The Art Counselor Blog

History of Photography in Portland

[ 2 Comments ] Posted on 10.28.08 under Portland Art Scene History, Portland Photography, Portland, OR Galleries, Uncategorized

Arch at Agate Beach by Terry Toedtemeier

Arch at Agate Beach by Terry Toedtemeier

Portland Photography: Part One

On October 18th the Photography Council of the Portland Art Museum gathered for their quarterly meeting in the new Jubitz Center for Contemporary Art. The agenda for the event was a tour through the center’s new Photography Gallery. This was a cultural water mark for the city and the region.
The turnout for this meeting was the largest in the history of the council. This was due to the excitement generated by the first museum gallery in the Northwest solely dedicated to Photography.

So what’s the big deal about this new gallery and what impact can it have on local and regional culture? The short answer–now people in the Northwest have a facility that offers a context to the importance of photography as an art form.

If the medium was anything other than photography, the new gallery would have received considerable media attention during the gala opening of the Jubitz Center. Instead, it got a footnote brief mention in the Oregonian.

Art centers like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago regard Photography a defining medium for contemporary art. In the Northwest it is the weak sister to painting, sculpture and original fine prints.

Terry Toedtemeire gave birth to, nurtured, and championed the photography collection at the Portland Art Museum. Terry is first and only Curator of Photography in the history of the museum; a position he has held in for over twenty years.

Starting with relatively small assortment of images with no apparent theme, Terry built a collection that now includes roughly six thousand images. More important, the current collection offers a reasonably narrative of the history of photography and of the significant roll the medium has played in documenting regional history.

The history of Terry’s importance to photography in Portland started before he took a part-time curatorial position at the PAM in the early 80’s. He was one of the five founding members of The Blue Sky Gallery in 1975.

The other four founding members included Ann Hughes, Robert Di Franco, Craig Hickman, and Chris Rauschenberg. Today Blue Sky is one of the oldest collective fine arts galleries in North America.
In the late 70’s and through most of the 80’s The Blue Sky Gallery, The Portland Center for Visual Arts, and The Artists Workshop were all housed in the same Old Town building on N.W. 5th and Davis.

For over a decade they made up the core of the contemporary art scene in Portland.
During this period, Terry began to take the rag tag assortment of photographs in the museum’s vault and build substantial collection. He took on this task in spite of the absence of any funding for acquiring new work.

The project that brought Terry to the museum was the Carlton E. Watkins album “Photographs of the Columbia River”. This leather bound album of mammoth albumen prints was presented to Jay Cook by the Oregon Steam Navigation Company in 1876. There were only three copies produced and is the most important photo documentation of the Columbia River from the second half of the 19th century in existence.

Columbia Gorge - C.E. Watkins

Columbia Gorge - C.E. Watkins

The museum got it on loan from the Oregon State Library on the condition that it would be restored. The restoration project of the Watkins album marked the beginning of Terry’s career with the Portland Art Museum.

Larger cities tend to have the highest concentration photographic talent. However, the community of photo artist that grew out of the Blue Sky Gallery collective helped to cultivate a Portland pool of talent rivaling photo communities in many larger cities. Blue Sky did as many as eighteen shows a year. This amount of energy generated a national buzz among photographers that has grown consistently during the life of the gallery.

Chief PAM Curator Bruce Guenther gave a talk at the gallery as part of the week long 2004 Photo Lucida event. Bruce’s art collection consists primarily of photography. He started his talk by saying,” If a person had bought one or more works from every show Blue Sky show had hung, that person would own a great collection. That collection would be one of the more important photo collections in the country”.

A few adventurous individuals started recognizing the importance of the photography and the opportunities for collecting in Portland. When Terry began his curatorial work at the museum he started building relationships with these maverick collectors.

Terry gave a talk a few years ago where he posed the question “What does a curator do when someone pulls up to the museum with a truck load of photos and offers to donate them all to the museum?” His answer was “Take them all and sort out the mess whenever you get time”.

The photography community consists of a fairly close knit group of people. This applies not only locally, but regionally, nationally and internationally. When he joined the museum staff he got support from John Weber the Curator for Contemporary Arts. John had a strong interest in photography and gave Terry as much encouragement as the meager resources available aloud.
Since photography is a sub-group of prints and works on paper the photography collection was housed with the work in the Gordon Gilkey Print Center. The print center, a virtually a museum within a museum, had developed a national reputation. The center had a surprising amount of autonomy, and since Terry’s office was in the center, he had more freedom than normally found in a museum position.

