You know what they say about things that seem too good to be true. When I first walked into Portland Art Center's gargantuan 10,000-square-foot space in the Goldsmith Building 2 1/2 years ago, I had a feeling this might be one of those things, a feeling born out by this weekend's announcement that PAC is shutting its doors, ostensibly for good. The circumstances leading up to this closure have been the subject of much gossip and armchair quarterbacking, and ultimately have exposed the weakest links in a local art scene often presumed to be unqualifiedly strong. The closure does not come as a terrific surprise, given that its seeds were sown in an expansiveness that was perhaps overzealous. Also, with its recent mass resignation, PAC's board of directors left executive director Gavin Shettler and director of programs Kelly Rauer twisting in the wind, with little choice but to cut the noose.
I have covered Gavin Shettler since 2002, when he presided over an eponymous gallery at the Everett Station Lofts. Through his subsequent association with the Modern Zoo and PAC, he has proven himself one of the finest curators in the Northwest. He has a gift for conceptualizing, organizing and installing shows, as well as a likable personality and a strong sense of integrity. In my experience, Gavin Shettler is a guy you could give a briefcase with a million dollars in it, leave it with him overnight, and not have to count it the next day. That being said, excellent curatorial skills and being a stand-up mensch of a guy do not necessarily a great fundraiser or nonprofit director make. Fully competent as the Center's creative point-person, Shettler was probably in over his head as administrator and money man. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, his reach wound up exceeding his grasp, especially in an anemic collector climate largely focused on the Portland Art Museum and, to a lesser extent, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art.
One of Shettler and his followers' key missteps was trying to grow PAC too big too fast. If you are the Emperor of France, great; if you try to conquer Europe, you will find your Waterloo. I always liked PAC's previous location on Southeast Belmont Street: smallish, intimate, yet with ceilings high enough to accommodate major installations such as John Mace's creepy medical nightmare, The Sending . It was, in short, the perfect size for an emerging visual arts organization. The move to Chinatown in 2005, seductive as developer David Gold's offer was, will go down as overambitious. The space was a great, wondrous cavern, the programming wildly generous, the shows consistently well-staged and conceptually engaging. The first-floor Main Gallery, as well as the second-floor Light and Sound Gallery and Open Space Community Gallery, provided superb opportunities for artists to exhibit works that would neither be shown nor saleable in commercial galleries in a city such as Portland: Harvest Henderson's chandelier hung with dangling apples; Viktor Popovic's mountain of jumbled chairs; Adam Bailey's glowing salt pillars; Abi Spring and TJ Norris' sinuous mirrors; and Scott Wayne Indiana's 37 axes chopping into the ceiling. These and other shows, and the gorgeous, lofty Goldsmith Building itself, seemed to be sustained by the sheer willpower and charisma of Shettler, Rauer and their trusty volunteer staff.
Willpower and charisma, however, are not enough to run an arts organization, especially in a town that pays enormous lip service to its "creative class" but consistently refuses to put its money where its mouth is. This is a town reverberating with jackhammers and pile-drivers as new condo towers go up in every quadrant—condos largely appointed with cheaply framed posters, prefab Urban Outfitters "art," and bland, interior-decorator claptrap instead of serious contemporary art made by serious local artists, sold in serious local galleries. "Yuppies" and "hipsters" may be straw men, but if you have been to Anthropologie on a Tuesday afternoon or District on a Friday night, you know these dubious creatures are alive and well in the Pearl, blessed with an overabundance of money, cursed with an underabundance of taste. These are not the people who came to PAC openings or supported its programming. The people who cared most about PAC were the artists who showed there and the scrappy art groupies who loved challenging work. PAC's charm and downfall was that it engaged a slice of the community brimming over with passion but short on cash and connections.
Much has been made of Henry Hillman Jr.'s ill-fated, eleventh-hour effort to rescue and reorganize PAC late last year. Hillman and the Board were not satisfied at Shettler's bookkeeping or communication skills, and Shettler was ticked that Hillman thought he should resign. I know Hillman, and I know Shettler. I respect them both. I have never examined PAC's check registers, nor do I believe a PAC without Gavin Shettler in at least some capacity would be worth going to. On the other hand, a PAC with Shettler as head curator and a more experienced financial director, both working in tandem with a proactive, well-connected board—now there's something that might've worked. But at this late hour, such speculation is too little too late. As Peter Fonda says to Dennis Hopper at the end of Easy Rider , "We blew it." One of the best arts organizations in the Northwest is no more, thanks to a massive clusterfuck: a tsunami spawned by the collision of deep currents of artistic talent with a shockingly shallow pool of well-to-do art lovers who actually walk the walk—and a captain who steered the ship into the big wave anyway. Alas.