An Insider’s Guide to the Portland Art Scene
The Pacific Northwest’s capital of cool has found inviting ways to weave the work and livelihoods of vibrant local creators into the international art scene.
Though not one of the dozens of artists, curators, gallerists, and art collectors I met in Portland, Oregon, admitted to liking the satirical series Portlandia, much of which is shot on location there, almost everyone agreed that the cult comedy is part of what has cemented the outsized reputation that this city of 600,000 people has as a center for creativity, especially in literature and music.
But Portland, like a lot of smaller cities in the U.S., has worked earnestly to foster the visual arts and the so-called “creatives” who produce and are drawn to supporting them.
“The region’s unbridled, massive creative stability is an important ethos to pump out into world,” says Kristy Edmunds, the inaugural artistic director of Portland’s Converge 45, an arts invitational of sorts now in its first iteration that is designed to do just that. (It’s named for Portland’s position along the earth’s 45th parallel.) Operating in cycles of three years with bursts of activity during each, Converge 45 convenes artists from the region to engage with cherry-picked visionaries in the global contemporary arts community for programs, commissions of new work, exhibitions, and publications at venues across the city.
The local leaders who conceived of Converge 45 were perhaps emboldened by the warm reception that The Portland Biennial has received in the broader art world. That biennial fills the space left in 2006 when the Oregon Biennial (established in 1949 by the Portland Art Museum) became defunct. Run by the local arts nonprofit Disjecta since its rebirth in 2010, the comprehensive survey of visual artists from all over Oregon (during even-numbered years) draws thousands of artists, curators, and art-lovers.
It’s worth noting that many much larger metropolises—New York comes to mind—don’t even have a city-wide art event like a biennial. “Artists are valued here,” Edmunds says, noting that affordable housing and workspaces are baked into the ethos of the city.
The events provide both ballast and ballyhoo with pop-up performances, open studios, and parties in and around Portland. It’s during those times that the collaboration among commercial galleries, nonprofit organizations, and museums that makes Portland special is most on view. But those same institutions tout robust offerings year-round, making it a great place for art tourism whatever the season. Here are the highlights.
Note: Art spaces can come and go, so look online before you visit. And be sure to chat up a local gallerist for guidance on what’s new and what’s on view where, or be sure pick up a locally printed guide to find out what art events are happening during your stay.