Last week, Southeast Morrison Street arts organization Yale Union announced that its founder and executive director has been replaced.
Yale Union is one of Portland's most prolific importers of international contemporary art. On top of cutting edge exhibits, the Buckman arts hub regularly hosts free talks and performances by a wide range of experimental artists including poets, musicians and visual artists. This spring, YU will host the largest US exhibit to date of the work of lauded experimental artist Jef Geys, who passed away earlier this year. But in its ten years of existence, many Portland publications, including WW, have criticized the organization its for lack of transparency.
Curtis Knapp co-founded the multimedia arts organization ten years ago with visual artist Aaron Flint Jamison. Knapp has served as executive director ever since his predecessor, Sandra Percival, stepped down after less than two years with the organization.
Knapp quietly tendered his resignation on March 1, and has not responded to requests for comment as to his reasons. Five days later, YU announced that Seattle curator Yoko Ott had been appointed as his replacement. During her 20 year long career as curator in Seattle, Ott has gained a reputation for curating unconventional exhibits. She's worked on staff at the Frye Museum and was a founding director of the New Foundation Seattle. Four months prior to the appointment, Yale Union hired Ott on staff as a deputy director.
WW talked to Jamison and Ott about the future of YU.
WW: Is it fair to say this is the most significant leadership shift since Yale Union was founded?
Aaron Flint Jamison: I don't know if I can quantify some of the other changes in out history. This will be our third executive director and we're thrilled with the appointment.
How did you guys find each other?
One of the shows I did was in Bellevue Washington, which is where Microsoft was founded, and the institution there I did the exhibition was called Open Satellite. It was a very ambitious show and the director of that institution at the time was Yoko Ott. And Yoko, was that in 2010?
Yoko Ott: I think we started our conversation in 2009 and the show was in 2010.
Jamison: So after that, Yoko and I kind of established rapport around institutions in the Northwest. She went on to become a founding director in the New Foundation and I was on that board for awhile, and subsequently Yoko was on Yale Union's board.
Ott: Working with Flint on that original exhibition that he realized at Open Satellite pretty much solidified how much I wanted to maintain a relationship with him. It was a very ambitious art project. When you work with someone on something that's as ambitious as it was, you pretty much become brothers.
Flint, when you and Curtis founded Yale Union, you had experience in a lot of different art forms, but not necessary curation. Do either of you think that it will be a change to have someone with as much experience as Yoko helming the organization?
Ott: I don't know if I wouldn't label it as change. I think Yale Union is the type of institution that welcomes anything that's unconventional. I think that one of the reasons why Flint and I felt so confident in working together—or that he and the board felt confident in me—is this unconventional background, but also balancing that with an established professional experience as an administrator. I don't see myself as changing the dynamic so much as furthering the excellence that YU is known for.
Jamison: I think Yoko is trying to humbly say that she's both a professional and a punk. The institution is moving from this zygote stage into a bratty teenager or something. We're maturing and Yoko's leadership is really welcomed, and the evolution of the institution is beholden to this professionalism.
When you say that the institution is maturing, what does that look like?
Ott: We have this beautiful building that is quite old and needs a lot of tender love and care. And so there's going to be a lot of focus on the building itself and addressing needs of the building. Something that I value is art workers and the human capital that it takes to be excellent cultural producers, so I'm particularly interested in making sure that we're tending to the needs of the staff, professionalizing in a way that allows them to thrive, creating more pathways for growth in the institution for people who have been working there making individuals who have been pillars at the organization for a long time more legible to the public, making sure that everyone who is doing the hard work there feel respected and feel like they're just thriving within the walls of Yale Union.
So the changes will be mainly administrative, or will there be changes in terms of programming?
Jamison: Our mission isn't changing in any way, and we're really clear about that. There's a new vision, but the mission is singular. We commission new works and we try to work with artists in ways that support new modes of production. We have the luxury of the space and the production facilities and a curatorial staff that is all focused on commissioning new work. So there'll still be the focus and attention on bringing art, like international work to Portland.
Ott: I think that one of the things that I've noticed is that Yale Union, in the ethos of trying not to ove promote itself, there's a lot of things that happen within the walls of Yale Union that people don't know.