There were no serious commercial fine art photo galleries in Portland when The Blue Sky Gallery was founded. The first significant commercial venue came in 1984 when Guy Swenson opened The Photographic Image Gallery. Back then there were very few serious collectors of photography in Portland. Guy had to create a new clientele from an unsophisticated and uneducated market. Collectors from outside Portland have always been the primary market for the more serious work Guy sells at his gallery.

Guy was showing work by artist like Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Ruth Bernhard, and Imogene Cunningham when their work was still prices in the hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately, the public didn’t understand the work. There were only occasional photo shows at the museum.

There were no serious commercial fine art photo galleries in Portland when The Blue Sky Gallery was founded. The first significant commercial venue came in 1984 when Guy Swenson opened The Photographic Image Gallery. Back then there were very few serious collectors of photography in Portland. Guy had to create a new clientele from an unsophisticated and uneducated market. Collectors from outside Portland have always been the primary market for the more serious work Guy sells at his gallery.

Moonrise Hernandez

Moonrise Hernandez by Ansel Adams

Guy was showing work by artist like Ansel Adams, Edward and Brett Weston, Ruth Bernhard, and Imogene Cunningham when their work was still prices in the hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately, the public didn’t understand the work. There were only occasional photo shows at the museum.

The lack of photo shows prevented the development of a context for the public to gain an understanding of photography as fine art. Any meaningful context for an artistic medium must come from strong cultural institutions, particularly museums.

When Terry took the curatorial post at PAM he was joining an institution suffering from years of neglect and atrophy. Terry refused to let the museums problems deter his commitment to building a collection.

From the middle 80’s to the early 90’s Blue Sky hung high quality, cutting edge shows by talented emerging artists. These events got photographers and some of the cultural elite buzzing, but drew indifference from the media and the general public.

Guy worked at putting on show by both established and immerging artists. He tended to focused on more decorative work that he believed would have a broader appeal by being more accessible to a wider audience; landscapes and cityscapes. He also consistently offered a few more challenging selection hoping to cultivate serious collectors.

A few other galleries and independent photographers sold mostly the pretty picture stuff that demanded little effort from the public. A few photographers did OK at the Saturday Market and some eventually carved out a respectable market for their work.

Through to the early 90’s Terry slaved away at the museum building relationships with serious collectors, artists from all over the world, and many museum curators. Eventually, he was given full time status as a curator. Portland started gaining a reputation as magnet for talented photo artists.
All this activity went on because of the extraordinary energy and effort of a small group of people. The public had no clue of the significance the local of the local photography scene because of the lack of institutional context. Then a new guy came to town to open a gallery, and all that began to change.

Last Thursday Politics

[ 1 Comment ] Posted on 08.18.08 under Last Thursday

Art on the street at Last Thursday
Art on the street at Last Thursday

The August 14th in PORTLAND Oregonian insert gave some important coverage on the scale of the recent Last Thursday events on Alberta.  Not only did the article acknowledge the size of the crowds and the logistic problems that have evolve with the monthly festival, the political implications were touched on.  Public comment from the Portland Police, TriMet, neighborhood businesses, black community groups and mayor-elect Sam Adams all shared space in the article.
Adams, the Police, and TriMet are all on the record with positions of co-operation and support for the event and the thousands of enthusiastic participants.  However, some businesses and the black community feel that their voices and opinions have been left out of the discussion.  The biggest concern by all involve is with the injection of alcohol into the mix from the many watering holes that line the street and see grand profits from the huge crowd that flock to the event.

This level of attention serves as a clear indication that Last Thursday has evolved into much more than the intimate little art walk in the funky little alternative art district that began over ten years ago.  I suggest that this increasingly organized monthly Mardi Gras has become a lightning rod for a discussion on how we create synergies between community and our diverse local art scene.

The evolution of the event offers proof of a significant portion of the population want to make art and culture available to the largest possible local audience; quality cultural opportunities that avoid the opulent pretense of the mainstream gallery scene.

The natural course of events on Alberta seems to be making room for these kind of opportunities as a central issue in the discussions about our local art scene.  The critics tend to pan the quality and consistency of the art seen on the street, yet the event offers an entry point for people who aren’t comfortable with the glitz of the traditional “white cube galleries”.   How easily we forget that many of those who find their first strong connections with art on the street eventually move on to the more traditional venues.

 

Notes on Collecting: Why Buy Art?

[ 3 Comments ] Posted on 08.12.08 under Uncategorized

Surrounded Buy Art

me at the computer with three favoites

 

People buy art for many different reasons.   Personally, I buy works of art that I feel a strong connection with, work that teaches me about who I am and the context for the life I live.  However, I have to admit that I didn’t start buying art with the purest motives. 

