Since its inception approximately three years ago, the Portland Museum of Modern Art (PMOMA) has been a dynamic presence in Portland’s art scene. Founded by Portland, Oregon native Libby Werbel, PMOMA is nestled in a space fashioned from a storage area in the basement of Portland’s Mississippi Records. “My relationship to them [Mississippi Records] is crucial. We’re part of the same community. We rely on this community support, and all the other people who rally, to help make each exhibit happen.”
PMOMA has contributed greatly to Portland’s cultural evolution, with exhibits featuring art world luminaries such as Chris Johansson, Lonnie Holley, and Howard Finster, to regional anomalies such as Mr. Otis. Despite its more conventional name, Werbel’s project has an obvious skew towards work by artists who are most often considered as “outsiders”—though Werbel favors the term “self-taught,” or “visionary.” Roughly half of PMOMA’s exhibits, including the current exhibit “Mamie & Sally”, fall into this category.
“The name is meant to be slightly subversive,” Werbel explains. “I moved back to Portland eight years ago after working in the arts in New York City, and I felt at the time that there was a lack of diversity in our arts culture here. Starting PMOMA was an opportunity for me to experiment with making my vision happen in Portland—on my own terms.”
Werbel is certainly contributing to the Portland art scene in significant ways. “Libby brings something really unique to the culture scene in Portland,” explains Mack McFarland, artist and Director of the Center for Contemporary Art & Culture. “Beyond her curation at PMOMA, she has partnered with the Hollywood Theater and the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art’s (PICA) Time Based Art Festival (TBA).”
Werbel’s openings are known throughout the area to be inclusive and welcoming. McFarland adds, “PMOMA has the best openings, it feels like family. In fact, sometimes her family is there and they bring a pot of chili to share, or a roasted chicken.”
Werbel is always learning. She’s running the gallery, and teaching herself as it evolves.
Art programs serve many constituencies and are continually evolving. The PMOMA, while very much a part of the fabric of Portland’s cultural community, is shepherded primarily by Werbel herself. She is teaching herself to run it as it progresses. An important aspect of this has been recognizing the importance of creating relationships with lenders.
“I’m in my third year, and the space is constantly changing. The information I make available on my site is meant to be straight to the point. ‘We show art here, come on down, this is what we got!’ I think that in building a strong catalog of exhibitions I have been able to create a community of lenders who trust me, who see what I am trying to create. That has really grown since I started. A major aspect of this project is showing work lent from private collections, which cuts out a lot of institutional rigmarole. I get to draw a direct line from someone who collects cool work to people who wouldn’t otherwise get to experience it.”
People often feel uncomfortable in art galleries and museums. There are many reasons for this, and the uninitiated can easily end up feeling like outsiders. Werbel recognizes this and has learned to fashion an inviting atmosphere.
“We really try to make each opening a fun party. This allows the shows I curate to reach a wider audience. I really like surprising viewers, and I like helping them recognize that the barriers between them and art are a presumption. I have grown more confident that this is important to do. You would be surprised how many people feel alienated while visiting an art exhibition or attending an art opening. So I see creating a welcoming space as a major part of the space’s agenda as a whole.”
For the most part, Werbel supports the space with her own money. She has received some outside support, such as the Precipice Grant, which is designed to fund non-traditional art projects and spaces. The grant was awarded through PICA from The Andy Warhol Foundation and Calligram Foundation funds, and helps to pay the rent.
While Werbel doesn’t exhibit exclusively “visionary” or “self-taught” artists, she likes “a rawer approach to art making” and is drawn to a brutalist aesthetic. While she’s deeply reflective about the language aligned with the “outsider” art world, she isn’t sure she’s figured out a way to talk about it that feels comfortable.
“I like thinking of someone having to teach themselves how to do something or make something to express themselves or depict the world they see, even if they don’t have the facilities or resources to receive formal training.”
Werbel is drawn to all aspects of creativity and espouses an essential belief in the potential of everyone. She elaborates, “How fantastic is the human spirit and its determination to create? In my experience the purist version of that creation comes from these unassuming or unexpected people. I appreciate sign painters and cake decorators in the same exact way- the magic is in the details.”
Werbel’s programming has great balance; she is keenly aware of the sequencing of her shows, and she often represents women and minorities. The current exhibit, “Mamie & Sally,” running until March 31st, is particularly inspiring for Werbel.
“The most amazing part of this show is that, despite the fact that these two woman both come from an oppressed reality, living and creating art on government issued land, this work is totally bright and full of joy. Their origin or hardships did not define them or their art making. Even Sally M Mulda’s paintings, which depict realistic moments in her Town Camp (including constant police presence and poverty), have so much beauty and whimsy in their composition and color choices.”
Werbel’s insightful curation has gained much attention throughout the Pacific Northwest and recent exhibits such as Jibz Cameron’s Dynasty Handbag outfits have been noted in national publications.
“It’s amazing,” says McFarland. “An exhibition program that includes internationally known artists like Johanna Jackson and Ray Johnson, and Northwest gems like Mr. Otis and RICHART. That’s a power house of culture.”