Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Why is Portland a better photography scene?

I just got the monthly “what's happening in Portland” email from Guy Swanson. Guy is a tireless promoter of photography, ex-gallery operator (Photographic Image Gallery in Portland's old town), retired PR man, docent at Portland Art Museum (PAM) and part-time taxi driver. Part of his email this month is a note from Julia Dolan, PAM's recently-hired curator of photography. She came to PAM after the untimely death of Terry Toedtemeier, who held the post for only two years after it was created (for him). Before that, Mr. Toedtemeier was volunteer curator of photography for several years as well as an active photographer himself and a geologist.

PAM takes photography very seriously – it shows photographs along with contemporaneous work in other mediums, it has an outstanding permanent collection, it has a very nice gallery in which to show work from their collection as well as traveling shows, and an active Photography Council. Their council is 100+ members strong with an active volunteer board and an agenda a yard long. PAM is currently showing Ray Metzger's work and expects to acquire several pieces for their collection using funds raised by the council. Ms. Dolan calls them out in her note as being a major reason for PAM's position in photography.

There is a lot that I like about the Seattle Art Museum – but its institutional attitude about photography isn't one of them.

In my last post I muttered about the Seattle Art Museum’s Photography Council (or lack thereof). SAM did have one some years ago, during Rod Slemmons’ tenure as curator of prints and photography. I was not always keen on Mr. Slemmons’ choices although the Lee Friedlander “Like a One-Eyed Cat” show that he curated remains one of my all time favorites. What I was always keen on, however, was his passion for photography and his unceasing promotion of photography as part of the museum’s offerings. After he departed from SAM, first as an independent curator and then to the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Photography Council shriveled and then was absorbed by the Contemporary Art Council. At the time he left SAM I strongly suspected that he had gotten tired of pushing a rope. His successor, Trevor Fairbrother, seemed to regard photography as print-making's poor cousin. He left SAM, I believe as part of a retrenchment that eliminated his position and folded prints and photography into contemporary art.

SAM has never had a permanent photography gallery. It now uses the hallway leading to the Jacob Lawrence gallery to show photographs. It is relatively well-lighted and relatively wide. It is a nice hallway – but it's still a hallway and symbolic of photography's near-orphan status.

It was never clear to me what the Photography Council’s role was supposed to be from the museum’s viewpoint. The other councils – Contemporary Art, African Art, Asian Art – appeared to me to be composed mostly of wealthy, influential collectors and the purpose of the council is to both provide and round up financial support for the respective collections and for exhibitions. The Photography Council was mostly composed of, well, photographers – not a group noted for a plethora of wealthy, influential individuals. Council chairmen that I remember are Nick Hansen (photographer and teacher), David Johnson (photographer and teacher) and David Clarridge (photographer and free-lance accountant).

It was clear to me what the Photography Council’s role was supposed to be from the viewpoint of its members – to promote shows of photography at SAM (difficult since I can't remember ever seeing anybody from the museum at a meeting), reaching out to the photographic community on behalf of SAM by sponsoring lectures, portfolio reviews, and workshops (there were a few), provide a few bucks for purchase of photography. The latter came to a screeching halt when the council made a donation and the museum, without including anyone from the council in the decision, purchased a relatively expensive print from a then-trendy photographer that to my knowledge has never been exhibited.

PAM and SAM are the major institutions in Portland and in Seattle. I cannot believe that the difference between the vital and growing photographic scene in Portland and the current doldrums in Seattle aren't at least partly a result of the difference in approach to photography by the museums.

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