And it truly is. The People’s Art Gallery, located on the third level of the gleaming, modernistic Pioneer Place Mall in downtown Portland, is a smart alternative to “For Lease” signs in the darkened windows of former businesses. The People's Gallery is in a space left behind by a defunct children’s toy store.
"We get 60 to 100 people a day, and nobody used to come up here. It’s good for the mall and its good community service. At first it was a radical idea. Now other malls are approaching us and asking about the idea” Chris said. The space, heavily remodeled by the previous tenants, was turn-key. Painted in reds and oranges with ample display cubes, it's a custom fit for the gallery. There’s even a back room with storage and easy access to the freight elevator. It’s fabulous.
The "art gallery mall" was the brainchild of Bob Buchanan, manager of General Growth Properties (GGP) which runs Pioneer Mall. "In early 2010 Bob suggested that I run a Chris Haberman gallery, using my name to sell my own art and the art of others." Chris recalled. "At the time, early 2010, I agreed to it. I had a non-profit called Portland City Art at the time, and a business partner. We went forward with three gallery spaces. We also partnered with Gabe Flores. Gabe still has Place gallery, an installation and process space next to People's. My partner and I split before I actually began a gallery. Then, in November of 2010, I asked Jason Brown to join me at the space, which we called Peoples Art of Portland after a similar suggestion by [poster artist] Emek. We opened the whole project under a flagship of Settlement Galleries at Pioneer Mall."
Chris speaks highly of Jason Brown, his business partner. "Jason is a dear friend, colleague, fellow curator and artist - we have collaborated as curators and artists on many projects, including projects at The Goodfoot and Po' Boy Frame Shop (Jason's venues) and now, our shared gallery. His major contribution to the gallery is his connection to the art poster world, which has deep roots in Portland (with the likes of Gary Houston, EMEK, Guy Burwell, Mike King and many others). While I have been curating since 2005, Jason has run the huge monthly shows at the Goodfoot since 2001."
Chris is looking forward to the opening of the Mark Woolley Gallery next door to the People's Gallery in April, 2012. "We are very excited to have him. Mark is an icon and a true 'pioneer' to the arts in Portland for the last 25 years."
Chris reflected on the "Portland only" niche the People's gallery fills. “It’s mass culture art. PICA and TBA are high brow. Our gallery truly represents art of the people. See that scrap wood painting? That type of thing is very Portland.” Chris creates a welcoming community for artists by having large shows with broad themes such as the current Love of Portland show. For this event, over 150 artists will create works based on their love and vision of our favorite home town, Portland. Chris says “if you’re an artist in Portland and you want to show your stuff, I’ll take a look at it.”
The 150+ artists in the gallery bring a wide range of styles. A 70-something woman, Patrice Demmon, makes origami cranes. She’s aiming for a record and currently has over 11,000 on display. Emek, whose style harkens back to posters from the early Haight, has signed original work in the gallery. Portland is now Emek's home.
The people’s art concept is thriving. “It’s working-class people in Portland who buy art. It isn’t just rich people. It’s middle class people who are buying something original from local artists. I mean, instead of buying some printed poster of Monet, you can support local artists and buy something original from Portland. It’s about buy local, buy local, support your local artist, you know?” Chris says. As an indication of how happening the scene is, People's Art showed 1200 artists last year.
Jason Brown's shows at the Goodfoot epitomize the nature of people's art. Located next to Stark Naked Pizza on funky SE Stark, the Goodfoot couldn't be more of a contrast to a traditional hushed gallery in, say, the Pearl. “Jason is showing art, and not just any art. Edgy stuff. That says a lot” Chris said. I dropped by Po’ Boy framing shop and talked to Jason as he was preparing for a Last Thursday show at the Goodfoot. “It’s worked out well. You get people together who like music and most of them also like art.”
Getting all of this off the ground and developing a following takes marketing savvy. Chris brightens up when I mention how his work, and the numerous YouTube videos about his work, have a similar tone and fast-paced energy. “Yeah, I know,” Chris states matter of factly. “People say I should have gone into marketing. I’m pretty good at it.” Chris is clear that business and marketing are absolutely essential to what he’s doing. “I’m supporting myself as an artist. It’s a commitment.” Chris talked about the sales part. “I mean, in a way, we’re kind of like hustlers here. It’s like ‘Can I get you into a painting?’ But we’re honest and we’re doing good things.”
In fact, Chris is a master at making things happen in a big way. He can wave his hand at an idea and the synchronicity starts popping. Last Christmas, Chris showed his flair for getting a buzz going for a gallery show. “That was the two Big Two Hundred show—over 200 artists and over 2000 pieces in the show” Chris recalled. “We had at least 400 people queued up for the show. A bagpiper down in the food court started the show and led everybody upstairs. It was mobbed. We sold 70% of the show.” One key to success was that the art was affordable-- each piece was 40 bucks or less.
Behind his panache for putting it all together, there’s a lot of plain hard work and an innate sense for hitting the bulls eye of “this is so Portland.” Take one of his latest projects, a mural depicting the history of Hawthorne that will soon be painted on two sides of the Eagle’s Lodge at 50th and Hawthorne. “You’ll be able to see it for four blocks. It will be 12 feet by 96 feet. It will be very busy. Very dense.” Each image in the mural will depict a facet of the rich history of Hawthorne. A Portland history buff, Chris researched Hawthorne from back when it was named Asylum Avenue. The asylum, which housed people considered criminally insane, still stands although it is now a funeral home.
The mural project typifies the kind of thinking Chris brings to his work---fearless and expansive, yet intensely focused--to the point of being driven---and detailed all at the same time. Think about it. A lot of people would read a Wikipedia article about Hawthorne Street. They might even read a book about the area. Not Chris. He pounds down the entire 120-year beer and blood-soaked history in molecular detail for two solid months. Then he gets a grant to memorialize the blow-by-blow on two sides of a building that people will see for blocks. Unbelievable.
By the time we'd chatted for nearly two hours, people were starting to peer through the windows of the gallery and tug on the door. But before I left, I had one more question. How has Chris managed to circumvent the self doubt and creative paralysis that plagues so many artists? I mean, doesn’t he ever slip into a funk and wonder “what the hell am I doing?” When I asked this, Chris gave me a blank stare that spoke volumes. “I’ve never had that” he said.
Chris is running with the valve wide open, totally engaged, and spinning entire worlds. And taking everybody who’s game along for the ride.
Keep up with Chris Haberman and Jason Brown at People's Art Portland.
Note: The reception and celebration for the Eagles lodge mural completion is scheduled for June, 2012. This project is being funded through a Regional Arts and Culture Council grant.