Seeds Scattered: What Will Happen To Marylhurst University’s Arts Programs?

By April Baer (OPB)
Portland, Ore. July 19, 2018 5:59 a.m.

Several hundred sweltering people packed the Art Gym, Marylhurst University's storied gallery and performance space, Tuesday night for a performance called “Valediction."


Performers such as the sublime experimental vocalist Holland Andrews and the visionary musician Myles de Bastion pushed the limits of sound in the beautifully restored 1929 brick building that houses the gym.

Myles de Bastion, of CymaSpace, in a performance at the Art Gym.

Myles de Bastion, of CymaSpace, in a performance at the Art Gym.

April Baer / OPB

The crowd was in awe. It was symbolic of the experience the Art Gym has provided over the years to people like Amanda Clem and Zemie Barr.

“It has been just a gem,” Clem said.

Clem and Barr work at downtown's Blue Sky Gallery; Clem also hosts a KBOO arts show, and Barr co-founded Wolff Gallery, a venue for underrepresented artists. Both have favorite shows at the Arm Gym. For Clem, it was Srijon Chowdury's towering, spectral oil paintings last winter.

"They look like stained glass paintings, set in the gymnasium with the wooden floors and the tall ceilings," Clem says. "It was a religious experience event, like an art church."

"I really appreciated the focus on Northwest artists, and the BFA exhibitions," Barr said of shows that featured some of Marylhurst's up-and-comers in Art Studies.

The Gym gave more than a few careers a critical push. For each exhibition, the Gym's curator makes a high-quality exhibit catalogue available to other museums, curators and the artists themselves. 

"The publications are really the greatest record of contemporary visual art in the Pacific Northwest," said Blake Shell, who spent four years curating the Art Gym.

Without those publications, even standout art shows can sometimes disappear from memory. But with professional catalogues, artists leveraged their Art Gym shows into other exhibitions and new work.

“There are over 80 catalogues," Shell said. "They are the record of so much.”

Art Gym curator Ashley Stull Meyers hopes to resume exhibitions in the Gym's new home at OCAC sometime this fall.

Art Gym curator Ashley Stull Meyers hopes to resume exhibitions in the Gym's new home at OCAC sometime this fall.

April Baer, OPB.

Supporters of the arts were shocked to hear

the university is closing at the end of the year

, as part of Marylhurt's closure. But on Tuesday night, they got good news:

the Art Gym’s programming and curator have a new home

— Oregon College of Art and Craft — starting October 1.

The Hoffman Gallery space at OCAC’s Southwest Portland campus may be slightly smaller, but curator Ashley Stull Meyers said she was relieved and grateful the Gym is landing with an institution that supports its exhibition and publication schedule.

“OCAC is going to allow us even more opportunity to realize all those things,” Stull Meyers said, who has made a name for herself during a relatively short tenure programming vanguard work with a focus on artists of color. “And artists are going to be incredibly excited to be a part of that campus."

Founding curator Terri Hopkins said the mission of showing work by Northwest artists proved to be the Art Gym's most important contribution.

"I'll miss coming to this physical space," Hopkins said. She was one of those working behind the scenes to find a new home for the gallery and its work.

OCAC President Denise Mullen says it's a privilege to give the Art Gym its future. And if a progressive contemporary art gallery seems like an odd choice for a craft-centered school, it shouldn't.

"The idea of craft is at the heart of the college,"Mullen said, "but it's very much a traditional art college." She adds that a number of OCAC faculty have shown at the Art Gym over the years, including Michelle Ross, Bobbi Woods, Heidi Schwegler.

While many academic fields suffered when Marylhurst's board voted to close, the region's creative sector seemed especially grieved. Creativity wasn't just central to the Marylhurst brand; it was a key tool the school used to talk about how non-traditional students could re-educate for a changing workplace.

Among its hundred-plus majors were respected programs in music, writing, art and art therapy. Rose notes some academic programs have already found new havens.

Most notably, Lewis & Clark College has taken on Marylhurst's art therapy masters program. Dr. Mary Andrus, who directs the graduate program is among the staff transitioning to Lewis & Clark. 

"We weighed the pros and cons of various institutions," Andrus said, "and landed here, seeing it as the best for for current students as well as the future of art therapy in this community."

Andrus said one or two people who have taught at Marylhurst in the past will be coming back to the program in its new incarnation.

"It'll be very similar," she said. "It'll just be in a different location."

But plenty of gnarly questions remain about other Marylhurst programs and assets. For example, while Oregon College of Art and Craft has agreed to fund the Art Gym in its new location, it will do so — at least at first — without the benefit of the Gym's million-dollar endowment.

"We are not actually in control of the dispersement of our endowment funds," said Marylhurst president Melody Rose. "We have 45 separate endowed accounts which support various activities. We consult with the original donors to those funds, and share with them, this decision to move the practice and the work, and invite them to give their perspective. But ultimately that decision lies with Oregon's Attorney General."

Rose said Marylhurst will recommend that Art Gym funds remain with the Art Gym. 

A spokeswomen for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenbaum confirmed staff attorneys are working with Marylhurst on the dispensation of assets, but could not yet provide more detail.

Marylhurst's treasures are not all intellectual in nature. The campus is home to a long list of art and artifacts: rare books donated to the university library, a vibrantly-colored Marc Chagall print hanging in the school's administration building, even a complete wood-and-glass house designed by noted Oregon architect Pietro Belluschi.

Different gifts were made to the university with various restriction, Rose said. Generally, she said art assets can't be sold until university debts are settled with vendors, staff and the lawyers handling with the university's closure.

But the school's board and president have released virtually no information about Marylhurst's outstanding debt.

"I'm not at liberty to share that number with you," Rose said.

Assessors are on campus this week calculating school assets.

Portland's arts ecosystem has been badly rattled in recent years by the crumbling of go-to galleries aligned with higher education, including the University of Oregon's White Box and the Museum of Contemporary Craft within the Pacific Northwest College of Art. Rose and Mullen offered assurances that the move to OCAC would give the Art Gym long-term stability, but Mullen acknowledged that "at this point, it's a verbal assurance."

If, under a worst-case scenario, the Art Gym endowment never made it out of Marylhurst's dissolution, Mullen predicted that foundations and private donors' dedication to the Art Gym's mission could be counted on to step up and carry the program forward.

Many of Marylhurst's enrolled students, alumni, faculty and staff are bitter about the lack of transparency from Rose and the board. The school rolled out a new low-residency MFA in creative writing just one week before the board was asked to vote to close the school.

It may be that the creativity embodied in Marylhurst's ideals can suggest ways forward.

Jay Ponteri has been with the English department 19 years. He created that newly-announced MFA, an ambitious program centered on instructors in the queer community and people of color. He delivered a commencement address in June that saluted the widely varied lives of Marylhurst students.

"One student, feeling unsure of herself, like she doesn't belong in an academic setting, like it's too good for her, enters the classroom," he said. "One student, amidst divorce thus now beginning her life as a single parent, enters the classroom and becomes full-time student. Having spent time in jail then recovered from addiction, another student enters the classroom."

He continued, citing students returning from military deployments, or reaching beyond the worlds they grew up in.

"Every one of these students teach me to become a teacher," he said. "… I learned to speak back with words that listen to the words of others … I thank you for helping me to become what I was not … what I will be long after the doors of this school close."

Marylhurst is allowing Ponteri to keep the materials and work he did on the new writing MFA program. He's seeking a school that might want to make part of the Marylhurst brand its own.