“Hold on, We’re Moving” says the sign hanging in the window of the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA)’s current space. The message is somewhat tongue in cheek: in many ways, PICA is always moving. The Institute’s mission, driven in part by a grant from ArtPlace, is to relocate on a frequent basis so it can play a role as a civic collaborator in ways that fixed institutions cannot. Somewhat paradoxically, PICA is building a new more permanent space to act as a hub for their temporary installations.
ArtPlace spoke with Patrick Leonard, the communications director of the museum, about the challenges and benefits of being itinerant and how PICA is making Portland communities more vibrant.
PATRICK: Embedding projects directly in underused neighborhood spaces is central to our mission—allowing us to connect with audiences where they are and to find the right venue for each project/artist, rather than forcing all of our artists into the constraints of a fixed gallery or theater. However, as I’m sure you can guess, there are a number of pitfalls to this strategy.
First and foremost is that the landscape of Portland has changed dramatically in the past 17 years. We’ve gone from an urban core of warehouses and abandoned business districts to a thriving web of close-in neighborhoods and retail corridors. Former single-story warehouses are now 10-story condos in the Pearl District, and old factories are now creative hubs of design studios and non-profits.
ARTPLACE: So it has been a challenge to find available space as conditions have improved?
PATRICK: Absolutely. Anyone attempting this model as a strategy needs to be aware of the fickleness of the real estate market. In years with high vacancies and big inventories, developers are eager to offer space for temporary performances and exhibits in their empty spaces. As the market swings back, it becomes harder to get a long-lead commitment on space; developers don’t want to tie up a space 6 months in advance for fear that they may rent it a month later. It becomes difficult to plan in advance, schedule artists.
It certainly adds to our workload, too. While there is flexibility in pop-up programming, it also means that we’re starting over each time out of the gate. While a theater may have to confirm dates with an artist, we need to select dates, set a location, hire crews, clean out the space, drop all of our lighting and tech in, and arrange for the load-out and clean-up. It’s a lot of work.
ARTPLACE: Have you been able to see a revitalizing effect of your work on the neighborhoods where you’ve intervened?
Yes, our practice has been a direct force in a lot of these developments. Our original site for THE WORKS (the late-night social space/performance venue, and the home of the TBA Festival) became the Machineworks condominium. Our 2005 space was developed a few years later into the headquarters of BodyVox Dance. Our 2008 hub became the Leftbank Project complex of offices, and our home at the decommissioned Washington High School from 2009-2011 is in the midst of a sale from the city to a developer with plans to turn it into apartments. Our presence in each space helped to drive the conversation and bring life to blighted buildings and revitalize neighborhoods. But we’ve also helped to develop ourselves right out of the market for these spaces.
ARTPLACE: So how is PICA finding new sites, with Portland becoming such a hot spot?
PATRICK: You have to keep a good sense of humor about bad situations, be willing to sweep out musty old warehouses, and maintain a good network of friends in real estate and developing. But the rewards are worth it, as we consistently hear from artists the personally tailored space felt like a luxury. Each event feels special because no two are alike. Our audiences have come to anticipate that as part of the experience—not just the artistic program itself, but the excitement of discovering a new space.