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Saturday 08.07.10

« artist opportunities | Main | Monday Cinema »

PAM announces Laing-Malcolmson as new Curator of NW Art


In case you haven't heard the Portland Art Museum announced today that Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson has been appointed as the new Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Curator of Northwest Art. She's considered by most in town to be sharp, fair, caretaker type with strong people skills. The position does need stability, as another short term appointee like her predecessor would reflect very poorly on the whole program, which is endowed by the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer. The position is necessary as she will be the museum's main interface with the arts community... one where the artists themselves are frequently of higher international profile than any of our institutions.

Congratulations, you are much needed.

Still, Laing-Malcolmson is a curious choice as she is better known to the region as an administrator, having just retired as the President of The Oregon College of Arts and Crafts. She apparently has some curatorial experience (in Montana) but nothing as contemporary as her predecessor Jennifer Gately (who stepped down after just two+ years) in what would have to be considered a politically difficult post. It is one rooted historically and yet succeeds or fails in the very active present. For example, for the past 10 years + video and installation art have formed a huge part of the Northwest scene, with very little representation in PAM's collection. This is especially true of the popular hybrid, video installation. The point being, we expect a lot of this curator and there is a lot of backlog. The scene will expect excellence both historically and on the contemporary front. Let's just say "sort of relevant" will not sit well in a scene filled with artists with no local gallery representation but expanding international careers that exceed anything resembling local expectations.

Structurally speaking the "Northwest" region as defined by PAM as; Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. It is seemingly arbitrary and intellectually indefensible boundary definition. That kind of odd regional boundary sets up a bipolar Portland/Seattle situation that undermined some local confidence in her predecessor (though it was hardly fatal, it was irksome to all sides on a PR level). In fact, most serious arts people in Portland wonder why Vancouver BC and Northern California aren't included as a more representative sample... and those people are right. Though perhaps less cutting-edge contemporary in outlook than Gately, Laing-Malcolmson's political savvy will serve her well with the current boundary lines. Also, let's remember that Laing-Malcolmson is behind the 14.6 million dollar expansion of the OCAC campus and a fantastic contemporary building by Charles Rose. That said, hiring a good architect and raising funds is very different than dealing with an increasingly internationally relevant contemporary art scene like Portland's or even Seattle's definitely less active (+ more craft driven) but also relevant one. Both scenes require a lot of careful attention and it's probably what most major museums don't undertake these regional missions... Laing-Malcolmson has the advantage of knowing the territory already, perhaps well enough to seek out the unfamiliar?

Besides the politics, the post requires the research and uncommon passion of an art historian and the prescient programming savvy or "eye" of a contemporary curator. Let's face it the region is notoriously remiss in acknowledging its greatest contributions to art history and few know that artists such as Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Joe Baer were all from the Northwest. It's also a bit embarrassing that the Portland Art Museum is consistently two steps behind other national institutions (like the Whitney) when it comes to acknowledging local talent in a major way.

None of this is to say Laing-Malcolmson can't handle those challenges, it's just she will be watched closely to see if she has those chops (she has BA and MFA degrees in painting and art history and I've never seen her at an alt-space though I have seen her at major social events). Curatorially she has been out of the game for a while, which poses challenges but is also an interesting advantage akin to a supreme court appointee that doesn't have a track record.

Other nagging questions remain like;

How to define programs like Apex and the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards? In the past they had a strange indeterminate overlap. Also, the Apex exhibition space seemed too small for major artists like Chris Johanson and Roy McMakin , while the CNAA's weren't as contemporary as they could have been (standard for their first year but still too mid career).

There are many mid to late career artists who haven't had an any kind of Portland Art Museum retrospective, Mel Katz being the most glaring example (I hear something might be in the works).

How to acknowledge Rothko's time in Portland and present it? There will be a show of his mature works in 2012 at PAM so there should be an exhibition of his Portland works as well.

What about long passed but excellent/influential artists like Clifford Gleason?

If this next CNAA's (in 2011?) isn't more successful (i.e. a truly contemporary show that raises the region's international profile and becomes a relevant stepping stone) than the first one, is the program still born? ...it's a very real pressure but I believe it's a much better project that the Oregon Biennials.

Lastly, I'm not certain what this means but PAM now has three staff members each qualified to be (or has been) a museum director in their own right, Bruce Guenther, Christina Olsen and now Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on August 07, 2010 at 1:38 | Comments (3)


Jeff -
I'd love to talk with you about a project I am working on with the artist Isaac Lin. Could you drop me a line?
Look forward to talking!

Posted by: John Caperton [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 9, 2010 07:20 AM

Any basic fact checking would reveal Jennifer Gately worked at the museum for nearly 3 years, Jan. 2006 - October 2008. DK Row is still printing that same misinformation too. Didn't you both write articles about her the moment she arrived?

Posted by: there2 [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 29, 2010 11:04 PM

Yes, I'm quite aware of the dates. Actually her last day was technically September 30th 2008 and by anyone's math that's less than 3 years. Anything less than 3 years is a short tenure.

BTW I met with her just weeks before her decision so we are quite aware. Good luck getting the O to care about facts.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at August 30, 2010 11:08 AM

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