With every change in our fragile arts ecosystem, the landscape shifts a little. Some people see opportunities to raise their influence while others find their spotlight has dimmed. Now that classes at OCAC have ended and the final commencement ceremony has concluded, it seems appropriate to think about how the collapse of OCAC, and the scandalous lack of dialog around its closure, affects Portland’s ever-shrinking art scene.
Jordan Schnitzer The undisputed biggest winner to emerge from the closure of OCAC is Jordan Schnitzer. He’s not just funding the projects he wants to see realized, he’s now turning out the lights on the things he’s bored with. Traditionally, major donors assert control by offering checks with stipulations, but when Schnitzer publicly announced OCAC’s ending, and then put his weight behind Catlin Gabel’s purchase of the property, he entered new philanthropic territory. He now wields the power to decide the life and death of local institutions, so expect an art scene that increasingly reflects his values. Until somebody in Portland figures out how to make arts philanthropy a competitive sport for the wealthy, as it is in larger cities, it’s Jordan’s town.
PNCA In a story of poetic justice, PNCA apparently tried to initiate a merger with OCAC in the not so distant past and received a response that might have seemed something of a middle finger. But in this institutional rivalry, its the once-dejected who reaps the spoils. PNCA got the benefit without the burden—those 100 or so revenue sources students as well as their choice of equipment from the erstwhile campus without adding any debt or taking on the financial responsibilities of a second campus.
OCAC Board of Directors I don’t have access to the minutes of their meetings, but from what I’ve seen of tax documents and heard from faculty, this seems to be yet another Portland do-nothing board. Finances aren’t working out? Leverage everything you have until there’s nothing left. Incompetent president? Whatevs, firing people is like hard and and stuff. And yet nobody is calling out the board. They let the institution they were entrusted with fail and insulated themselves from repercussions, having allegedly manipulated faculty into shutting down criticism of their actions during the closure process. (More on that later.) The board gets credit for their cultural contributions without anybody ever hearing how disastrous those contributions actually were.
Denise Mullen She got her non-disparagement agreement, so other than spotty fragments of internet gossip, there isn’t much out there to steer potential employers away. She’ll spend a bit more time posting foggy landscapes to social media captioned with the cryptic self-reflection of a sexagenarian emo, then she’ll be back in the six-digit saddle, ready to do for some other college all that she did for OCAC.
Portland OCAC offered something unique, a perspective that just can’t be found in other places. The education the school offered was patently out of fashion, and attempts to seem more relevant were often misplaced. But it was a haven for students who were concerned with raw power of materials. OCAC offered the originality that Portland pretends to embrace. The loss of this school moves Portland a little closer to its sad future as an AirBNB for the tech class in which food culture and liberal politics are even paler gimmicks than they are now.
Disjecta In a tone deaf fundraising campaign, Disjecta tried to raise money from the specter of OCAC’s closure! Tacky, right? Totally. I know! And so did a whole bunch of other people who found the letter insulting. I don’t know if they ever hit their $20,000 goal; I stopped watching after a month when donations had long stagnated a little past the half way mark. Who was it who said Disjecta couldn’t survive the loss of Bryan Suereth? They are as boorish as ever!
Students OCAC offered a particular type of education. It wasn’t a highly ranked school, but that’s because it was so far out of the mainstream that wasn’t ranked. It was a place for people who wanted strong foundational skills as the cornerstone of an art practice based upon material and workmanship. For the most part, displaced students will end up at PNCA, a low-ranking regional art college that has never really managed to distinguish itself for anything other than being located in Portland.
OCAC Adjunct Faculty Every time an adjunct is asked to do something beyond the scope of their paid duties, which is often, it comes with an unspoken threat of unemployment. Adjuncts, who are fully subject to institutional whim, are forever conscious of remaining in good standing as that’s the only route to maintaining their paltry salaries and making sure they are remembered in the rare case of advancement opportunity. After the school’s closure it looks like their severance package is worth even less than a potential unemployment claim—and they can only choose one.
Stuart Emmons Admittedly I had private run-ins with him as he attempted to dictate the tone of my Instagram postings. I eventually blocked him after two failed requests for him to cease contact. I’m sure you’ve forgotten, but Emmonds is the guy who wrote that entirely unconvincing op-ed that was published by The Oregonian. He emerged with such confidence, touting a string of preservationist wins, and near-wins. (Near-wins are losses if you haven’t figured out the lingo of positive thinking.) Yet he never presented a coherent plan to save OCAC. Nothing even close. In the end, I can only verify that he raised about one 500th of one percent of the funds necessary to purchase the campus. If he raised that amount every month, he would have saved the campus in just 170 short years.
Winners who are Losers
At the point that Jordan Schnitzer announced OCAC was not financially viable, the efforts to save the school should have begun in earnest by circumventing the people who let the school fail. The main objectives should have been neutralizing Schnitzer’s statement and raising awareness of what it means for Portland to have a school like OCAC. At the point that news of the closure was made public, everybody involved in the school should have been hitting social media in an attempt to attract the attention of traditional media and enter the larger public consciousness. The overall message should have highlighted what the school contributes, while placing blame for its finances on something specific and fixable, creating a perception that the ship can be righted.
Instead, certain faculty were apparently told of secret plans from within the board to try to save the school. These faculty went to work discouraging students from criticizing board members, had students contacting strangers online to request removal of posts, and harassed people writing about the closure in ways they found unacceptable. So these faculty who pretty much failed at shared governance and seemed to fall for every lie thrown at them by the administration, it now seems fell for one more lie. There is now grumbling that this group of faculty were deliberately provided with false information in order to minimize scrutiny of the board. Quelle surprise. Instead of drawing necessary attention to their cause, the efforts of these faculty created an information vacuum. Schnitzer's assertion of non-viability went publicly unchallenged while student protests felt managed and perfunctory. Social media postings were more maudlin than incendiary, as everybody played their role.
By most every account I've heard from both faculty and students, Denise Mullen was an incompetent administrator, but some of the faculty weren’t any better. When the school needed a massive push to draw attention to its cause, they even attacked their own students to shut them up. And in this vacuum, whether by design, opportunism, or obliviousness they negotiated severance packages for themselves which I’ve heard from a reputable source are 100% of their annual pay.