The artists cooperative Blackfish Gallery has been around for 40 years, 36 of them in its Northwest Ninth Avenue location in a former sheet metalwork building.
The landlords, Jimmy and Becky Wong, used to farm mung beans there, before they leased it to Blackfish for a reasonable rent. They kept the rent reasonable during the Pearl District's transition from a warehouse district to a tony condo and leisure shopping neighborhood.
Last year the Wong children decided to sell the building. In looking for a new space, Blackfish's board went through some angst before lucking out with an affordable lease on the Otis Elevator building, at 938 N.W. Everett St., just a block and a half away. There's more space for hanging work, bigger offices and stacks, and finally, a nice bathroom.
Moving was fun, according to artist owner and photographer Alice Christine Walker. She said they had a moving sale, as well as clearing five dump trucks worth of trash from the five rented art studios that were behind the fishbowl (window) galleries.
Blackfish opened its new space on Nov. 29 with a show called, "Past is Prologue," featuring work from longtime associates, Barbara Black, Angela Passalacqua and Barbara Conyne. The show combines painting (Black and Passalacqua) with sculpture (Conyne) to give a tase of Blackfish's roots in non-commercial artwork.
Member Christopher Shotola-Hardt told Pamplin Media, "The reason for being at Blackfish is to have the freedom to create art for art's sake. There isn't a gallery director here who's doing a pre-show studio visit and saying, 'I don't want you working in that direction, I really have great success selling the works similar to what you did for your last show.'"
Shotola-Hardt said they have had several artists leave from more commercial galleries, only to come back wishing for the freedom they once had at the cooperative. Artists have one or two years to work on their show and are only answerable to their peers. He knows other artists who drop their work off and their gallery owner gives them no feedback and isn't interested in an artist statement.
"The power of being in an artist-owned and -operated gallery is that we make the decisions. And we feel like we can grow in authentic ways, and we encourage each other."
When the gallery was formed, the members jokingly tried out portmanteau names that made them sound like lawyer or doctor practices, but the surname combination of Barbara Black and Julia Fish stuck. Barbara Black said the gallery originated in 1978 when Portland Community College instructor James Hibbard asked her and another graduate student why cooperatives always fall apart within five years.
"He said 'Some of the people who work the hardest burn out, and they're gone. There must be some way around that.' So, we met once a week to design a gallery with owner-operators." They shared the workload, and still do. Members must sit in the gallery once a month to greet visitors and answer questions, and they have to come to Portland for monthly meetings. They also have to pay dues. In 1979 Blackfish Gallery launched downtown.
"The first one was (above) a ratty hotel. We sat two by two because it was a little bit of a scary neighborhood at the time," said Black, who is now 86. She has failing eyesight, but her eyes still light up as she talks about the gallery. "I was so sad that we couldn't be on Second Avenue because we couldn't afford it. But then we moved up to Ninth and pretty soon all the other galleries around us they moved away from Southwest Second over into the Pearl District." She added of the new space, which is kitty corner from Ben and Jerry's, "It's just gorgeous. It's the most beautiful space we've had."
Black stresses artistic freedom. "We don't urge our members or ourselves to make saleable work. We urge ourselves to make exciting or important or soulful work. And if it sells, wonderful. If it doesn't, you're not reproached because we just support each other," Black said.
Photographer Alice Christine Walker is on the younger end of the Blackfish spectrum and is an energetic member. She offered her own land in North Portland for a show of Land Art, and she was heavily involved in the recent move.
"It's going to be a new feel for the patrons that have been visiting the gallery for the last decades, it's going to be Blackfish Gallery 2.0," Walker said.
The space has high ceilings, skylights and three exhibition areas. That means the 30-plus artist-owners can show once a year. They brought with them their old plywood stacks and white podiums, to save money, but there is the inevitable to help cover costs.
Walker likes working on gallery operations, making policy decisions and meeting the public.
"Those roots have kept us in business since 1979, to continue to change and make decisions so that we can stay modern and adaptable," said Walker.
A lot of artists — and remote workers — work in solitude, which can be alienating, even depressing. But Walker said having fellow Blackfish artists at the gallery has been a boon.
"It keeps you on your toes. I mean, why be a gallery owner if it's not to show art or to support the community and the art that they're showing?" She will soon host a group of analog photographers that she mentors.
"I like to say that I'm community taught, and I think being part of this gallery is a perfect example of that. It has been incredibly humbling to understand how much work goes into operating a business. I would highly recommend for any young artists to take an opportunity, like becoming part of a gallery, so you're not only understanding why you're making your own art but understanding the community that is supporting the artists."
Walker added, "Also, as an artist, sometimes we tend to stay in our mediums. I'm getting to know the potters, I'm getting to know the oil painters, I'm getting to know the installation artists. It's like a non-traditional artists education, if I need to go to another owner and be like, 'Hey, how would I do this? Or how would I combine your medium with mine?' It's powerful."
First Thursday, Dec. 1 Virtual Artist Talks & Tour 5:30 p.m.
First Thursday, Dec. 1 Opening Reception 6-9 p.m.
In-person at the new Blackfish Gallery space.
Sunday, Dec.11 — Afternoon Coffee with the Artists
& Poetry Reading by Merridawn Duckler
Making art the Blackfish way
Christopher Shotola-Hardt joined Blackfish in 2004. He said when new artist openings arise, the board checks out the applicants. "We ask that people turn into a portfolio that has 20 sample images, they have a letter of intent, they have an artist statement, and they submit their artist's CV with their education and their exhibition history. We look to see that the work is of high quality, that there's a commitment to the artistic practice and that they have a strong voice."
He added, "We want to be a platform for people to speak out about what's going on in the world, or what we find most meaningful, what we're passionate about." He mentions recent shows about grieving, the 2020 election, ("One World Indivisible") which also had performance and music. "When the Iraq War broke out, we had a group show called the 'Pacifist Potential,' and after the George Floyd incident we had a curated show called 'Black Power as a Color.' Those are just a few examples of the freedom artists have to put together programming that means something."