Holding a small world

Jenene Nagy is a busy person. Besides pursuing her own artistic work, she’s the co-owner of the downtown Tilt Gallery, a drawing professor at Clark College, and now a Portland State professor.

Jenene Nagy is a busy person. Besides pursuing her own artistic work, she’s the co-owner of the downtown Tilt Gallery, a drawing professor at Clark College, and now a Portland State professor.

Nagy is also the new coordinator of the Autzen and MK Galleries on the Portland State campus, a job that goes along with her work teaching an upper-division small-gallery management class.

“It’s kind of like their way of paying me for this job,” Nagy said of the PSU class she teaches on Friday afternoons to a small group of mostly undergraduate seniors.

By helping Nagy with the details of preparing for and installing this year’s scheduled exhibitions, the students are gaining hands-on experience with the daily basics of running a gallery with a small budget. In turn, the art department has Nagy on campus every week to prepare for next year, when she will have more control over how the galleries operate.

Autzen and MK are two of four galleries on campus, and are managed by the art department. The other two, the Littman and the White, are run entirely by student employees. Like the Littman and the White, the Autzen Gallery is spacious and often displays large exhibitions by professional artists, while the smaller MK Gallery usually shows more student and experimental work.

One look at the department’s website makes it clear that the galleries are due for some new leadership. The schedule online is last year’s, and the currently listed coordinator is slide librarian Mary McVein, who informed The Vanguard that she hasn’t held the title in two years.

Sifting through papers in her white-painted, cinderblock cell of an office for some information on the year’s upcoming show, Nagy seemed unsure of exactly how the galleries have been run in the past, but optimistic about their future.

In her own gallery, Nagy asserts that the key to survival is to “have a really clear idea of your mission statement and stand by it.” At Tilt Gallery and Project Space, the focus is on work that is difficult to show, which often has few options, in terms of venue.

Tilt’s mission somewhat explains the unfinished look of the space, where giant old wooden beams frame the thin drywall, and a fine growth of black dust coats the ceiling fan. Nagy and fellow owner Joshua Smith fund the business out of their own pockets, and offer help with advertising and rides to the Home Depot for the artists who show with them, in lieu of hanging fees or travel fees.

Tilt is part of the Everett Station Lofts building, which is owned by the nonprofit real-estate development organization Artspace. Artspace buys older buildings nationwide and converts them into spaces for artist studios and galleries, then regulates rent by working with city organizations such as the Portland Development Commission.

Nagy and Smith pay rent that is 80 percent below the market price for their gallery, but the 47-unit building has offered relatively little in terms of community.

“We’ve seen a lot of turnover,” explained Nagy, who has not met many of her neighbors.

The rapid turnover may be due to the same problem other innovative spaces, such as Portland Art Center, suffer from–a multitude of talented local artists and few philanthropists to pay them–or it could just be that too few gallery owners have gotten the knack of holding four jobs quite the way Nagy has.

At the same time, the hard-to-show work Nagy and Smith represent rarely sells, in part because it is not built for enterprise. Still Life with Wolves, the current installation by Canadian artist Marcy Adzich, involves thrift-store bunches of dusty-gray plastic flowers and moss, a prairie expanse of multicolored wood, lonely silver wolves and deflating spray-painted balloons gathered in anthropomorphic clusters near the ceiling.

The installation is an expression of Adzich’s fascination with smooth and busy contrasts and sweeping, open spaces as much as it is a living picture of her interaction with the space. According to Nagy, Adzich “had an interest in considering the whole,” and didn’t know what the installation would become until she began working together with her studio objects and the room.

The empty space at Tilt gave the installation a reason to exist, and Nagy and Smith have been supporting that space largely with their own backs. Hopefully, working with the galleries at PSU will give Nagy the support necessary to show innovative work here on campus.