More than a year after opening its splashy 12,000-square-foot exhibition space in NoPo’s Kenton neighborhood, plucky arts nonprofit Disjecta is surviving the economic meltdown and forging forward with an array of new multimedia shows and a contemporary art biennial slated for 2010. Head honcho Bryan Suereth is quick to credit Disjecta’s board of directors and volunteer staff for the organization’s endurance, but it’s clear that much of it comes from his own dogged tenacity and elbow grease. Weathered and wiser at 36, he is no longer the mercurial wunderkind who founded Disjecta back in September 2000 with an autocratic, my-way-or-the-highway temperament. Since those early days, Suereth has twice had to abandon exhibition spaces he’d worked hard to perfect—the first in what is now the Secret Society Ballroom, the second in the Templeton Building—and has seen the Portland art scene retract painfully from its heady mid-decade expansion. As long-standing galleries shuttered, Suereth has soldiered on. During a recent sit-down with WW, he was surprisingly egoless, circumspect and single-mindedly focused on Disjecta’s next decade.
WW: Are people really making the trek up to North Portland to see Disjecta’s shows?
Bryan Suereth: Yes. The art crowd will travel to see interesting things. Pat Rock [director of Rocksbox Fine Art] and I are both excited to be setting a pace for contemporary art up in this corridor. We hope other people take root here and start doing art in North Portland.
The Portland Art Museum decided its biennial was obsolete and deep-sixed it in favor of the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards. Why start up a new biennial?
When PAM took away the Oregon Biennial, we lost a platform that generated so much enthusiasm and debate, something I think was crucial to growing talent in this state. Nothing has really come around to replace it. Our biennial won’t be able to be as comprehensive as theirs was...but we’re hoping it’ll be more hands-on and dynamic. During the selection process, we’re doing studio visits rather than the archaic slide presentation that the museum did. You can’t evaluate artwork through slides!
How is Disjecta doing financially?
Well, more than a year into programming this space, we feel we’ve proven ourselves a much more attractive entity to foundations and private donors, which have always been the toughest nut to crack. But keeping donations consistent is difficult. Are we guaranteed to exist at this same time next year? Hell no. But we have a stable business plan that continues to work, and we have no debt. That being said, we’d like to be accumulating more savings.
Are you paid a salary?
I’m paid periodically if funds are available. This year so far I’ve been paid $5,000.
Obviously you can’t live off that.
Um, no. I supplement my income with odd jobs, building projects, remodeling, things like that.
What has to happen to make arts organizations here sustainable?
There needs to be more emphasis on infrastructure from a governmental perspective. We’ve been talking with the mayor’s office; we’re looking for organizational support from the Regional Arts Culture Council…but it’s hard in this town. We’ve seen art centers come and go. We’ve seen PICA metamorphose from what was a contemporary art center into what is essentially a festival. Again and again we see it’s not enough to extol the virtues of how creative this city is. If you don’t have infrastructure and funding, you lose the ability to attract and keep creative people and their ideas. In the past, we’ve seen people who were burgeoning superstars move on to places with more opportunities: Miranda July went to L.A., Zefrey Throwell went to San Francisco and New York. You know, some people say infrastructure is an old model—that an arts organization can have virtual shows. That’s bullshit. There’s a need for people to look at art and interact with artists in real space and real time.
What’s coming up in the space?
We’re excited about our art auction on Nov. 7, which will have work by almost 60 artists. Anna Fidler has a beautiful show opening on the 14th called The Game. She’s doing large-scale portraits of the Blazers and scenes inspired by the energy and physicality of the game. We also have a new “gallery within a gallery” called the Vestibule, which is this cozy little entry hallway where we’re going to be showing emerging artists.
Since Disjecta began, times have changed, and it seems like you have, too.
I’m probably a little softer and more flexible now in terms of listening to other perspectives in the community. I’m still confident, but I probably have less bravado. In some sense I’ll always be an iconoclast, though. I like to get things done and not languish, even if that means going against the grain. I think that’s a good thing.
SEE IT: Disjecta Third Annual Art Auction at Disjecta, 8371 N Interstate Ave., 286-9449. 7 pm Saturday, Nov. 7. $20. Upcoming gallery shows include Anna Fidler’s The Game and David Stein’s Monarch (in the Vestibule). Both shows run Nov. 14-Dec. 20. Opening reception for both shows at 6 pm Saturday, Nov. 14. More info at disjecta.org.