Curating the Port of Portland: An Interview with Wendy Given

Curating the Port of Portland: An Interview with Wendy Given

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Portland-based artist and curator Wendy Given fills the impressive role of curator for the Port of Portland. Along with a dynamic permanent collection, Portland Airport’s Rotating Art Program aims to “provide a portal into the dynamic cultural life of our region.” Showcasing regional artists through ongoing relationships with art galleries, museums, and organizations, the Port of Portland provides a space to visualize and reflect the values of the Port of Portland and the region it serves. Contributor, Lusi Lukova, had the opportunity to chat with Given and ask some questions about her history with the Port, her experience curating the 8 rotating spaces, and her own personal background in Pacific Northwest arts and culture

LL: You have been curating the PDX art program for over 2 years now, yes? How did you first become involved?  

WG: Yes, I have been curating the PDX Art Program for the Port of Portland part-time since mid-December of 2017. I am honored to have curated twenty-three engaging contemporary art exhibitions for the enjoyment and education of the traveling public and Portland community within Portland International Airport over the past two + years. I am also delighted to help co-curate the unique continuing quarterly short film programming (one hour in length) for the fantastic Hollywood Theatre microcinema at PDX, the first and only of its kind—a free, all-ages state-of-the-art movie theatre located within an US airport.

Solely curating and coordinating the Rotating PDX Art Program for Portland International Airport, while also managing the Permanent Art Collection for the Port of Portland, is a truly rewarding endeavor. Having the opportunity to work directly with stellar professional regional artists and arts organizations, while championing and widely exhibiting fine artwork in a distinctive celebrated public sphere—where tens of millions of viewers have the opportunity to view the exhibitions every year—has been such a wonderful learning experience.

Installation view, “More Education,” Jeremy Okai Davis, 2019

Installation view, “More Education,” Jeremy Okai Davis, 2019

 LL: What do you think led you to consider a position curating such a dynamic space, much different from a typical gallery?

WG: I see my path to curating for the Port/PDX as a circuitous one, mostly due to limited gainful arts related job opportunities in Portland and the urgency and importance of maintaining my professional studio practice and volunteer work with Signal Fire as a wilderness guide with a steady supplemental income stream.

When I worked as a professional freelance art handler and exhibition preparator in Atlanta Georgia after my undergraduate work many moons ago in the mid-1990s, a dear friend/fellow art handler and I would install rotating art exhibitions late at night for Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL). This was my first taste of behind the scenes art installations and exhibit design within an airport setting.

 I initially became involved with the exhibitions at PDX as a professional art handler/installer working for Art Work Fine Art Services, a local professional art handling company based here in Portland (also in Seattle). While working with AWFAS, I helped to routinely install the rotating art exhibitions for the former PDX Art Coordinator—my predecessor, Greta Latchford. When Greta left her role with the Port, she notified me that her job was opening up and if I might be interested I should apply. The position turned out to be an appropriate union of my prior experience with art installations at PDX, my work history, and also great timing!

LL: You are a visual artist as well - would you say that your personal practice plays an influence on the programming of the Port of Portland? I’m thinking particularly in the fact that you are a NW artist, and your craft has this beautiful and strong awareness of the natural world which many of the works at the airport echo.

WG: I really appreciate your kind words about my practice, thank you!

I hold a Masters in Fine Art from the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and a Bachelors of Fine Art from the Atlanta College of Art (now the Savannah College of Art and Design) and have been extensively involved with the visual and performing arts and design communities for 25+ years of my professional working life.

 I view and maintain my personal professional art practice/career as a very separate and divergent point of view from my professional work as a curator/art coordinator for the Port of Portland. I diligently try to maintain an open objective perspective when selecting work and drafting proposals for my supervisors at the Port/PDX for potential exhibitions.

 LL: Have you experienced a time in which your personal practice melds with your professional career?

WG: Although quite challenging at times, I consciously quiet my personal aesthetic and conceptual biases when curating for PDX as it is such a unique and diverse public forum and there are very specific (apolitical, nonreligious, nonsexual… basically G-rated) guidelines for presenting exhibitions to an all ages, multicultural, and multigenerational captive airport audience. PDX differs in the environment and audience of a traditional museum or gallery setting in so many ways!

I think that the natural world is reflected in many works and exhibitions at PDX largely as a result of shared interests and perspectives of numerous regional artists. Nature is also a concept and phenomena that is easily accessible and relatable to audiences from all over the world.

