November 14th, 2007 5:33 pm | by RICHARD SPEER News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

Updated: Washington artists stack new PAM art awards

watt16_bigJennifer Gately, the Portland Art Museum's Schnitzer-endowed curator for Northwest art, has announced the five winners of the 2008 Contemporary Northwest Art Awards:

Dan Attoe of Washougal, Washington

Cat Clifford of Vashon, Washington

Jeffry Mitchell of Seattle, Washington

Whiting Tennis of Seattle, Washington

Marie Watt of Portland (see art, above)

Is there something odd about this ratio? Four Washington artists to one Oregon pick. Some Portland artists I've spoken with have suggested the awards be renamed the Contemporary Washington Art Awards With One Token Oregonian Thrown In.

Backgrounder: The Contemporary Northwest Art Awards are being handed out for the first time, essentially in lieu of holding an Oregon Biennial. Biennials are notoriously hard to curate. Gately did an admirable job last year, especially given the ridiculously short time frame she had to prepare it, but the last curator to put on a Biennial with a focused point-of-view was Kathryn Kanjo in 1999. To hone in on the essentials of a scene without diluting the exhibition into an overly expansive survey is an unenviable task, to be sure. Added to this was the impression among museum brass that the Biennials were too restrictive, perhaps even provincial, and could use some aeration.

The solution: Cast a wider net. Ergo, the CNA Awards solicited nominations for artists from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. 259 artists were considered, then whittled down to 28 finalists by Gately and two guest curators, James Rondeau and Thomas Dittmer. Gately did studio visits with the finalists before deciding on the five winners, all of whom will be featured in a three-month exhibition next summer, all of whom will receive a yet-to-be-determined honorarium, and one of whom will win the first annual Arlene Schnitzer Award for Northwest Art and a $10,000 prize. As curator Jeff Jahn has already pointed out on the visual arts blog Port (, a $10,000 prize is basically “Big whoop” territory now that New American Art Union owner Ruth Ann Brown has personally awarded ten local artists with grants of $8,000 apiece.

Gately's five picks are unimpeachable in that they are solid artists with impeccable pedigrees, and their work ranges a gamut that will satisfy tastes from establishment to edgy. But at a certain point, as an advocate for Portland artists, my knee begins to jerk, my Beaver State version of nationalism begins to kick in, and I wonder what message it sends to Portlanders, Oregonians, Washingtonians, and the larger art world to have a 4/1 ratio of out-of-staters winning “our” art awards.

We already suffer from the long- and widely held impression that Portland is Seattle's kid sister. Does Gately's roster make it appear we have to import artists from Washington in order to put on a respectable show? Not so, says Gately, who is quick to point out recent Oregon-centric acquisitions and exhibitions by the likes of Storm Tharpe, Jenene Nagy, George Johansen, Rick Bartow, Joe Jackson, Michael Brophy, and others. The selection process for the CNA Awards, she says, was geography-blind.

“There was no quota. It would compromise the integrity of the awards if the city the artists are from were to play a role in the selection of the work,” she told WW. “Our criteria had nothing to do with geography and everything to do with quality, innovation, continuity of vision, and a rigorous, coherent, and evolving studio practice. That being said, undoubtedly I considered the decision heavily and worried about it immensely, to the point where I would lose sleep, but it kept coming back to maintaining the integrity of the exhibition.”

As always with matters artistic, the proof will be in the pudding. The exhibit featuring the five winners runs June 14 to September 14 of next year. RICHARD SPEER.

Image of Marie Watt's "Wool of the West," 200, courtesy of
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