PICA_AUG1

As the first 12-month grant cycle comes to a close, ArtPlace asked the grantees to give us an honest assessment of their creative placemaking efforts. Patrick Leonard, Communications Director for the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, looks back:

LEONARD: When this project began, we approached Artplace with an unusual proposal: help us to make an art space that isn’t, a facility that could move and shift with each use. We weren’t seeking to invest in a major capital campaign for a state-of-the-art theater, or build a kunsthalle with soaring galleries for installations; we wanted to continue our scrappy, successful way of doing business.

You see, for 17 years, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art has been a bit of a nomad. We’ve bounced from borrowed space to borrowed space, squatting in shared offices, running a one-time gallery, and, most visibly, mounting the annual Time-Based Art Festival in repurposed buildings all across town. It’s been something of a traveling circus, but through all of this, we’ve struggled with visibility. People across the country know about the TBA Festival, and Portlanders routinely remember our defunct gallery, but they’d started to lose track of our organization throughout the year. With each event and project we hosted, we’d gather an incredible community and galvanize public attention once more, only to watch as the audiences dissipated at the close of the show. Our goal was to provide a hub for this community to return to, again and again, without us having to abandon the flexibility that our itinerant practice allowed.

Artplace supported us to invest in more mobile infrastructure, making it easier for us to pick up and re-deploy in new locations. New wheels, mobile ticketing software, reconfigurable outdoor seating and structures have all served to help us move operations as projects dictate. In addition to this focus on our ongoing mobile needs for TBA and one-off shows, Artplace helped us to secure and buildout the “hub” of our “hub-and-spoke” model. With the TBA Festival, we host performances, talks, and exhibits all across town, but call everyone back together for evening events and socializing at a venue called THE WORKS. It’s the vibrant heart of the Festival, and it sees a remarkable amount of use. As we pursued a year-round facility with more visibility, we endeavored to capture the spirit of THE WORKS in our day-to-day offices. We wanted to create a space that our audiences and members would see as “home” even as we continued to produce many of our projects around Portland. That said, we knew we didn’t want to fall prey to the allure of SPACE or get mired into an expensive, elaborate design that would restrict our activities by the spatial designations. Instead, we approached our office buildout much like we always have for the TBA Festival, only rather than having to abandon our infrastructure after a month of use, we’d hang onto it for three years.

We garnered the support of our long-term architecture and contractor partners, who together made a coalition of builders and designers that contributed over $300,000 in in-kind labor, materials, and services to make the job happen. Thanks to their generosity, we were able to enter a flexible new office space with minimal cash investment and no accrued debt.

The building itself has been an incredible boon for our work. Immediately we saw the results of having an identifiable home base; over 600 people attended our opening night, with over 700 coming for our birthday party this summer! And because we didn’t approach the space in a traditional manner with a theater, offices, and galleries, etc… in discrete blocks, the new facility has challenged us to continuously re-invent and re-consider our work. One week, the space may host a gallery exhibition, while the next will see a weekend-long symposium of talks, panels, and dinners, while the following week might lead to the staff spreading out over the walls for a planning retreat. Frankly, it’s come naturally—this is how we love to work on our one-off projects; now we can continue that M.O. in all of our activities.

From this daunting, multi-faceted project, we’ve learned quite a bit, good and bad, about our work. One of the biggest obstacles facing PICA (and any organization working in borrowed, shifting locations) is that the energy and vitality you bring to a disused space can sometimes be the very factor that forces you out of it. Over our history, we’ve brought renewed energy to a series of abandoned and under-appreciated sites, from warehouses to boarded-up high schools, and all of them have subsequently been redeveloped as multi-use, creative spaces (including a dance company HQ, a green office complex, and apartments). Significantly, these efforts haven’t displaced existing businesses or residents, but they have made it more difficult for us to find massive warehouse spaces in the inner neighborhoods of Portland. Long-term, we’re going to have to reconsider what makes a good site for TBA projects, and we may have to look farther afield, reconfiguring the scope of the Festival to fit a new location.

But of all of the lessons, the one thing that would be easiest to pass on to other organizations would be the importance of community investment. We’ve aways referred to our work as akin to a “barn-raising,” but nowhere has this been more apparent than in our Artplace project. There is absolutely no way we could have accomplished our goals without the support of an incredible, supportive and generous member and audience base. They dedicated time to paint walls and haul boxes, and they filled the space when we threw open the doors with an event. To this, you have to constantly work with your neighbors and community, offering something they need and inviting them to participate in a meaningful way. We’ve seen this with audiences and we’ve seen it with our business neighbors. As we look back on our success and stumbles, we realize that this didn’t happen in one year; it took 17. Our history of compelling programs and community involvement made for project that Portland wanted to support. It was incredibly rewarding to see how just much the city rallied around PICA and our artists.

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