Fledgling arts organization YU Contemporary announced last week that director Sandra Percival was suddenly leaving her post after less than two years at the helm. YU co-founders Curtis Knapp and Flint Jamison made the announcement, with Knapp assuming duties as acting director the next day.
The announcement came two years after the organization promised much—setting expectations somewhere north of the moon—and delivered little. YU's stated mission is to bring internationally known artists to Portland, eventually filling the old Yale Union Laundry building with jaw-dropping contemporary art. The main exhibition hall is 14,000 square feet, a glorious, light-filled venue any artist would kill to show in. So far, however, not much of anything has been exhibited there—actual visual-arts programming has been anemic—while YU plods along a development trajectory that has been markedly nontransparent in its aims. Events designed to introduce the space to the public have consisted largely of art-scenesters walking the vast hall, wishing it were available immediately to local artists rather than promised eventually to out-of-towners.
Some think YU is a gigantic machine for the production of hot air. Others support its goals and chastise any naysaying as counterproductive to artistic growth in Portland's notoriously delicate creative ecosphere. That ecosphere is informed by the belief that big-money arts donors ally with one institution at the expense of others. Old money—so conventional wisdom goes—goes to the Portland Art Museum while nouveau-riche Pearl District types support PICA, and rich gay collectors buy art at the annual Cascade AIDS Project auction. The rest of the pot is divided among the galleries, with nonprofits competing for dollars like dogs growling and baring their teeth for the same bones. YU stuck its snout into a crowded pack, and there was much yelping.
Either way, YU's goals are being accomplished in town. There already is a nonprofit bringing in international art stars to mount exhibitions of remarkable caliber: Disjecta. On Jan. 21, it opened an installation by world-renowned art star Peter Halley, perhaps the biggest curatorial achievement since 1974, when the Portland Center for Visual Arts brought in late minimalist master Donald Judd. As Disjecta's cultural currency soars, YU wrings its hands with bureaucratic reshuffling. Don't count me among YU's advocates or detractors; I just wish the organization would show us the goods and put that glorious space to use.