Stephanie Snyder's ambitions are big. When she took over as director of Reed College's Cooley Gallery in April 2003, she set her sights on nothing short of an infusion of pizzazz. For Snyder, taking Reed's art venues from stuffy to stylin' is the latest in a long line of challenges met and mastered.

Snyder grew up in Southwest Portland and graduated from Reed before heading East: New York, Moscow, Athens. Eventually, the West Coast beckoned her back, and after post-grad work at the University of California-Berkeley and an installation-artist stint in San Francisco, she finally made the trek home to Portland to curate at her alma mater.

Though she's led many lives, Snyder doesn't look it. When we met recently at Papa Haydn in Sellwood, I was shocked to learn she's 40--she could pass for a decade younger. Spunky, passionate and far cooler than you'd expect a spendy-private-college curator to be, she regaled me with her designs on Reed, Portland and the world beyond.

WW: After all your adventures, what was it like coming back to Portland?

Stephanie Snyder: Great. I threw myself back into the scene by curating Second Cycle for Core Sample last year. I've also lectured five times so far over at PNCA [Pacific Northwest College of Art] and started a K-12 educational outreach program called "Open Gallery" at Reed. Since February, we've had more than 800 young people come through the Cooley Gallery.

What's your take on the "Is Portland a world-class art town or not?" debate?

I don't think we give ourselves enough credit. I think the notion that Portland art people don't really know what's going on outside the Northwest isn't true. There's this wonderful coalescing and exploding going on in Portland, such a great energy and optimism. I see it in the work of people like Melody Owen, Chandra Bocci, Paige Saez, Bill Morrison, M.K. Guth, Nan Curtis, and on and on.

What turns you on as a curator?

I experience art very sensually. I've studied a lot of Jewish spirituality, and I truly believe that art can affect culture, even if it's in a quiet way. Curation, to me, is something more than just choosing this artist or that. A good curator is able to position art in space in a way that makes you imagine the world as it might otherwise be.

What do you have coming up that's exciting?

I've ambitions to build an additional gallery on campus that's more accessible to the community. And I've started a program called CaseWorks, in which we put art in these wonderful, antique-style exhibition cases in the middle of the library. It's great to just happen upon art without actually having to go to a gallery. Overall, I'm really excited about helping local artists and working together with Lewis & Clark, PSU, Marylhurst, and the other schools and institutions to present a richer picture of what's happening here. I think Portland needs more democratic, community-centered arts spaces that allow artists and curators to submit not only artwork but ideas. We're all kind of poor here, and so instead of just trying to get rich, we're more interested in making art that really says something.

Reed College

Michael C. McMillen's mixed-media and video installation,

Red Trailer Motel. Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, 3203 SE Woodstock Blvd., 777-7790. Closes June 13.