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Portland grows into a capital of conscience

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My View • City's rebel base of edgy artists more 'MacGyver' than 'MacArthur'
by: Courtesy of Dreamstime 
No Portland resident has ever been awarded a MacArthur

Cities exist and compete against one another to do one thing: identify and cultivate talent, which requires developing the networks and resources they need to follow through on that initial promise.

Like-minded peers congregate and spur each other to excellence. Or not.

Today that process is a lot more rapid with the Internet and air travel, so much so that the talent is often better at determining why it can be successful than the city that plays host.

Since the mid-'90s, artists and designers have emigrated to or stayed in Portland for very specific and often moral reasons. In a nutshell, it is because Portland is the first U.S. city to grow out of the adolescent attitudes of America in the second half of the 20th century. The laundry list: non-car-reliant transportation, green thinking, proximity to nature, a very non-1 percent-centric civic attitude, high-tech savvy and a permissive attitude that was essentially humanistic rather than purely capitalistic.

In other words, the original Occupy Portland started around the mid-'90s by artists and has only gathered steam since. Think of artists as canaries in the coal mine of civilization - it is a tough job, but it's very important to watch what they do. Artists bring immense cultural cache, even jobs. Ultimately, they redirect our attention, giving us a new aesthetic and conceptual compass. Then they export those ideas in distilled, compact creative endeavors.

No city owns its artists, but a city can choose to (either) support or take its artists for granted.

To be overly simplistic, Portland became a 21st-century leader because it rejected both of the 20th century's main models: Manhattan's top-down corporate verticality and LA's car-driven suburban sprawl. Instead, as a more 19th century-style city of shopkeepers and artists (defined by our citizens more than institutions), we should own the title and take care to not become complacent.

Now, between 'Grimm' and 'Portlandia''s fantastical and farcical portrayals of the deep dark unknown amongst us and do-gooder ideals, it is clear that Portland is receiving credit as the capital of conscience for the United States. This has been true for more than a decade, but we should support those who articulate this particularly uncertain but important moment in history.

It is telling that Portland artists have made appearances at Tate Modern as well as the Moscow and Whitney Biennials, etc., before they appeared at the Portland Art Museum.

Peter Korn's article on MacArthur fellows and Portland opened a crucial discussion on Portland's somewhat anarchic and inconsistent relationship to excellence as an institutional habit (Where are all of Portland's bright ideas?, Jan. 5).

Being in the art world, I've met numerous MacArthur winners, such as Robert Irwin, Dave Hickey, Josiah McElheny, Ann Hamilton, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle and, most recently, Alfredo Jaar last fall in the Pearl District. Most of their work only became commercially successful when they hit the top galleries in London and New York.

Yes, there are Portland artists who have found representation in those galleries, and these MacArthur fellows I listed are not merely ambitious people, they are intensely pragmatic, single-minded individuals who have 'MacGyvered' even more than they have 'MacArthured.' The one thing they never do is wear a cloak of false humility to fit in.

When Dave Hickey writes about communities of desire in his essay 'My Weimar,' he doesn't use the words community or creativity as catch-all shields to blunt the discussion like we often do in Portland. Instead, he asks, what kind of community? Then Hickey goes on to describe how small clusters of mutually interested peers pursue their passions and ideals as they go on to change the world.

If you want to change the world, you must be willing to call attention to those exceptional individuals. It isn't that hard to find them, since they cluster together and their excellence serves the community.

Here is the crucial question: Does Portland do a good job of pointing out brilliant artists by putting them in high-profile institutional shows or giving them major fellowships before they peak?

The answer is no, Portland's art awards tend to celebrate those whose careers are decades long, teach and participate in as many community events as possible. This forces the edgier artists to find validation elsewhere, and when they do, it often trumps any local honors.

Another question, do our commercial galleries make a point of exhibiting the latest breakthrough?

On rare occasions, yes (usually painters and photographers), but to date no one gallery has made a point of becoming the hot place to see new work, including installation and video (which tend to be the edgier). Instead, that is left to the alternative spaces, and it is there where any modest support would be very helpful.

You see, in the art world, the MacArthur itself is never the ultimate goal. Instead, those ultimate achievements usually are measured in museums. The trick is knowing who to support when choosing the important milestones. The first flickers of greatness nearly always happen at the alternative spaces.

Yes, the edgier artists still manage to 'MacGyver' together exhibitions in unfunded alternative spaces (and other cities) while using Portland as a kind of rebel base, and it is telling that the Regional Arts and Culture Council and the Oregon Arts Commission have not found a way to specifically support alt-spaces like Appendix, Recess, Rock's Box, Half/Dozen, 12128, Worksound, Gallery Homeland, Everett Station Lofts and False Front.

The reason Portland still works is like-minded peers are in abundance. Some call it benign neglect, but it is simply an institutional lag, and our art awards and laudatory exhibitions must recalibrate to be more relevant. There has been some progress, but it is never fast enough.

In 2012, questions surrounding relevance and excellence will go beyond art and will continue to define issues like the Columbia River Crossing and our upcoming mayoral race - but art will be the bellwether. Portland is in the spotlight. Let's seize this opportunity.

Jeff Jahn is an independent curator and chief critic at PORT: www.portlandart.net. His installation art will be on display at the 10th Northwest Biennial at Tacoma Art Museum, opening Jan. 21.