris, new but hot artists like Stephanie Robisen & Port's own Jenene Nagy. (Yes Im in it too)... but suddenly what was a cordial community throwdown has become THE art Battle Royale of the year. Many of the artist's are competing more strongly because it is now perceived as an important barometer as to who might get nominated. I find this funny and a very promising side effect. Suddenly those artists with a serious studio practice are more amped.

This might seem quaint but I liken it to when the Turner Prize really did elevate regional work to a more international stage in Britain. Some (like the NYT's) wrongly feel Portland and the rest of the NW are merely nice, they dont know how serious the visual art thing has become... even sleepy Seattle has woken up a bit recently.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on April 16, 2007 at 14:01 | Comments (14)


Comments

This is a very welcomed turn of events in my eyes. As Portland becomes a more powerful art center, it is time for our main museum to start flexing its muscles. And I imagine Gately will do a fantastic job, since the last biennial was rather smart and a good exhibition. This is PAM growing up. Hopefully they will have a new logo in time for some good publicity. :)

Posted by: Calvin Ross Carl [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 08:53 AM

Should I assume that by 'serious artist' you mean people who are more then likely assured to be included in the now smaller pool? As someone who isn't in the clique, this news seems a bit discouraging.

Posted by: minimum [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 09:28 AM

Not really... by "serious artists" I mean those (known and less known) who felt like the Oregon Biennial was just a kind of checkmark to be crossed off on their resume, it wasnt a key move for them and they knew it. The CNAA is a true spotlight and the region (and PAM) has needed this to be relevant.

Considering how competitive this will be, even those who are "more likely to get in" might at best have a 20% chance. My read on Gately during the discussion was that this exhibition/award will not just focus on familiar names... quality and depth of statement seem to be the trump card. A lot of artists in Portland have felt like it wasnt worth them playing their aces. This changes that dynamic.

What I like about this is that having a drawing in a dozen group shows throughout the year probably wont be enough to make that artist a nominee or a finalist... they will have to have a serious studio practice and ask for lots of studio visits from dozens of curators and critics just to get nominated. One has to stand out.

All that said, the CNAA has to be good, if the show itself doesnt seem like a major museum show and is just some vehicle for cronyism then the plan will have failed.


The museum is all about presenting important art, not being the place where gallerists hunt for new additions to their stable.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 09:59 AM

*Comment removed by moderator. No personal attacks on PORT

Posted by: Dustoff [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 11:05 AM

ah someone has a bone to pick...

Warning: on Port we dont allow personal attacks and that one crossed the line without the proper context.

Besides since when is sarcasm is a sign of idiocy? It points out a perceptual problem that Gately deals with every day... some people still assume all Northwest art involves totem poles.

The CNAA with its clear focus on "contemporary" subject matter is a smart step in the right direction.

.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 11:14 AM

I am curious who the nominators are. Everyone has their own taste and take on things; you can't get around it. Will you be posting their names?

Posted by: lsd [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 11:54 AM

What is "contemporary" subject matter?

Posted by: jerseyjoe [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 12:11 PM

The Portland Art Museum does benefit financially by expanding. It will bring more visitors from outside Portland.
I always saw the Oregon Biennal as a litmus test of the art production in the area. If one wasn't good that means Portland should improve. This new format will not provide this service. In fact, if it is too diluded by a broad geographical area it will be no different from any other group show. Why is it not in addition to the Oregon Biennal?

Posted by: elle4 [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 12:32 PM

The Portland Art Museum does benefit financially by expanding. It will bring more visitors from outside Portland.
I always saw the Oregon Biennal as a litmus test of the art production in the area. If one wasn't good that means Portland should improve. This new format will not provide this service. In fact, if it is too diluded by a broad geographical area it will be no different from any other group show. Why is it not in addition to the Oregon Biennal?

Posted by: elle4 [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 12:33 PM

The oregon biennials were percieved as litmus tests by some but actually they were always behind the curve and usually hampered by the fact that the museum couldn't really devote the time it takes to do it right. Except for 1999, which was Katherine Kanjo giving Portland's art crowd a real wakeup call.

Now Portland's scene is simply too active to be wrapped up in 1 show, it doesnt need a mere sampler at the museum level. It required a vehichle for serious statements and that requires giving a fewer # of artists about a year to really put it all on the line in a competitive setting.

I'm not worried about diluting Portland by inviting Seattle and it's telling that the museum was confident enough to not play the protectionist card.

Some other younger locally focused organization can mount a rambling group expo in attempts to ingratiate themselves with the community. We have wanted the museum to lead... well it's leading by letting a few artists speak in a clear unobstructed voice.

Ferriso's changes are becoming clear... the museum isnt just a countryclub for the rich... it's a civic organ that presents important information to the rest of the city in a way that changes the city. It's a more sophisticated model than pandering to viewer's appetite for spectacle... just for spectacle's sake.

Sometimes a museum has to disappear behind the art it presents in order to feel its pesence felt. The CNAA is producing shockwaves, some artists Ive spoken to have decided that they would postposne their next solo show just to go all out for this.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 12:57 PM

Just to set the record straight, that “event” mentioned above was a small private party and not a “public event” or museum related affair. Her response was light hearted and yes, sarcastic, funny even!, in keeping with the tone ofthe party and in keeping with what you so clearly point out…continual gross misunderstandings about the definition of both native and regional art.
I've always found her to be kind and generous and never the sort of person that would in any way be offensive.

Posted by: there2 [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 01:17 PM

whoa... back up... this was just pointed out to me. i was "the other guy" being introduced to g. at the party and i can tell you she was in no way being insensitive. end of story. pick your battles, people.

Posted by: there3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 01:54 PM

whoa... back up... this was just pointed out to me. i was "the other guy" being introduced to g. at the party and i can tell you she was in no way being insensitive. end of story. pick your battles, people.

Posted by: there3 [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 01:55 PM

Thanks there2

PORT is a critical forum not some petty opportunity to character assassinate people... so much media... even the dead tree press is devoted to uncontextualized gossip.

Yes, with changes to the biennial I think a lot of people will see their hopes dashed but its lazy thinking. Some might be very bitter.

But if you are really serious you should have already been having lots of studio visits and made a point of having a serious show where your work could be judged... not just for 1 piece but for the breadth of the ideas and execution present.

I see this as a defining moment. For years the artists have been pushing the instutions, galleries, critics and collectors to take things to another level... and for the most part they have done most of the heavy lifting. Now the museum has pushed back and said, OK show us what youve got? Right now I think there are maybe 15-60 world class, exciting artists in this city with many thousands of others around them.

Its time to give those artists a reason to stay here beyond the fact that Portland is cool and they have freinds.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 17, 2007 02:06 PM

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