On a busy corner of Southeast Morrison that’s dominated by condominiums, high-end grocery stores, and brewpubs, Yale Union stands resolute. Constructed in 1908, the building that houses the contemporary art gallery and studio is downright ancient compared to the new structures squeezed into nearby blocks. What you can witness inside it—from UK sculptor Lucy Skaer’s weighty pieces of polished limestone to deconstructed films and live performances from experimental musicians like Phew and Aaron Dilloway—represents some of the most challenging, daring art over the city’s past decade.
But somehow, the idiosyncratic nature of Yale Union has kept it in the shadows of Portland’s larger arts community rather than drawing an audience. The gallery has a growing international reputation, but here at home, it’s still an unknown quantity to some.
That alone is what makes the gallery’s recent decision to hire Yoko Ott as their new executive director such an astute move. Ott succeeds Yale Union’s longtime director and co-founder Curtis Knapp, and already knows the ins and outs of the gallery’s operations from her time as a member of their board of directors, then deputy director.
Ott has spent much of her career championing Northwest artists and institutions, and attempting to use her many platforms to widen the view of donors and gallery visitors. “My evolution is that I started focusing on curatorial practice, on education and what that looks like within the cultural institutions,” Ott says. “I started focusing on community engagement. And eventually, I started to focus on arts workers and creating conditions in the workplace that make arts workers thrive. Oftentimes they are invisible. You hear lots of talk of patrons and lots of talk about artists, but you don’t actually hear a lot of talk about all the people that are doing the work to support cultural production.”
Ott’s previous work was primarily focused in Seattle, a treacherous locale for arts funding, which arrived and disappeared like flash floods during her tenure there. For a stretch, Ott managed all the curatorial work for One Reel, the company that puts on Bumbershoot every year, and helped found the New Foundation Seattle, which tried to connect artists in the city with national galleries, and curators and foundations to the Northwest arts community.
Invited onto the board of Yale Union four years ago, Ott was eventually coaxed into the position of deputy director when it became clear that her skills as an administrator were much needed. The bump up to executive director was a logical next step as the organization looked to replace Knapp.
“One of the reasons they decided on me is that I have this dual experience in curatorial work and administrative work,” Ott says. “I definitely lean towards enabling. That’s what I’m going to do: be a soapbox builder so they can say what they need to say.”
Her first moves included promoting Yale Union’s curator Hope Svenson to director of exhibitions and starting the search for a new addition to their curatorial team. Ott also wants to broadcast the space’s studio program and other initiatives they support, such as Liberation Literacy, which works to provide social justice education to prisoners.
“That’s the kind of community engagement that isn’t necessarily like the intellectual and cultural capital of our exhibition program,” Ott says. “There hasn’t been a clear understanding of how to talk about those two things jointly. Now that Yale Union has 10 years of programmatic history behind it, now we can talk about our dual identity. We can have multiple cells within our entire self.”