Tapping the Well
Pacific Northwest College of Art (PNCA) President Tom Manley is busy hanging art in his office at the new headquarters in the historic 511 Building, located in Pearl District’s North Park Blocks. An aura of excitement still surrounds the recent move of the art institution, whose 106-year history is as tied to the story of Portland as the building itself. A vision for the future of PNCA, as a pivot point for Portland’s “creative corridor” fueled the nine-year project, which, under the leadership of the PNCA Board of Governors, brought together the efforts of City Hall and the Portland Development Commission, who secured the purchase of the historic post office from the National Park Service.
Dr. Manley was selected as the new president of PNCA following a nationwide search in 2003, coming from a 22-year career at the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, where he played a key role in developing Pitzer College’s renowned study abroad program. His passion for the arts and international cultures – and the interplay of the two – led him to create an accredited curriculum at a women’s college outside Osaka. A love for all types of creative expression, including literature, visual arts and cuisine, has made life an adventure for Dr. Manley, his wife Susanne, and their children.
As President of PNCA, Dr. Manley faced his biggest challenge to date: garnering community support for the funding and construction of the new headquarters. A $5 million dollar lead gift from The Harold and Arlene Schnitzer CARE Foundation got the ball rolling on the $34 million transformation, poignantly tying together another important thread of Portland story – Arlene Schnitzer was an alumna of the school (formerly known as the Portland Art Museum School), stating “I walked into the school, and my life was never the same.” At the Grand Opening this spring the new building was christened the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Art and Design.
The past, present and future are innovatively tied together in the remodel by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture, with a 2.5 story atrium providing a focal point for the 511 Gallery, an arts library, a 200-seat black box “Mediatheque” theater, and an innovation studio. The new construction is LEED Platinum, and there is talk of creating a new park block adjacent to the school.
President Manley’s motto for the gargantuan endeavor was “Creativity Works Here”. With the community-wide dream of establishing one of the most creative neighborhoods in the nation, it looks like that work has just begun.
It’s been a surprising ride – in a good way. It’s a little like whitewater rafting: exhilarating, with patches of contemplation, taking in the wonder of seeing an institution like this (in a community that is so grounded in creativity) flourish and be able to realize its potential.
Coming to PNCA has been a real joy, because there is something that happens in art and design schools that really makes them wonderfully centered and balanced. There is a struggle around whether education can be based meaningfully in experience, and whether it can have applied dimensions. Art and design are all about how you use the creative tools that you have been given to actually make things, demonstrating all of the education and experiences that the student has been able to achieve. It is really an amazing process to go through as an educator.
What do you feel is most important to a student’s experience while pursuing an arts degree?
The opportunity to work in different educational settings has taught me that it is all about how we help our students find their voice and their power in the world. There is not just one way of doing that, but what I have experienced in the 35+ years that I have been doing this is that the more that our attention and our resources are focused on getting students to engage the world, the better they are able to use their power. I think that is the critical thing that we need now more than ever – for the next generations to exert power over their circumstances, in order to change them.
AT PNCA we talk about influence and concern. Your concern is what worries you, engages you or motivates you. Those concerns can be large circles that have to do with planetary issues like global warming, but they can also be aesthetic concerns about how to make a photograph that really captures something that others haven’t been able to, or how to create an object that carries weight and meaning, that is new and original. Your concerns are what you are trying to address.
Your influence – the ability to exert your power – is not for your own benefit necessarily, but for you to be able to address those concerns – to have an impact on issues that are larger than yourself and that are significant in terms of what you value.
Normally, we feel as human beings that the sphere of our concern is much larger than the sphere of our influence. It is my view that institutions should be equipping students to navigate our world, and to find their voice and their power – whether aesthetically, psychologically, financially or environmentally.
What role do you feel the arts play in society?
