Muralist and activist Daren Todd always wanted to curate his own art gallery, but could never find a way to do it.
Then in 2020, a friend commissioned Todd to paint her southwest Portland yoga studio.
“As part of the payment for the project, she offered me to use the downstairs space,” Todd says. “She was thinking, ‘What if you bring a bunch of your art in and host a show and whatever you sell, you keep, and that kind of goes towards this payment?’ "
It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
His show proved to be quite popular — and that’s when an idea struck: What if he could replicate that success for other artists?
“I wanted to focus on supporting communities that I find myself a part of, and noticed don’t often get represented in mainstream art, especially in the city,” he said, “Black and indigenous artists of color LGBTQ+ artists, and then artists practicing with disabilities of all of all different kinds, physical and mental too.”
Todd, who identifies as Black and transgender, named it The Downstairs Gallery.
Todd knows how hard it can be for BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and disabled artists to convince mainstream galleries to exhibit their work if they aren’t known names.
So he hopes to give a new generation of emerging artists a home and a potential career jumpstart.
At first, Todd simply wanted to create a safe space for artists from underrepresented communities to show their work in the city’s mainstream galleries.
“There are so many galleries, but there’s always room for more representation of these communities that just don’t often get specifically tapped to do work. So for me, it was just like a no-brainer,” he says.
As his idea grew, he realized that he could also use the gallery as a workshop where people can learn the ins and outs of the business.
“Learning about pricing their work, time costs, writing a bio, keeping a website and having a business card,” he says. “I don’t require those things, but it starts to become obvious to the artists that they’re missing certain things when I’m asking for a link to their website or their Instagram.”
Ultimately, Todd hopes that the artists he represents will continue their careers far beyond the Downstairs Gallery walls.
“It’s my hope that they continue on to the big galleries in town,” he says. “Sometimes that alone is super validating for an artist to be able to go onto the next space and say ‘Yes, I’ve done this, this isn’t my first time.’ "
Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Downstairs Gallery’s first showing was strictly virtual. But it created enough buzz on social media for him to put on a physical show in February for Black History Month.
The event drew dozens of art lovers, all masked, to the small but inviting gallery.
The brick walls were adorned with unique pieces of art, ranging from surreal watercolors to portraits of historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and former NASA astronaut Mae Jemison. But they all reflected the diverse backgrounds of their creators.
Todd admitted that curating a show was challenging, especially when choosing the artists he wanted to represent in the gallery.
“Sometimes I really just want to pick the art that I like, and then I have to remember that’s not my job as a curator, because I’m not curating the Daren store. I’m curating a space for these artists to display their work, and I want the audience who views it to have as many different well-thought-out paths of expression to walk down as possible,” he says.
Despite the challenges of putting a show together, Todd believes all the work is worthwhile.
“The best part is honestly just seeing the show happen and seeing the artists walking around the gallery as people are coming in and feeling that energy of like, ‘Yes, I did this,’” he says. “I really enjoy talking to random people about the artist’s process, and I’ve been able to connect with artists from across the United States and worldwide.”
Hilary Nichols, who turns her drawings into intricate magnet art that she puts up around town, was one of the artists picked for the show.
“It connected me to other artists, which has led to opportunities for collaborations, which has been really amazing,” Nichols says.
Hilary’s magnet art was what Todd was looking for when he was curating his show.
“It’ll just be like a cool saying like ‘Women’s reproductive rights are women’s business’ or kind of oddball drawings, cute little cartoons and when she was like, ‘I want to be a part of it.’ I was just like ‘Yes, you’re exactly who I want!’ " he said.
Prior to the gallery showing, Nichols always stuck to street art. But her experience proved to her that she could have a solid career in the arts world if she wanted it.
“I sold 45 magnets, which was a change for me and was really awesome. It gives me a lot of reasons to kind of stay involved in the art community in PDX,” Nichols says. “The Downstairs is totally a place where emerging BIPOC and queer artists can stretch their wings, have a platform, meet other folks in the community, and be uplifted by Daren in particular, but more broadly, the whole Downstairs community.”
The last Downstairs Gallery showing was back in July. Since then, it has been on a bit of a hiatus, but Todd is working diligently to keep his gallery-running dreams alive.
“A really long-term goal is to just have our own brick and mortar space and have someone there four or five days a week and just be open to the public as it stands.”
In the meantime, Todd plans to stage at least one more show this year while also creating a potential pop-up version of the gallery at the Canyons Alley in northeast Portland.