Fresh-faced and energetic, professional yet unguarded, Jennifer Gately, 35, is the new kid on the South Park Blocks. The Portland Art Museum's recently hired curator for Northwest art (a position endowed by Harold and Arlene Schnitzer) arrived in Oregon in January via Idaho, where she was visual-arts director at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts. The first item on her agenda at PAM was a daunting one: to curate the Oregon Biennial, a two-month showcase of local and regional artists kicking off this July that is arguably the most important visual-arts exhibition in the region. Gately had to whittle a field of 760 applicants down to a more manageable 34, knowing her picks would be cattily scrutinized by art scenesters and the local press. Adding kindling to this trial by fire is the fact that the past two Biennials, in 2001 and 2003 (preparations for the new Mark Building were so all consuming that PAM postponed this latest Biennial until '06), were roundly panned for curator Bruce Guenther's choices, widely seen as out of touch with artists working in new media such as digital film and video installation. Gately's challenge was to absorb and contextualize the local arts community, in which she is only a newcomer, while also putting her own stamp on the event.
Will her selections be able to fill that tall order? Gately's refreshingly eclectic picks, announced March 18, range the gamut from redoubtable warhorses like Lucinda Parker and mid-career artists like Michael Brophy to fashionably postmodern Gen-Xers such as Brad Adkins. Of particular note are Gately's championing of two brilliant artists who were slighted during the 2003 Biennial: wildly inventive installation wunderkind Chandra Bocci and multimedia virtuoso Matthew Picton, both of whom are among the most exciting West Coast-based artists working today.
WW recently sat down with Gately on a less-than-comfy sofa outside the reference library in PAM's Mark Building to discuss her strategy for the Biennial, her art background and life outside the museum.
WW: Everyone wants to know about the process of narrowing down the field for the Biennial. How was that?
Jennifer Gately: It consumed me. I went through the slides numerous times, narrowing that pool down, talking to artists on the phone and by email.... In terms of seeing people personally, I tried to do two or three studio visits every day. I probably overdid it, but I felt it was necessary because I'm such an outsider here. It was just the right thing to do. In terms of strategy, I really don't want to dictate something that's just a reflection of me; I want to be more of a filter for what's going on out there.
What's your overall mission as a curator?
Well, I'm always being struck by something new. If you look at my history, it's all over the place. I've done shows where I've had the Hudson River School [of 19th-century painters] and contemporary video installation pieces side by side. I'm very open. So here in town, I'll be out and about quite a bit, visiting artists, going to galleries. If you really want to see work as a curator, you have to get out.
How did you get interested in the arts?
My parents were real Renaissance folks. We traveled a great deal, went to a lot of museums. When I was 16, we went to the Tate in London, and I remember standing in front of a Francis Bacon painting and just being shocked by it. Just enchanted. It triggered something in me.
What are your interests outside the art world?
Wow, is there life outside the art world? [Laughs.] Well, I used to be a surfer. I'm still an excellent skier, although last year I was so busy, I only skied twice. And I love music of all kinds. In my car right now is Steve Reich, Stephen Vitiello, Pinback...oh, and the Watery Graves—local boys!
Now that the Biennial selections are behind you, can you breathe a small sigh of relief?
I won't breathe a sigh of relief until the show is over and the last work finds its way safely home. This year's Biennial will be one of transition, representing both a deep history and an exciting look into tomorrow. I feel like I've just scratched the surface, though, and I'm already looking forward to the next Biennial [in 2008].
The Oregon Biennial 2006 runs July 29-October 8 at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 SW Park Ave., 226-2811. Take a look at the full list of Gately's Biennial artists at www.wweek.com/editorial/3219/7345/.