The organization’s board took the unusual step of asking founding director Bryan Suereth to leave. It’s referred to in a press release as a leadership transition.
The founding of Disjecta was almost accidental. Suereth and some friends found a vacant building on Russell Street. Sean Healy was one of the first artists to exhibit there.
“I remember one of the very first events [Bryan] and [curator and artist] Cris Moss put together,” Healy said. “Bryan and Cris and others were there tearing up carpeting to have a wood floor. There are things Bryan does behind the scenes no one knows about. The dude is tireless. He puts in insane hours.”
Running a small arts non-profit can include a thousand other duties as assigned: mowing the grass, cleaning the bathrooms, and of course curation, bringing in artists from around and outside the U.S., arranging the use of Disjecta’s spacious building in Kenton by a variety of art and performance events, and staging shows like the Portland Biennial. This year’s edition encompassed 25 venues from Astoria to La Grande to Ashland.
The biennial closed with several complaints from some artists of standing. While some had a good experience, others felt abandoned by guest curator Michelle Grabner and/or Disjecta, without support and promotion they needed to pull off their installations.
But even before the Biennial, the board got into a broader conversation about the future.
Chair Chris D’Arcy says a long-term development training left some board members feeling less than convinced Suereth was the right person to implement Disjecta’s growing ambitions.
“The board really became more aware of, let’s say, the need for our organization to have more structure than it has right now,” Darcy said.
She wouldn’t get into specifics, for personnel reasons, but said if Disjecta’s staff size is going to increase beyond three, it would need a different kind of manager.
Suereth says his path, building Disjecta and steering it through three different facilities, has been a long road, traveled with little money.
“I’m proud to have been around at a time when I provided support for the artists and thinkers and do-ers who created the essence of Portland,” Suereth says.
“To this day, I believe Disjecta acts as a bulwark against the overwhelming crush of “new” Portland…in the sense that we maintain a connection to the original ethic that built our often imitated culture; bold ideas, risk-taking, anti-institutional swagger and, yes, weirdness.”
As for the board’s stated wish for more structure, Suereth says he freely acknowledged different leadership might be needed to grow Disjecta and make it sustainable.
But his version of the story shows a non-profit hampered by anemic board fundraising. He says he’d hoped to be around long enough to keep operations going, while the board found his replacement.
The organization is up to date on its lease. With year-end giving, Disjecta expects to end the year modestly in the black.
Which has led artists like Sean Healy to wonder, what was the rush to hustle Suereth out the door?
“We’re all a little bit put on our heels by this,” Healy said. “We’ve grown up in this city together. To see this happen it kind of makes us realize the city is changing.”
The situation puts board chair Chris D’Arcy in a strange position.
She spent twenty years at the helm of the Oregon Arts Commission, steering grants and policy, only to be shown the door in 2014, over to a mix of personality conflicts and clashing priorities — not unlike what led to the transition at Disjecta.
D’Arcy says believes Disjecta’s non-profit model is sustainable for now. It will, she says, keep on producing contemporary art events, and getting revenue from other groups’ use of its building.
“We are different than the [Portland] Art Museum and PICA and TBA,” D’Arcy said. “We do not charge admission. That may or may not be the right solution long-term.”
But D’Arcy says structurally, the organization has an effective model.
But Suereth says anytime a drastic change is made, there’s an understanding that results will need to follow.
“I certainly think the board is putting themselves in a very difficult position,” Suereth said. “Any transition must be collaborative, strategic and healthy to succeed. Funders are wary of uncertainty. I think most philanthropists gravitate toward more traditional arts: dance, theater, music.”
The board, he said, “have an onus now solely on their shoulders. It is not easy to run and produce contemporary art in the state of Oregon.”
Chris D’Arcy says she expects an interim executive director will be found to run Disjecta after Suereth’s departure, while the board searches for a permanent replacement.
(It’s not entirely clear what bait will be effective in that search. According to recent tax forms, Sureth has been working for tens of thousands of dollars below the city average for non-profit managers.)
For the rest of 2016, Disjecta will host events like a theater work re-interpreting the films of Rainer Fassbinder, a performance art piece about rape culture, and a new discussion series about art and identity,
Right now, the gallery holds the second of four shows by a Puerto Rican curator in residence, Michelle Fiedler.
Suereth says he’d like to help out with the third and fourth shows.