Thursday, April 2, 2009
Happy Birthday, Blackfish
Source: D.K. Row, The Oregonian April 01, 2009
The idea that an art gallery -- or any small business, for that matter -- can survive more than 30 years in this economic tsunami seems quixotic. Kind of like dreaming of a cozy, early retirement.
But a few galleries have been around for that long, including Blackfish Gallery, which celebrates its 30th anniversary tonight with a group exhibit highlighting the work of its roster of 28 Portland-area artists. The exhibit is, ostensibly, a public celebration of this cooperative enterprise run by the artists who show there. But it's also a reminder of the enduring, if unsexy, grass-roots community values that initially formed the Pearl District and its art scene. These values may resonate more deeply right now as the area and city become more complex, and just as some galleries shutter because of the economy.
"We're a whole mixed bag of crazy aunts and uncles and more here," says artist and longtime Blackfish member Michael Knutson. "We have long discussions with each other every month about our work and what's going on. I don't know how it is at other galleries, but I don't think there is that kind of consistent commitment to one another anywhere else."
Founded in 1979 by a group of Portland artists, including Barbara Black and Julia Fish, whose conjoined surnames gave the gallery its name, Blackfish was one of the pioneers of the contemporary art scene, along with Jamison Thomas Gallery, Augen Gallery and Elizabeth Leach Gallery. The artists banded together because precious few galleries were around, and ambitious artists desperately needed more places to show work.
So, in true Portland do-it-yourself fashion -- well before DIY became synonymous with Portland -- they opened a modest space at 325 N.W. Sixth Ave.
The gallery has since persevered a few patches of internal upheaval, two physical moves, several different directors and the commercial transformation of the Pearl. One hundred fifty artists have, at one time or another, been Blackfish members, some of them among the more idiosyncratic local art figures, including Bob Hanson, Judy Cooke, Dennis Cunningham and current members Jim Neidhardt and Knutson. Three founding members -- Paul Missal, Stephen Soihl and Black -- still show at the gallery.
Throughout these changes, the gallery has upheld several rules that have allowed it to survive the recessions of the '80s, '90s and 2001, rules that distinguish it from most commercial galleries defined by one individual's taste and sense of importance.
All of the artists, for example, interview and pick prospective members, of which there has never been more than 30 at a time. Every artist must pay a monthly fee of $70 and serve on two committees that help run and maintain the gallery's daily operations. And every artist must attend each opening.
In other words, being a Blackfish member is a lot of work for its artists, many of whom have other jobs in addition to their respective studio time. But they enjoy rewards unheard of at most other galleries.
"I have a key to the gallery's front door," says painter Knutson. "I have a financial stake in this place."
Though crucial, sales are handled with a relaxed grip. They aren't overseen by the gallery's part-time director -- Gina Carrington -- but by the artist who happens to be on duty at the moment. Forty percent of each sale goes back to the gallery's coffers instead of the usual 50 percent at most galleries.
"The pressure to sell work comes mostly from yourself," artist Sue Tower says
But the downside to the egalitarianism is that it can be artistically prudent to the point of blandness. Because artists are assured of a show every 18 months, members tend to stay for long periods, making for a comfortable, even predictable, place to show. Rare is the dramatic left turn.
So while it showcases artists who exhibit in just about every medium and style, the gallery, over the years, has captured only modestly the sharpest edge of contemporary art dialogue.
Still, Blackfish's class-blind principles allow for other kinds of risk that commercial galleries can't afford to take, such as showing work by students from local college art programs. Like another cooperative, Nine Gallery, Blackfish also has evolved into a kind of refuge for artists whose works have eluded the affections of the commercial marketplace, like the often concept-oriented Neidhardt.
"Some artists are able to have a career just getting grants but don't sell much work," says Jane Beebe, owner of one of Portland's best commercial galleries, PDX Contemporary Art. "Blackfish has shows by these artists that you probably wouldn't see anywhere else."
The gallery's slightly service-oriented perspective is prescient right now, particularly for the art community and the Pearl District, where many businesses are seeking safety from the rising economic tides.
As recently as the mid-'90s, the Pearl District was composed of several galleries, one coffee shop and many empty warehouses.
It's since become a dazzling roundelay of posh restaurants, LEED-certified condos, cafes and knickknack stores.
Sure, galleries remain, but the Pearl is really a neighborhood, not a community; it's a seductive, vibrant place to make and spend money. Of course, such glamorous square blockage signifies a city is growing, and for the better. But places like Blackfish remind the public of the more earthy forces that first moved the ground.
"The early days were hard," Missal says. "But we learned. We learned about commitment. So while things have changed, there is still something that artists and others can say: Blackfish is around."
Right now, the gallery is looking to replace two members who left. Missal says the gallery is taking applications for a very particular fit.
"We don't need an ego that is triumphant," he says. "We stay away from that. That doesn't move well in a cooperative. It's divisive and separates us."