Located in downtown Portland, Oregon, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) is an interdisciplinary contemporary art center that presents performances and visual exhibits throughout the year and at their annual Time-Based Art Festival each September. With the support of ArtPlace, PICA has undertaken a major strategic move to increase their activity and their presence in the community. With a new office hub in the center of the city and more resources for pop-up programming, PICA is doing even more to support contemporary artists and to connect their work with new audiences.
ArtPlace recently asked PICA Communications Director Patrick Leonard about their strategies for getting noticed.
ArtPlace: So what have been your most effective strategies for attracting the attention of people who matter?
Patrick: Well, that is a really big question to answer—it is such a big task for us let people know about our work, especially since we’ve been relatively hidden for quite some time. With our new office, this has changed, but for close to ten years, we had been operating out of shared offices in an ad agency and presenting work primarily through the one month of activities surrounding the TBA Festival. We also heavily rely on in-kind marketing support, so we don’t have a huge presence in the media in terms of advertising. Together, those factors combined to make it rather difficult for people in the community to find our occasional year-round events or to really wrap their heads around what PICA does.
So, to counteract those forces, we developed a pretty scrappy way of getting the word out—sort of a mix of grass-roots organizing and public spectacle. First off, we spend a lot of our year building personal relationships through peer outreach with other organizations and individuals in town. By building those networks of performance companies, galleries, nonprofits, and other presenters, we’ve developed a list of groups that will help us to promote our events and introduce us to new audiences. It’s important to remember that these relationships are reciprocal. Unlike the more one-sided relationship of advertising, where you broadcast your message through print or web or what-have-you, when you work with community groups and individuals, there is an expectation that the relationship is one of mutual support. A local dancer might help bring attention to a PICA project, but we’ve got to be willing to later support her when she performs in town. And that is exactly where the strength of this approach comes from: this community has a real investment in PICA’s success, because we’re similarly committed to seeing our friends and partners succeed.
And really, we always lead with art, so our most effective way of building recognition for what we do is by doing it in a big, public way. We’ve had major outdoor performances in Pioneer Courthouse Square (“Portland’s Living Room”), we’ve done monumental video projections on the pylons of Portland’s many bridges, we’ve put on concerts in public fountains, and we’ve led cross-city scavenger hunts. Those kinds of projects have a huge impact—they tell a great story, they’re instantly recognizable, and they’re a lot more fun than a billboard.
PHOTO: The City Dance of Lawrence and Anna Halprin in the Keller Fountain at 2008 Time-Based Art Festival. Photo courtesy of Kenneth Aaron.