For the last several years the Yale Union Laundry building at 800 SE 10th Avenue, a striking brick Italian Renaissance space built in 1908 and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places, has sat empty. But now, it is poised to become the major contemporary art center Portland has more or less lacked since the closing of the Portland Center for the Visual Arts closed in 1987.
A few days ago organizers of the new YU Contemporary art center unveiled their vision: to transform the 40,000 square foot building between Belmont and Morrison Sreets into a dedicated contemporary art center.
“The thinking is that while generalist institutions such as the Portland Art Museum serve the widest possible audience,” explains The Oregonian’s DK Row, “a dedicated center focused only on the most challenging level of contemporary art serves the art community specifically. Unlike smaller art institutions like Disjecta or the now-defunct Portland Art Center focused on local artists’, it would feature a mix of national, international and local artists. Unlike the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival, it would have a year round presence.
For most arts institutions, the biggest financial challenge is architectural: building and paying for a physical home. Disjecta tried to renovate the prominent Templeton Building at the east Burnside bridge head, but instead wound up relocating to a warehouse in North Portland. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.) PICA started with donated exhibit space in the Wieden + Kennedy building, but gave it up several years ago to focus its resources on the TBA Fest each September.
YU was founded by Curtis Knapp, a 37-year-old musician and indie record producer, and his longtime friend Aaron Flint Jamison, a 31-year-old artist and publisher. Knapp’s record label, Marriage Records, has helped launch successful indie bands like Dirty Projectors, while a book of poetry he created with Tom Blood won a 2008 Oregon Book Award. Jamison founded and published the art journal Veneer and has held residencies across Europe and the US.
If you’re thinking these guys sound a little inexperienced to be founding a major contemporary arts center, they knew it too. But Knapp and Jamison had something very important going for them. In donor-poor Portland, they found a patron willing to buy the Yale Union Laundry Building and lease it back to them rent-free and put of hundreds of thousands more in capital to help them get started. Next, the pair hired Sandra Percival, an arts veteran with the experience they lacked. Percival, a Portland native, is former executive director of New Langton Arts in San Francisco and was also director of Public Art Development Trust in London as part of a 30-year career.
According to a report by Randy Gragg in Portland Monthly, the trio engaged local BOORA Architects to create a feasibility study for former home of Perfect Fit-McDonald upholstery company, and hope to build “a $7.2 million historical renovation with galleries, a bookstore/café, and a 100-seat flex space, all of it aiming for a LEED Platinum designation courtesy of features like a geothermal heating system tapped from an aquifer running beneath the building.” Row’s story also says there will be a recording studio, retail and office spaces, and a recording studio.
YU has already introduced a rendering of a glass courtyard occupying the Morrison Street side of the old building, enabling YU to offer a more inviting, transparent counterbalance to the solidity of the original brick building.
That said, even just the Italian Renaissance former laundry and upholstery building is ideal for displaying art with its bounty of natural light and vast, wide-open spaces—particularly upstairs. Gragg writes that “…everyone who strolls the rhythmically windowed length of the Yale Union Laundry Building’s second-floor room seems to leave with the same infectious hope.”
The YU principals seem to understand the need to proceed gradually, thoughtfully and methodically. After all, most successful nonprofit arts organizations, for all the importance of a physical space to call home, start with a mission that predates and prefigures the migration there. YU can’t just fall into having a building and expect the art institution that follows to fall into place in terms of funding, public interest or quality.
"Overall, it's obvious that the 14,000 sqare feet of exhibition space is its strongest card in YU's deck so far, also meaning that the actual programming, institutional organization and general institutional vision seem under developed and hazy at best (they are seeking input)," writes Jeff Jahn of PORT. "The column-free upper gallery is reminiscent of both a larger version of the PCVA and the even vaster Mass MoCA great hall. It's a space that artists will hunger for. Only the Geffen Contemporary offers a similar theater for ambition on the West Coast, though only very adept artists could hope to handle such a space."
It’s easy to get excited about the possibility of Portland having the serious, internationally renowned contemporary art center it has lacked since the days when PCVA was bringing here the likes of Donald Judd. And the success of YU could help to invigorate a the lower sections of Belmont and Morrison between the building and the bridge, which has already shown signs of flourishing with arts organizations like Oregon Ballet Theater and Zoomtopia as well as eateries like the beloved Bunk Sandwiches.
“We already have a great foundation in the building,” Percival told Gragg. “When people walk in, they stop worrying about the problems and start talking about the possibilities.”