Elizabeth Leach

THERE MIGHT BE some clarification needed as to why this column is about project spaces, rather than traditional galleries. The difference between a "project space" and a "gallery" is a relatively uninteresting line to draw, with some fuzzy gradation that can keep you from fully differentiating one from the other. We could try to parse it, but that would be a waste of my 500 words and your time. Instead, let's talk about why Portland has edged closer to the project spaces side of the divide.

The Pacific Northwest has never been an amazing place for art sales. If you look at the landscape of commercial galleries in town, you'll find stalwarts of the trade who helped form the current Portland scene (Elizabeth Leach Gallery), alongside younger projects with large footprints whose financial futures are a bit unsure (Upfor, Hap, Fourteen30). Plenty more galleries have slipped into the oral history passed between artists; folded ventures that tried their hand and either moved on or dissolved due to a lack of patronage. As in many cities, galleries are largely opened by the well-to-do, and serve a similarly affluent clientele. Place that equation in a city with a low percentage of upper-class arts philanthropists, and voilà—you get a limited number of galleries. 

It's probably because of this that you don't see many young artists in town striving to become gallerists. The Portland arts economy doesn't present enough career mobility to justify the lack of autonomy and low pay that comes with working in a gallery, so more frequently you see potential assistants and future curators turn to independent project spaces to get shit done. Here, at last, is where the divide emerges.

Portland can look like a sleepy art town if you're only looking at the commercial sector. But if you glance beyond the exchange of dollars for paintings and into the weird breed of arts-autonomy that has formed the bedrock of Portland creativity for, like, ever, you'll see a hyperlapse movement of ideas popping up in unexpected places. Garages, living rooms, industrial basements, and backyards are beacons of the Portland arts community—places where artists and enthusiasts alike can come together to rant, shit-talk, hug, and tirelessly enjoy the reminder that their day job doesn't define them. 

The thing is, starting this column felt a lot like letting a cadre of who-knows-who in on a secret that's been kept for a long time. But as Portland has grown, the scene of underground arts galleries and salons has grown too, so it might be about time to start talking about it, if only to garner some recognition for the different stuff going on.

Everything blooms in the summer, and a lot of cool stuff pops up every week. I'll try to let you know about a few of them, but if you keep your ear close to the ground, you'll be able to find some that I don't know about. I guarantee these things aren't as hidden as they seem to be.