It's such a large building and it actually host a lot of other organizations' activities, from Liberation Literacy to Tender Table to the End of Summer exchange program. So these things have gone largely unrecognized, and so one of the things that we're going to be doing is making that more visible so that they understand that there is this history of a lot of community partnership. And we are currently working on articulating to the public that this is something that is very important to Yale Union, this is something that we have done, this is something that we're hoping to do more of.
Jamison: More community partnership are going to happen. The asset that we have, this space, we want to share it more with members of our community.
Ott: I think for a long time, internally, we've wrestled with how to celebrate everything that happens within the walls of Yale Union as a place that intends to be porous with our neighbors and intends to be welcoming to these community partnerships with how to speak about the rigor of the exhibition program and the music program. I think making some clarity around that is going to start becoming more apparent as YU imagines how it can operate at full capacity.
Had you already started implementing some of those refinements as deputy director?
Ott: Yes, in the sense that I opened up the conversation.
Jamison: By that she means opened up a spreadsheet file for the first time.
Ott: Yeah. Heaving the opportunity to come and start peering in all the files and saying like "What is this awesome program that's here every month? How come no one knows about it?" There really has been some capacity issues. This has been a small staff that is trying to tend to the needs of a small organization in a large building, there's a lot of activities there. That's what I've been doing over the past months essentially: observing, making notes trying to figure out where refinement can happen and trying to figure out where we start to really highlight the things that haven't been visible to the public, while also supporting the curatorial team to continue programming at the level that they've been programming.
So Flint, did you bring Yoko on staff to start implementing those changes, or did you decide to bring Yoko on staff and then she helped determine that that's what the organization needed?
Jamison: Oh, the former. Yeah.
Did the deputy director position exist before Yoko, or did you create it for Yoko?
Jamison: The latter.
Ott: 2018 is the ten year anniversary of Yale Union. And so going into the next ten years, we're like poised to start addressing some of the bigger needs of the organization, mainly the seismic upgrade of the building. And so the team kind of came together and realized that given the scope of what a project like that entails, bringing somebody in that had my experience to start assisting with some of the basic kind of administrative needs would be really helpful.
Flint, I did want to ask you a little but more about Curtis's departure. You said over email that he left for personal reasons, so does that mean that it was his decision to no longer work with the organization?
Jamison: Yeah, he tendered his own resignation.
Was that something the organization foresaw or did it come as a surprise?
Jamison: You know, he chose to do this. He gave ten years to Yale Union. He worked to create this organization and his vision was really valued from the perspective of the board and the organization, and yeah, I guess we just respect his desire to focus on other things. And we're really grateful for his service. Yeah.
Did you know before he tendered his resignation that he was planning on stepping down?
It, like—I guess, I don't know how to answer whether or not there was a plan around his resignation, but I can say no, it did come as a surprise to us, but it also felt natural in some way because of this ten-year reunion. It literally came on the day of the institution founding itself in 2008.
I was wondering if part of that was part of the reason for creating the deputy director position four months before his resignation?
We're doing our best to have foresight and vision, and kind of like establishing Yoko and her kind of administrative ninja talents within the institution was a priority for us—we're doing our best to take care of it as it moves forward. So yeah, we feel really lucky to have Yoko and her vision moving forward.
It seems like kind of a big deal to have a founder step down, and I was wondering why there isn't more information?
He cited his personal reason, and our goal in any kind of transition like this is to respect the privacy of the individual who would make that kind of decision, and so that's what we've done. We're really excited to move on and we're really grateful and feel lucky to have such great leadership.
Is there anything else about the new era of Yale Union either of you would like to talk about?
Ott: These kind of transitions are commonplace, and it always creates an opportunity both internally and externally for people to reengage with the organization. I'm excited about looking at this moment as a defining moment for Yale Union and I'm committed to its mission of supporting artists and positing new modes of production. And so when I say defining moment, I mean it has not been defined yet.
I was the founding director of something before, and so I know what it means to not be associated with something that you've founded. And to me in the healthiest of scenarios, the thing that is founded, it'a like a child, and you want this thing to grow up to be sufficient, you know, to have its own identity beyond you. And so I think what I would like to applaud Curtis for is that he's done that. To get it to a place where it is, as Flint said a moment ago, like a bratty teenager and starting to have its own identity separate from its parents, is crucial for any organization. Yale Union is not its founders. It is an institution that was established to serve artists. And I really want to work towards a greater public understand we are there to serve them. That I think is what's really important at this point in time.