I think that artistic expression is something that comes from the deepest places in the human psyche. Because of that, art is this unifying element that cuts across all dimensions, including cultural dimensions. Art is one of the forces that makes culture. I have wondered over my 12 years here, how is it that a young person who is making a painting or sculpture (I am dying to look around and point to something – a lot of the things in this room were made by our students, faculty or graduates), is doing something that has such a universal connection?
I think it is because the power of creativity that they are tapping into is common to all human beings. We hold up artists (I use the term more widely than visual artists) as the most creative people on the planet, but everyone is creative. The arts are a taproot to that really deep well of human creativity that repeatedly is responsible for the greatest shifts that human beings undertake in any field – medicine, business, engineering, architecture… it is all traced back to human creativity. That is where I revel and am awed by the power of art.
Are you an artist yourself?
I am a writer. I often demur when I am asked that question, because I am not a trained visual artist (although I am picking some stuff up over the last dozen years), but I do consider myself a creative person. I am also the best audience for the work that happens in this place, because I am truly susceptible to magical things. While I don’t believe in magic, I do see magical things all around.
Like what, for example?
This building. No one could have completely predicted how this would fully be experienced. That experience is now going to go on for hundreds of years as people view the architecture – the interplay of old and new. Just to walk around the central atrium area and look through at different angles and see how lines and spaces are converging, and how the light changes – that is absolutely magical.
It was also magical to walk into the 511 Building when we had our very first First Thursday and look up at one of the panels in the gilded ceiling – there are only two spaces that are not covered with ornamentation – and notice our students had created animations that fit them perfectly. To see everybody looking up and watching them – that was a magical moment!
What philosophy guides your decisions regarding the direction of PNCA?
My philosophy – and my politics – have always been around this idea of building inclusiveness and diversity – diversity in all its best senses. This idea that the more perspectives you can bring to any conversation, the richer that conversation will be. You can never have too much diversity.
The execution involved in creating a community that can live around those values is another matter altogether. A vision is never going to be achieved by just one person’s efforts. If you are not able to lead and inspire and mobilize people’s commitments around what they also see, then you are not going to achieve very much.
The other piece that creates a tension is that it is my responsibility to stretch regarding providing a vision that is not just my vision – to listen, and playback for people a fuller picture that one hopes is inspiring. That vision should be ambitious. It shouldn’t be easy to achieve. It shouldn’t compromise in terms of its higher potential.
And there will be messes. Creativity means that you have to make a mess.
PNCA is 106 years old. It has always been a generative force around the arts landscape in Portland. It would be hard to imagine what the visual arts – what the Portland Art Museum – would be like without PNCA. A number of years ago, The Oregonian ran a Sunday section entitled “Ten Visionary Artists” and nine out of the ten were faculty or students of this school.
But I think Portland has stepped into a new space, one that is being shaped not only by the demands of this city, but also by the larger demands of the world. It is all built around this idea of creativity as a resource. Creativity is always in demand, but it has not always been recognized or recompensed the way – perhaps – it ought to be. In the educational setting, the arts are often pushed to the periphery. Only in the last few years have schools like Princeton and Harvard created these amazing centers for the arts, because recent shifts in the worlds of industry and business have created a demand for leaders who are creative.
Portland – for lots of reasons – has become a hotspot in global creativity. The evidence for that is the number of young entrepreneurs, artists and creative practitioners who are coming here. The landscape is conducive to supporting what they can contribute. That’s what Portland is now.
The question for PNCA is: “What role does an institution that understands and identifies with that play in helping to anchor the arts, and to be a powerhouse for them?” And that’s what we see this school as – a platform for creative action. The City stepped up to support this new space because they recognized the connection between having a top-level creative institution and being a world-class creative city. It took an attitude of calculated risk and courage from the leadership of the City, and it wouldn’t have happened without Portland Development Commission.
It is still dreamlike to walk through this amazing space, and to imagine how the different areas are going to be used in the future. It is a wonderful feeling! But, I am always about: “What’s next?”
Photos by Dax McMillan