I would like to say that I have always collected to surround myself with the power and beauty of deeply meaningful imagery, a collection of very personal icons.  It would be nice if I could honestly say that I was pushed forward by a desire to develop a high sense of connoisseurship and a love for fine things.  I wish I could proclaim that intellectual curiosity was the driving force behind a life of collecting.  I would be proud if I could proclaim that the idea of investing in art for monetary gain seldom crossed my mind.  All of these virtuous perspectives evolved within me over the decades I have bought and lived with many amazing works of art, but it didn’t start out that way.

In the beginning I liked art, sure; but I was poor and never thought I could ever buy or own great artwork.  When I arrived at the place where I was ready and willing to buy my first original piece, I was deeply preoccupied with wondering how much art could appreciate in its dollar value.  The friend sold me my first original painting told me emphatically that buying art wasn’t about investing; she said “it’s about learning who you are.” 

I pondered that thought for a bit, and considered the $450 that painting was costing me.   In 1982 that was a lot of money for me and my wife Linda, probably around $1500 in today’s dollars.  Then again, I couldn’t escape the way that painting made me feel.  It was a revelation in my understanding of how a unique and finely crafted object thrilled me in ways I had never imagined.  I’m not saying I forgot about the dollar value of the painting any time soon after its purchase.  In fact I still track the retail value of that artist’s work.  I guess the values is roughly ten times what I paid for it, but that fact is rendered meaningless since I have never even considered selling the piece.

 

About the art in the picture heading this post: from left to right you see digitally manipulated photo from Diane Kornberg’s first body of digital work; in the middle is a very early piece by Kirk Lybecker which happens to be the first original work of art I ever purchased; the painting on the right is a gouache piece by Claudia Cave. 

 

Last Thursday Journal

[ 1 Comment ] Posted on 08.06.08 under Last Thursday

Last Thursday Happening 7/26/08

I love doing Last Thursday on Alberta.  During the summer months, it’s like a monthly Mardi Gras of Carnival with a 60’s hippy ambiance.  The July edition of this very Portland experience was a particularly intense happening with a crowd so large the traffic was cut off from 30th all the way down to 11th.

Cyclists in clown make-up and garb guided the few drivers brave enough or stupid enough to attempt driviving through the dense wall of meandering bodies.  The message was “if you’re dumb enough to drive through the festivities, you get a healthy dose of humiliation”.  It wasn’t malicious, but pointedly instructive in a good natured “love and peace” kind of way.

The sidewalks were crammed with artists, food carts, people selling imported craft work; restaurants, bars, and cafes filled to capacity; tattoos and pierced body parts everywhere.  I guess there were at least 10,000 people on the street that night; it was that biggest turnout I’ve ever seen.

I spotted Kevin Kadar, one of my long time favorite artists, talking to an artist on the street who was showing the most amazing portraits.  Alexandria Becker-Black has been hawking her hauntingly delicate and free flowing watercolor portraits and figurative works on the street for the past year.  Direct sales from a street booth offers one of the few outlets available while she tries figure out how to get into  quality galleries that can sell her work.  Kevin offered support and encouragement as he gave her a laundry list of the necessary skills and attributes she will need to cultivate on the path to gallery representation.

Owners of a number of restaurants and cafes on Alberta commented that this was one of profitable single days in the history of their businesses.  Many artists had similar comments as money changed hand throughout the evening.

There were police on the street and complaints from a few businesses about the loosely organized effort to cut off traffic.  However, there were no arrests and a chaotic order seemed to dominate the festival atmosphere.  Several people I talked to expressed the same feelings I had about the experience.  This was something unique and very different from any other happening we could remember; an event of intense spontaneity and unbridled freedom, yet mildly tempered.  I felt like I was back in the late sixties only surrounded with much better art.

The experience validated my conviction that the emerging art scene in Portland has taken on a life of its own separate from the traditional gallery scene and the establishment arts institutions.  This is an art scene for the people; for artists and collectors.  A cultural oassis for anyone with a love for unique, beautiful, and meaningfully creative expressions.

The night of July 26, 2008 on Alberta Street the people gently pushed aside the art establishment and laid claim to a scene of their own making;  a scene devoid of any pretense or hype.  The night was about the art and the individual experience of a collective response to one special moment.

Art collecting as self help

[ 1 Comment ] Posted on 07.23.08 under Art Collecting

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I’ve been collecting art since 1982 and nearly the entire collection was purchased right here in Portland. The fact that I was born in Portland and have lived here all but one year of my life is a primary reason why I started collecting. This is also a major factor in the remarkable quality and depth of the collection. I have been telling people for at least the mid-90s that Portland is the best place in the country to buy art.

