Yale Union, an art center in Portland established in 2010, announced this morning that as of 2021, it will no longer exist. Its historic building, its 9,400 square-foot exhibition space, its approximately 20,000 square feet of office space, and the land it sits on have been repatriated to the Native cultural community. Specifically, to the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF for short).
Yoko Ott, a prominent figure in the Seattle art scene for years, who later became the executive director of Yale Union, is credited with setting the wheels in motion for this back in 2018, shortly before her untimely death that year.
"This repatriation is symbolic in that it’s not often, or perhaps has never happened, where the owners just hand over a building to a Native organization,” says T. Lulani Arquette, the CEO of the Native Arts and Cultures Foundation, in a story up at Artnet News.
According to Yale Union:
The process to transfer Yale Union’s historic property to NACF began in mid-2018 with discussions between YU’s then Executive Director, Yoko Ott, and YU’s Board President, Flint Jamison, regarding art institutions’ potential for proposing models of restorative social change. Ms. Ott then made initial contact with NACF’s President/CEO, Lulani Arquette, which led to NACF conducting a thorough feasibility study. In December 2019, NACF’s Board of Directors approved to move forward with taking ownership of the property. Both NACF and YU would like to acknowledge Ms. Ott’s vision and leadership in initiating this transfer of ownership.
In response to today's news, Betsey Brock, executive director of On the Boards, says: "Yale Union has always shown tremendous vision and intelligence—which is in line with this inspiring change."
Brock knew Ott well, as did everyone in the Seattle art world. During her time in Seattle, Ott worked for One Reel, Frye Art Museum, and the New Foundation Seattle. She also curated shows at Seattle University's Hedreen Gallery, and at Open Satellite in Bellevue.
"I was thinking about Yoko Ott earlier this week," Brock adds, "the different institutions here she moved through, how each of them benefited from her participation, and how she pushed institutions, fellow leaders, and artists, in good directions, and created generous situations for their work to connect with audiences."
Brock goes on, "I wish I could brainstorm a little with her about our current, frustrating arts situation—I am sure she would have ideas. It's only natural that Yoko put these wheels for this transformation in motion. It's heartbreaking that Yoko isn't here to welcome Native Arts and Cultures in and celebrate with the YU and NACF communities."
As for NACF, it is "a Native-led national organization committed to mobilizing Native artists, culture bearers, communities, and leaders to influence positive social, cultural, and environmental change," according to a statement on their website. "It focuses on strengthening Native arts, providing artists and the creative community with the resources and tools they need to be successful, and expanding awareness and access to Native knowledge and truth."
The statement goes on: "NACF is accepting this special property with great appreciation for what came before. We honor and respect the elders past and present, and acknowledge the land that this building sits on and the previous Native tribes and peoples who inhabited the land."
Flint Jamison, president of Yale Union's board of directors, says, "I am proud of what we have accomplished with Yale Union over the last decade. Having been able to fulfill our mission through the unearned privilege of property ownership, it’s now time that we hand over the keys!"
Jamison says he's inspired by NACF's capacity to operate on a large scale. Just how large a scale? According to the organization:
The new national headquarters for NACF will be called the Center for Native Arts and Cultures, and the property will continue to be a site of contemporary artistic and cultural production. The building will benefit the local community and be a strong cultural asset for the city of Portland. NACF has just completed a planning process that determines its national programming and includes a vision for how it plans to maximize opportunities in the new space. The building will be a vibrant gathering place for Indigenous artists and local partnerships. It will provide space to present and exhibit, places to practice culture and make art, and areas for cultural ceremony and celebration. There will be opportunities for broad community learning, including workshops and seminars covering pertinent issues relative to decolonizing space, anti-racism, and environmental justice.
As for the site's history: "The land on which the Yale Union Laundry Building stands, indeed this entire area of the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, is the traditional homeland and fishing and gathering range of tribes throughout the region. Its wealth of resources sustained Indigenous people who lived here both year-round and seasonally. These tribes have honored, protected, and stewarded these resources for thousands of years and continue to do so today."
The Yale Union building, occupying a half a city block, was built in 1908. In total, it houses more than 30,000 square feet of space on two floors, with partial basement and partial mezzanine, plus a small 11-space parking lot. It used to be a commercial laundry until 1957, and then it was an auto fabric manufacturing facility until 2006. In 2007, it was added to the National Registry of Historic Places, in recognition of its connection to the women's labor movement.
It is located along the southern border of the Buckman neighborhood of Southeast Portland, at 800 SE 10th Avenue.