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Variable West: Converge 45 was founded in 2016 by Portland, OR, gallery owner Elizabeth Leach. You’ve been an active member of the Portland art world for nearly twenty years. How have the needs and motivations of local artists and arts organizations changed in the past four years?
Mack McFarland, Executive Director: The past four years have been like no other in my life. Putting the pandemic aside (as if!), I would start with the state of our federal government, as these larger political movements have impacts into all aspects of our culture. I would look back as far as President Barack Obama’s 2016 nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court and the Republic Party’s blocking and eventual stealing of that seat. This move solidified a bitter partisan divide, as the election results that year set up the dark four years of fascist, anti-environmental, white supremacist federal politics we find ourselves in today.
This, combined with the founding of Black Lives Matter movement in 2013, has had an enormous impact on the kind of cultural production being undertaken and funded in our country, region, and city. Of course, not every project in Portland or the US has been politically motivated, but looking at the exhibitions and major awards in Oregon since 2016, you can see a clear leaning towards equity and diverse representation, and at times artists with a social justice focus. This is a positive outcome, I feel very strongly that the arts have a role to play in the creation of a safe and equitable society, and recent events are galvanizing others to feel the same way.
In terms of needs, it is much more difficult to parse out those shifts in the past four years, especially for individual artists. Rising rent costs and rapid development created a lack of reasonably priced and accessible housing, studio, office, and display space. This has been a key factor in the needs of artists and organizations alike. Given where we are now in the pandemic, and the contraction of our economy and space use in the city’s core, I do wonder how that will shift in the next twelve to thirty-six months. Within organizations, I have seen a strong desire for more diversity and inclusion training (the same ones Donald Trump banned federal works, contractors, and grant recipients from having) for the staff and board members.
VW: It seems like a lot of the hurdles for Portland artists and art organizations have been the same for a while, but were exacerbated by the pandemic. What do you think is the most urgent challenge for the Portland art community?
MM: Lack of secure jobs, rising cost of living, high rent and real-estate costs, small pool of collectors, and a shortage of funding for projects and life. This has been the list since I arrived in Portland in 2003, though the rent prices did not get out of hand until a few years later. The other challenge that is often mentioned is the lack of critical writing and documentation of our scene. Variable West has greatly helped with that that, as have others like Oregon Arts Watch, Art & About, Oregon Arts Commission partnership with The Ford Family Foundation on the Oregon Visual Art Ecology Project, 60 Inch Center, the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s art writing platform Art Discourse, and others. The same challenges of jobs and cost of living impacts writing for our community, meaning there is not nearly enough funding to pay these writers and even fewer outlets to obtain funds. There has not been a local, dedicated to visual arts, full time (with benefits) staff writer within a magazine, newspaper, or organization for some time. Of course local discourse is only part of the pie, like all cities outside of the art market center, Portland does not garner much column space in national publications.
That also brings to mind a challenge we face, our vulnerable institutions, especially with the current and still to come economic downturn. Even before COVID, many of arts and culture spaces were dealing with the economic circumstances I listed above. How do we maintain these spaces? As the planet moves towards a well distributed vaccine and we can get past the agoraphobia of the pandemic time, I wonder what the return to normal open hours and gatherings will be like. What spaces we will have and want to return to? Finally, how do we as an arts community apply our platforms and creative energy towards social and economic justice? How do we do this together, collaboratively, with a local focus, where impacts can be swifter, and relationships built for the long term.
VW: Can you talk a bit about the role has Converge 45 played in supporting local arts?
MM: In the past, Converge 45 has funded a series of projects that have been impactful for local artists. This could be by helping artists create new bodies of work, connecting them to a curator outside of the region, and to other artists both near and far. As a new and unique organization in the arts amalgamation of Oregon, Converge 45 is still defining it’s place. At its best, Converge 45 is a catalyst for collaboration, bringing curators, artists, and institutions together to create an outcome that that no one could do on their own. One result of these efforts is the introduction of new viewers and the consolidation of audiences between institutions and art forms. Converge 45 stives to couple its programing to the moment by connecting its Guest Artistic Director to the energy within the artist’s studio and offices of curators, enhancing and amplifying the local and drawing that dialog into the national and international conversation.
VW: As Converge 45 develops its identity in these rapidly changing times, what can the organization do to better serve the local art community?
MM: The organization is asking that same thing. We are in the process of finishing a strategic plan that we began earlier in 2020. As I moved into this role, I have been and will be speaking with the curators, directors, gallery owners, and artists that we have collaborated with in the past to hear about those experiences in order to strengthen or continue the successes and to revamp areas that need it. As you say, the moment is one of fluctuation and even revision, and it is clear that the cultural community needs to be in conversation regarding these shifts, playing our part in shaping our city, state, and country. This year we saw activists remove several monuments from their pedestals, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harvey Scott and others. Many more have been removed by activists and government officials across the country in the past decade. One of Converge 45’s initiatives for 2021 will be to develop opportunities for our communities to process the conditions and impacts of the public monuments in Portland, both those that have been removed and the ones that remain. We will be working with the artist and educator Jess Perlitz, who for several years has taught a class on monuments and memorials, as well as the design team Omnivore (Alice Chung, Julie Cho, Karen Hsu)as we seek to knit together a civic dialog and set of events, allowing us to build towards a new understanding of collective histories, public space, and civic memory.
