It's just over two weeks before Blake Shell starts as Disjecta's executive director, and Bryan Suereth, her predecessor, is still occupying a section of the gallery's building.
Suereth founded Disjecta 15 years ago, helping it become one of Portland's most prominent contemporary art organizations. Disjecta features a different curator in residence each season, and also helms the Portland Biennial, one of the city's largest showcases of contemporary regional artists.
The Biennial is just a year away, and Shell has the unenviable task of taking over an institution in tumult.
To get you caught up: Last November, Disjecta's board of directors announced it had asked Suereth to leave the organization Dec. 31. In mid-January, Suereth sent out a foreboding mass email in which he warned that "we should all be worried" about Disjecta's future. He claimed he had been squeezed out of his position "under the thumb of an overeager board," and that "only in the weird world of nonprofits would a group that invests 1 percent in a business feel empowered to upend a flourishing entity and remove the founding director without cause."
A day later, Disjecta's board responded with its own letter to the public. Most of Disjecta's board members have financial backgrounds, and they're chaired by Christine D'Arcy, who was controversially dismissed from her previous position as the Oregon Arts Commission's executive director, in part because of concern that she lacked artistic vision. The letter claimed that "consistent, seasoned leadership skills ongoing and responsive communication are also what we need to be able to bring Disjecta to the next level of artistic excellence."
After several paragraphs of tersely diplomatic language, the board members revealed that on his final day, Suereth produced a lease that granted him use of Disjecta's studios until 2018. Months later, they're still working on an uncoupling.
So, yes: As Shell plans next year's event, her unhappy predecessor still has a desk in the building. But sitting in the cafe of a market on Northeast Sandy Boulevard, Shell seems above the controversy swirling around her.
"I can't really speak to what came before me," she says. "But I'm aware of the rumors."
With her thick-rimmed glasses, large scarf and sculpted eyebrows, Shell emits a vibe that is distinctly "art world professional." When talking about (or, rather, not talking about) Suereth, she seems less obstinately professional than genuinely indifferent about the conflict that led to the job opening.
If board members were looking for more traditional leadership, they're getting it with Shell. Unlike Suereth, who founded Disjecta sort of out of the blue, Shell's 15-year career has been working with existing nonprofits. At her previous position, as director and head curator at Marylhurst University's Art Gym, she doubled the operating budget. She isn't planning any radical changes to the organization at Disjecta.
"The curator and residence program and the Biennial are already very successful," she says. "So I'm not looking to change anything about the programming."
But Shell's hiring is still a sea change for Disjecta: She'll be its first director who isn't also its founder—and so her tenure will be the test of how the arts organization will survive.
Shell's vision for Disjecta is more about financial pragmatism than artistic vision, which she's content to leave in the control of the curators in residence. She says she views curation as a form of research—reporting what's happening in the art scene as opposed to constructing a vision of it.
"I'm looking for things that are happening in the field and things that are resonating with different audiences," she says. "As long as the artist's work fits within the context of the show, I really try to step back."
One of the changes she's looking to implement is getting Disjecta certified by W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Great Economy), a third-party program providing standards on how much to pay artists for their work. The Art Gym became certified under Shell's leadership.
"Disjecta is already paying artists," she says. "But I think that getting certified does two things: It shows artists in the community that there are standards in place, but also it encourages other organizations to consider paying artists."
The fact that Shell is so collaboratively inclined and financially minded makes it hard to tell what sort of creative influence she'll have. It's also probably what made her such an appealing candidate. The 2016 Biennial was wildly ambitious—perhaps too much so.
Previously, most participating venues had been in Portland. Last year's event included more than 20 venues scattered across Oregon. The board's many mentions of experienced leadership are likely coded criticism of how the Biennial went down. The size was difficult to manage, and many felt Suereth had taken on more than he could handle. Resources were spread thin, and many artists felt neglected.
Shell describes the last Biennial as "a very exciting thing and a big endeavor to take on," but the next one "may not necessarily be at the same scale." She says the Biennial's yet-to-be-announced curator will determine the event's size, not her.
"The component of having different curatorial voices at Disjecta," she says, "does mean that things will shift in terms of the different visions."
However, Shell believes it's necessary for the Portland art scene to focus on interacting with national and international art markets.
"[Several years ago], there became kind of this rallying cry in Oregon and the Pacific Northwest to focus on artists of the Pacific Northwest," she says. "Now I feel like Portland's past that. So that natural next stage is, 'How do we get the work out there?'"
Although Shell has expansionist goals, she's starkly moderate and passive compared to Suereth, who built Disjecta from a tiny space on North Russell Street to its current studio in a former bowling alley.
It'll be a year until we know what those goals entail.
The programing for Disjecta's current season is already in place, and Shell doesn't officially start until April 10, two days after Michele Fielder opens Sensory Gymnastics, her final exhibit in her year as resident curator.
For now, Shell is biding her time.
"Different executive directors have different ways of doing things," she says. "But I'm looking forward to collaborating and connecting with people in the community."