The Portland Art Museum has agreed to provide a home for the Art Gym. A much-loved place in Portland’s contemporary art community, the Gym served as an idea lab for dozens of Northwest artists at pivotal points in their careers. It provided exhibition space and publication power that let artists try bigger, bolder ideas — artwork that might not find a home at commercial galleries — and a polished record in book form of each show.
The Art Gym is one chapter in 2018’s dramatic story of contraction in the Portland art scene, with the commercial real estate market squeezing commercial galleries and nonprofits and major institutions dialing back their commitments to art.
Part of Marylhurst University, the Gym was left stranded when the college announced its closure last summer. A plan was hatched in July, spearheaded by Michael Davidson of the Robert and Mercedes Eichholz Foundation, to find a new home for the space, which would have moved the Art Gym’s curator and publications to Oregon College of Art and Craft. But in a matter of weeks the plan ran aground as OCAC experienced a leadership change. Since then, Davidson and former Art Gym curator Terri Hopkins have worked urgently to find another solution.
The Portland Art Museum may now offer a way out.
The museum has agreed to take over the Art Gym’s publication library, ensuring public access to more than 80 exhibition catalogues, complete with scholarly essays and annotations, chronicling the careers of artists like Vanessa Renwick, Samantha Wall, Manuel Arturo Abreu and others.
In a written statement, Museum Director Brian Ferriso said, “As one of the foremost sources of information about the history of Oregon visual arts in Portland, our research center is well positioned to steward these important materials, and to ensure their access for many generations.”
“That was the point of the whole thing,” says the Eichholz Foundation’s Michael Davidson.
“To — somewhere — deal with up and coming regional artists. For example, had there been a [curator like] Terri Hopkins here back in the ‘40s, when [painter Mark] Rothko was here, he may not have had such a bad taste in his mouth about Oregon.”
Former Art Gym curator Terri Hopkins said, “I believe the museum’s commitment to producing exhibitions for Oregon artists will prove important for our artists and the Museum.” She added the depth of PAM’s curatorial bench, including Modern and Conteporary art curator Sara Krajewski and Curator of Northwest Art Grace Kook-Anderson, would be critical to ensuring the exhibition schedule could cover a breadth of contemporary artists and disciplines, just as the Art Gym did.
The timeline for the transfer of the Art Gym assets is somewhat unclear. A spokeswoman for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum told OPB the state has no formal role in the dispensation of Marylhurst’s assets, suggesting the university’s attorneys are steering the process. The Gym’s publication library is in the process of being moved to the museum’s Crumpacker Library, with public access assured.
The endowment that funded the Gym’s curator and exhibitions is a thornier problem. Maryhurst’s attorneys provided a written statement that reads:
“Under state law, Marylhurst needs to seek court approval for the distribution of some endowments, like the Eichholz fund, and it is in the process of doing that. The university remains hopeful that all of the funds will eventually serve to preserve the legacy of The Art Gym at the Portland Art Museum.”
What won’t transfer is the curator chosen in 2017 to lead the Art Gym. Ashley Stull Meyers, one of the few women of color holding full-time curatorial positions in the Northwest, was not asked to oversee the new exhibitions.
“It’s the one thing I regret,” Terri Hopkins said, but she expressed hope that Meyers — who’s signed on as co-curator of Disjecta’s Oregon Biennial — would have other chances to contribute to the community. Meyers has been enlisted to write an essay for a Portland Art Museum group show, “the map is not the territory,” opening Feb. 9.
The agreement is not a total win for the Art Gym, but the transfer puts it on a vastly firmer footing. For the museum, the transfer presents some new possibilities. Over the past few years, PAM has made some moves toward a deeper embrace of living, local artists, with a stepped-up schedule of exhibitions in the APEX Gallery, and a yearlong engagement with Portland Museum of Modern Art curator Libby Werbel.
Homing the Art Gym has the potential to expand PAM’s commitment to engaging with the community. But where, when and how those engagements will take place must still be worked out.