At first I said this because I wanted to believe that I was building an important collection. I wanted to feel like I was creating something great and lasting; a body of work that would be coveted by people of greater means and importance than me. I wanted to use collecting as a vehicle for pumping up my ego, building a sense self importance, and carving out a persona. Some of that did happen, but during my first years of collecting I got so wrapped up in this shallow obsession that I didn’t see what was really happening.

Much of the obsession was due to several decades of undiagnosed clinical depression. I was using art as a means of coping with the emotionally crippling affects of the disease by literally diverting my attention from nagging internal pain. This unconscious form of self therapy started just after I first moved in with the woman I eventually married. Up to that point in my life I had managed my emotions with and an addiction to pot and alcohol.

When I started going to galleries and buying art my wife Linda was growing weary of the mood swings that accompanied drug use. My obsession began to shift from pot and fine wines to attending gallery show openings and just plain loitering in galleries on weekends. The day came when one of my drug induced anger attacks upset Linda to the point where she gave me the “me or the drugs but you can’t have both” ultimatum. I loved her, so the choice was easy; a choice unconsciously made easier by the fact that I was already channeling my addiction into art.

The art was certainly much healthier, and the money I put into buying pieces didn’t just disappear, it got installed somewhere in the house. Ironically, without drugs and alcohol, the depression got noticeably worse. The up side was that the process of seeking and selecting high quality art work that met my aesthetic and emotional needs diverted my attention away from my disease enough to make my life more enjoyable and meaningful. I truly believe that it was more effective and far more affordable than sessions with a mental health professional.

Aesthetic Bridges: Art and Connecting with Home

[ No Comments ] Posted on 07.14.08 under Art Collecting

“Evening at Bagdad” by Kay Buckner

Portland offers a matrix of cultural amenities that make living here special. As the bridges crossing the Willamette River connect the east and west sides of town, the art and culture of our city connect us with the reasons we find for choosing to live here.

The natural physical beauty of the area abounds with views of mountains, rivers, and tree covered hills. In Portland we are fortunate to have an attractively laid out city with a good mix of contemporary and vintage architecture. Inviting neighborhoods with tree-lined streets and an eclectic mix of houses from all periods adds another distinctive signature to the feel of the city. The dozens of parks of all sizes that dot the city give residents ample opportunities for affordable family recreation.

The beauty of the city’s physical setting makes a perfect canvas for the many arts organizations that have been painted into the community over more than 150 years of growth. The Portland Art Museum, the Pacific Northwest College of Arts, the Museum of Contemporary Craft, and the Oregon College of Arts and Craft are all a part of this long and colorful history.

The legion of artists who choose to live here and create their art gave us a rich visual narrative of the bountiful natural beauty that blesses our region. Many of these artists also created a record of how the ever growing population changed the landscape that to this day continues to draw more people to the area.

The art of our region teaches us about who we are in the context of the place we choose to live, and helps us understand our affection for the place we call home. This process is fundamental to how we communicate and express ourselves as human beings. The creation of visual chronicles can be traced back 50,000 years to Las Caux cave paintings in France.

As we see the impact regional art has on local communities, we can understand how this art has the same affect on the individual. My interest in collecting art got a huge boost from one particular piece that I was lucky enough to see before anyone else could consider the purchase.

Back in 1990, I had only a handful of original art works in the house we had bought in 1984 just off 34th avenue between Hawthorne and Division streets. I had only been doing the monthly First Thursday gallery walks in for Pearl District for less than a year, but I was already building a list of favorite artists and galleries.

Near the top of that list was the Chetwynd Stapylton Gallery in the North Park blocks owned by the artist Bill Papas and his wife Tesa. One of their best selling artists at the time was Kay Buckner, who had been producing some great paintings of cityscapes and buildings. I was lucky to be one of the first arrivals at an opening of one of Kay’s shows that included a series of works featuring images of the old art nouveau style movie theaters in town like the Hollywood, the Paramount, the Broadway, and the Bagdad. All the paintings were based on photographs her mother had taken of these theaters in 1940.

I loved all the paintings because I knew all of the theaters from years of being an avid fan of cinema. I also loved her painting style because her favorite painter, Edward Hopper, had recently become one of my favorites. I wanted one immediately, and the choice became obvious in an instant. The painting of the Bagdad; a perfect rendering of one of my favorite architectural local land marks hit me square in the face and screamed “buy me”.

The painting was the smallest of the theater pieces but still a good size, the perfect size for my living room. Since it was smaller than the others, it was the most affordable; $450 which was a large chunk of cash to me then, but still accessible. The detail that sealed the deal… it was the closest movie theater to my house and the most iconic building on my neighborhood. Hawthorne Boulevard would be much less distinct without that elegant structure.

So, this gorgeous painting hangs handsomely framed in my living room as a constant reminder of some of the favorite moments of my life and why I feel so attached to the place I call home.