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Portland's SPACE Gallery: Art as a Civic Institution

Free for All Opening Night - photo by Christian MilNeil

A couple of months ago, I had an idea for an art project: I could use the Google Search API to filter through the 27,400 Image Search results for watercolor paintings of Maine's Monhegan Island, sort them by their dominant hues, and rearrange them in an grid to create a pointillist approximation of a Monhegan Island scene.

There were two strikes against this idea ever seeing the light of day: first, I've never considered myself an artist, and second, I was only a novice at the programming languages I would need to pull the necessary data from Google's servers and put the mosaic together.

But then I read about the third reprise of SPACE Gallery's Free for All show, an unjuried "democratic curatorial experiment" that solicits work from "artists of all stripes." If I could whip something together in 2 weeks, SPACE would hang it.

So I started coding, and my wife made a beautiful dovetailed cherry box to frame the program's LCD screen (that's a screenshot of the finished product below at right: squint and you might see something that looks like Monhegan's lighthouse). Meanwhile, hundreds of other Portlanders were working on their own projects. At the opening last week, the galleries were nearly as packed as the walls.

Kindly set aside for a moment the question of whether what I made has any artistic value. Even if it's crap, it was crap that served two valuable purposes: it forced me to stop procrastinating and teach myself functional PHP and Javascript, creative skills that will make me a more productive and valuable participant in Portland's workforce. And seeing my project finished on a crowded wall of artworks—the products of tens of thousands of hours' worth of collective effort—also made me feel like a more engaged citizen in a community of creators.

Around the time SPACE staff were putting the finishing touches on that show, the Warhol Foundation announced their award of a $150,000 grant that will, among other things, help entice visiting artists to spend more time in Portland, and increase their engagement with the community and with Portland's rich history.

In July, for instance, Amze Emmons will set up a zine library and host publishing workshops at the tentatively-named RUM RIOT PRESS (named for the violent outcomes of Portland's cutting-edge prohibitionist pilot project in 1851). Look forward to discussions and contemporary reenactments of how DIY printing culture played a strident and powerful role in our city's — and nation's — early history.

Later in the summer, SPACE will welcome Allison Pebworth's "Beautiful Possibility" tour, which will set up the SPACE Annex in the style of a nineteenth century Chautauqua to host discussions of the varied historical narratives we use to make sense of our nation, and to talk about what it means to be an American.

Most galleries don't do this kind of stuff: they're in the business of selling art. Why spend hundreds of hours of staff labor to showcase amateur artworks from people like me, or pay for room and board for visiting artists who participate in the growing trend of art as social practice, when it's apparently so easy to sell thousands of paintings of the same rocky coastline?

But SPACE doesn't merely showcase great art and performances. It also engages the city and its citizens to be more creative and thoughtful in our own lives, whether or not we consider ourselves artists. In countless instances, SPACE has prompted us to learn new creative skills, to start new projects, to forge new relationships with each other. Taken individually, those instances can seem trivial: it may or may not matter much if a dental assistant becomes a typography enthusiast, or if a tenth-grader teaches herself three chords on the bass.

But taken cumulatively, across the entire city, these effects multiply, become tremendous. SPACE itself begins to look like a sprawling social artwork whose medium is the entire city: an institution devoted to making us a more creative Portland.

Image: Free for All opening night, photo by Christian MilNeil.

PS - Check out the Free for All show during this month's First Friday artwalk, or anytime this month: the art comes down on March 3 (SPACE is located at 538 Congress Street). Also, while the Warhol Foundation's grant helps a lot, SPACE still needs its members' support to finance its everyday operations. Follow this link to join or renew online.

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