VW: You’ve entered this position in a historically chaotic year. What do you think are the biggest hurdles you’ll face?
MM: In the short term, a major challenge is future planning with all the unknows of the pandemic. We have had a lot of different visions for the 2021 programing and things are beginning to solidify now, however, attempting to envision a series of exhibitions and events while schools, theaters, and event spaces are closed is quite difficult. Still, we will have a robust and critically engaging set of events for 2021, both online and in person, to grapple with the question: what is an appropriate monument for this time and place? We are also planning for beyond 2021, and will engage in a process to select a new Guest Artistic Director who will be responsible for creating a city wide scaled project for 2023.
VW: What excites you the most about your new position?
MM: There are two of aspects of Converge 45 I am most passion about: its collaborative nature and its curatorial focus. Our region has several gifted and accomplished curators working within spaces we think of as institutions, as well as in artist run spaces or independently. I want Converge 45 to be a place where they can conference, develop relationships, and conspire. In a similar vein, collaboration has been a large part of my curatorial and artistic practice for many years. This could be because I have many of my ideas while in conversation, but also I don’t think you can be an effective facilitator for your artist as a curator if you don’t approach some aspects of the work with collaboration in mind.
VW: Can you tell me about the #ActForArt project and how it responded to art in the pandemic?
MM: August of 2020 would have been a culminating moment for Converge 45’s Guest Artistic Director Lisa Dent’s program, Facing Between Centers, with exhibitions and programs at Portland Art Museum, PNCA, the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Contemporary Art at Portland State University, the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art, and Disjecta Contemporary Art Center, among others. 2020 was the second year of Dent’s three-year curatorial program that “engages artworks as complex forms of aesthetic, cultural, and political choice,” continuing the program she began in 2019 with the exhibition The Autopoets, co-curated with Stephanie Snyder at the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery at Reed College, and artist talks by Liz Glynn at PNCA and Alfredo Jaar at Portland State University.
However, a global pandemic hit. So, like much of what we all once had planned for our year, things changed. With Dent, Converge 45 agreed that it was impossible or impractical to carry out the 2020 program, adding the continued uncertainty of what lay ahead for cultural institutions, along with Dent’s work as Executive Director at ArtSpace in New Haven, we agreed to close Facing Between Centers.
Following that, MaryAnn Deffenbaugh, then Converge 45 Execute Director, with Board Chair, Elizabeth Leach, and Program Assistant M Prull, turned to the Curatorial Committee, made up of myself, Stephanie Snyder, and Meagan Atiyeh to plan and implement a project, a response, to an unprecedented moment in history where physically gathering together to have cultural experiences became a public health crisis. Utilizing the outdoors and the form of the poster quickly emerged, as did the need to call out the power of art and the outstanding artists and arts organizations around our region. When we began to think of this project as a moment to advocate for an engagement with art, to support artists, museums, galleries, and educational institutions, Converge 45 expanded the team was expanded to include folks like Kandis Brewer Nunn, who have a deep commitment to the arts and artists of Oregon.
Starting on August 3rd, we have distributed over 800 posters around Oregon, several to outdoor spaces, many to business windows, like Debbie Thomas Real Estate, Canopy Hotel, Alchemy Jeweler, Omnivore Design, and others, as well as several cultural organizations, Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, Bullseye Glass, and then a pop up exhibition at the Chehalem Cultural Center that their curator Carissa Burkett set up.
VW: You chose the Nat Turner Project as the pairing for this Sponsored Connection, can you talk about the thought process behind that choice and the impact NTP has on the Portland art community?
MM: Nat Turner Project (Melanie Stevens & maximiliano) is a force and has been since they opened their first project in 2016. Not only have they mounted an extraordinary set of exhibitions and events over the years, they also produced publications and podcasts that examine and documents Black, Indigenous, and persons of colors lives and creative practices, sharing all this to a wide audience. Then, amidst the pandemic, NTP adapted their Drinking Gourd Fellowship grant, teaming up with Black Art Ecology of Portland (Sharita Towne) to offer BIPOC artists financial relief during the mass job and income loss created by COVID 19. While Converge 45 was working with the organizers and artists of the #ActForArt project, it was clear that all parties wanted to support these artist relief efforts and to that end, all proceeds from the sale of artworks and posters were split with NTP artists’ fund.
Each Sponsored Connection is a pairing of two interviews. Read the interview with Nat Turner Project founders Melanie Stevens and maximiliano.