Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Beer generates consensus

Following up on my post from a few weeks ago, Mark Barnes's Down River series is currently showing at Blue Sky. His prints are old-school 8 x 10 contacts and they're rad. A lot of the work can be seen online here, but as with much photography it's not quite the same as seeing prints on the wall.

Holiday by Mark Barnes

Speaking of Blue Sky someone recently showed me an old (May 13, 1980) Willamette Week interview which sheds a little light on their early days. I thought it was especially timely considering the recent death of Terry Toedtemeier. Here is an excerpt:

Paul Sutinen: How did you arrive at the name Blue Sky?

Christopher Rauschenberg: We argued about it for about two months and finally one night we put our foot down and said, "We're going over to that tavern and drink beer until we agree on the name and we're not leaving before that." So we just kept drinking beer until we agreed with each other. We wanted to have it set up so that everybody would agree on it. If one person didn't like it then it was no good. And that's basically been the way that we've done business ever since.

PS: How did you get to the point that you had a gallery that needed a name?

CR: Well, Ann Hughes and Bob Di Franco were sharing darkroom space which was the third room in from the street on NW Lovejoy St., the first room being the storefront with a big window, but it was not being put to good use and Ann came up with the idea of putting a gallery there so that there would be a place where photographers could have some communication with each other. As it was, there was no place. If there were two photographers in town there was no chance that they would run into each other except maybe at the camera store. There was no center. There were some galleries, but they didn't have that kind of function.

That was the original inspiration and the group expanded to include Craig Hickman, Terry Toedtemeier, me -- and those five basically did the gallery for two and a half years, something like that.

PS: Legend has it that the early financing of the gallery came from unemployment checks.

Robert Di Franco: That's correct.

CR: Three out of five people were on unemployment.

PS: And the original space was only $40?

CR: Right. And we didn't have a phone. Basically the idea was to have no overhead because we knew we weren't going to make any money, so any overhead that we had had to come out of our pockets. The idea was to run the gallery on no money. To start it we had a dance at Euphoria. That raised enough money to buy some sheets of particle board and some burlap that we stretched and stapled to cover the walls. And then all we spent money on was the posters and then this little dribble for the rent and the electric. We never used any heat because the lightbulbs heated up the space so much.

But the basic idea in putting together the gallery was just to sort of accumulate enough people who were interested in putting in time and money into a gallery that wouldn't particularly help their careers. It was just to promote photography in general and the idea always was that it would be open to new people to join when somebody wanted to put in a bunch of time on something.

Blue Sky Gal Airy

Anyone who has been to their gorgeous new space along Portland's park blocks knows that Blue Sky has come a long way since the days described in this interview. It showcases photographers from all over the world, and its track record of shows stands up against any other gallery. And yes, the gallery now has a phone and heat along with other amenities.

But in many ways the 1970s DIY spirit of Blue Sky's early roots is still evident. There is still a space in the gallery --now just a small corner-- where anyone can sign up to show whatever photos they want for one week, completely unjuried. There are two paid staffers but many of the daily tasks like manning the front desk or hanging shows are handled by volunteers. Anyone can submit work to the gallery at any time. And what might be considered the core of Blue Sky, the exhibition committee which decides what work to show and when, is open to anyone who shows dedication to the meetings and functions as consensus democracy. All of these aspects of the gallery seem to run counter to the prevailing trends of the contemporary photo world, and the art world more generally.

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