 The Pacific Northwest is renowned for majestic beauty, diverse landscapes, flora and fauna, and wild natural places. Our unique setting and culture celebrates and honors the natural world in ways that have profound effects on artists of the region. Our impressive landscape is also the first impression for many visitors to Oregon and PDX, if you have ever flown over the Oregon landscape, it is truly awe inspiring!

Amory Abott,  Sherkin Island VII, 2018, Charcoal on Stonehenge, 36 x 26 inches

Amory Abott, Sherkin Island VII, 2018, Charcoal on Stonehenge, 36 x 26 inches

LL: To my understanding, there are 8 spaces that change about every 6-12 months -- apart from the tagline of the Art Program which "provides a portal into the dynamic cultural life of our region", is there a theme you yourself work around to make the 8 spaces cohesive?

 WG: Correct, there are currently eight spaces in the PDX Rotating Art Program, and occasionally there are special pop-up exhibition areas.

There is not a theme per se working with the various exhibition locations, however, I do think it is very important to have greatly varied exhibitions that have the potential to bring interest and joy to everyone, no matter who you are, what your background is, and regardless of how young or old you are.

With such a dynamic and frenetic setting such at PDX, I hope to provide a plethora of opportunities for engagement and wonder towards all of the exhibitions on view. I believe there should be something accessible for everyone, no matter what your experience or knowledge of art is!

As a professional visual artist, a seasoned arts administrator, curator, and exhibition preparator/art handler/specialist, the sum and substance of my being and working experiences are passionately imbedded in thoughtful artistic expression and the great connectivity of all peoples though the power of the arts. I have an unwavering belief in the intrinsically positive benefits of education, diversity (regarding people, disciplines and ideas), and the great importance of rigorous, meaningful, and skillfully crafted art productions.

LL: There is a lot of variety in the work you choose to showcase -- comparing, for example Jeremy Okai Davis' "More Education" and "Portaurora" by Sticky Co., just to name two -- which are very fitting in their respective locations. Do you prefer to let the space itself navigate the potential of the work or does the space mold to the desires of the artist?

WG: In many instances, the architecture and features of the individual exhibition spaces often determine the types of artwork that will be able and suitably occupy the space. There are many considerations such as size, medium, the safety of the traveling public and the artwork, traffic flow, and security. I work very closely with the invited artists to determine the design and layout of the exhibitions while being mindful of their practice and overall aesthetic concerns. The shorter answer is that it is often a combination of both. Some of our rotating spaces are designated for site-specific work which allows an opportunity for art to be created to fit the individual space in-situ. Conversely, some of our spaces are designed for artists to install existing work. The work selected for those spaces needs to be appropriate in terms of scale in order to work well.

Installation View, “Portaurora”, Sticky Co., 2019.

Installation View, “Portaurora”, Sticky Co., 2019.

LL: Further speaking to that, do you put out submission calls or do you personally choose the artists you wish to exhibit? Cultivating such a strong example of PNW arts culture is surely not an easy task, and the artists you curate have such a strong dynamic between them.  

WG: We have an active open call to professional regional artists on the PDX Art Program blog found on the flypdx.com website. I’ve also leaned on my deeply rooted relationships throughout the greater PNW arts community to selectively curate exhibitions and invite individual artists or groups of artists to display their work at PDX. We’ve also shared our open call with stakeholders including RACC and the Oregon Cultural Trust in order to increase the art program’s awareness to artists and the public overall. I am continuously on the lookout for new exciting work to feature at PDX and also love learning about new practices, concepts, and artists from all over the region.

LL: What direction do you see yourself taking with curating the Port in this next season of its programming?

WG: We’ll continue to look for opportunities to partner with professional artists, emerging artists and/or artists from underrepresented portions of the greater PNW arts communities. PDX is really a microcosm of the community we serve, so we feel that the art on-display should be representative of that to the greatest extent possible. We are always keeping an eye out for all work of excellent aesthetic standard and craft, demonstrating mastery of materials and technique, and artists producing innovative concepts for public consideration and enjoyment.

The works on view are scheduled on varying rotating schedules throughout the Portland International Airport. For more information and schedules of the Art Program, click HERE. For more information on Wendy Given, visit http://www.wendygiven.com/.

*Images courtesy of Wendy Given and the Port of Portland.

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