Volunteer with RACC for our Community Engagement Series!

Role Summary

RACC is hosting a  series of community events. These are opportunities to ask questions about the recent announcement from the City of Portland about the proposal to not renew RACC’s contract, and to learn how community members can support RACC at this time

Volunteers will be helping with set up/take down,  organizing outreach materials, helping with food prep, speaking to community members and encouraging them to ask questions or make comments.

  • Status: Event Volunteer
  • Dates: September 25th, September 28th, October 5th, October 17th
  • All events: 5pm-8:30pm
  • Locations
  • Department Lead | Supervisory: Mario, Manager of Advocacy and Engagement, and Chanda, Arts Education Program Manager

Essential Functions and Responsibilities

  • Be willing to learn about RACC, our core values, history, and programs 
  • Attend virtual RACC volunteer orientation and training
  • Assist with setting up/tidying the space for the event
  • Speak to community members and encourage them to ask questions

Required Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

  • Positive energy and people skills
  • Excellent verbal communication skills
  • Ability to stand or sit for up to 3 ½  hours
  • Ability to communicate effectively with diverse people
  • An interest in the arts, culture, arts funding, community engagement, arts & culture advocacy, or arts organizations
  • Be able to help lift some equipment, up to 50 lbs with assistance

Time Commitment Needed

  • 1 ½  hour training and orientation
  • Minimum of 3 ½  hours at one of the events
  • No maximum commitment; time slots available for all 3 events

Support Provided 

  • Training and orientation will be provided prior to the event 
  • Volunteer Handbook for resources and information
  • Snacks, tea, and coffee will be provided
  •  Travel reimbursement with receipts
  • Team members from RACC will be available to offer insight and support

Suggested Dress

  • These are fairly informal events.
  • Masks may be worn, but are not required.
  • Please reach out with any concerns or questions. 

To apply

Please fill in the intake form. Please state the role as: “Event Volunteer – RACC Community Engagements” Spaces are limited. 

Call for 2-D Portable Artworks – Public Art Purchase Opportunity!

Sabina Haque, New Portlanders, Photographic collage printed on archival photo paper, 2019. This piece is within the Portable Works Collection.

Interpretation services available, email info@racc.org

    • Servicio de interpretación disponible
    • Предоставляются услуги переводчика
    • Có dịch vụ thông dịch
    • 通訳サービスあり

Opportunity Overview

The Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) and the City of Portland invites artists who currently reside in Greater Portland Metropolitan Area to submit 2-D artworks for purchase, to be added into the Portable Works Public Art Collection.

The budget available for purchasing artworks totals approximately $50,000.  We will purchase individual artworks valued $200-$5000. This budget comes from the City of Portland.

Artworks may relate to and celebrate the people and places of Portland, inspired by the four new geographic districts. These new districts have been established to better include the diversity of community voices within City governance.  An independent panel of artists, arts workers, community members and City employees will select the artwork to be purchased. To learn about these new districts, and how to apply for this art purchase opportunity, be sure to read the following guidelines and tune into our info sessions—details are listed below.

Please submit your application by Wednesday, October 18th, 2023 by 11:59pm through the Opportunity Portal: racc.org/apply

Important Dates

  • September 19th, 2023 – Info Session on Zoom
  • October 18th, 2023 – Applications Due
  • Mid-December, 2023 – Artists notified if artwork is selected.

About our Public Art Collection

RACC is purchasing finished 2-D artwork for the Public Art Collection. Works purchased will enter the Portable Works Collection or the Visual Chronicle of Portland Collection.

The Portable Works Collection consists of more than 1,600 artworks that rotate through a variety of publicly accessible City and County buildings. The Visual Chronicle began in 1985 and consists of more than 400 works on paper that focus on artists’ views of the city’s social and urban landscapes, with the intent to record the evolutions of Portland over time. These works are exhibited throughout City buildings. To view the entire Public Art Collection, please visit our online search.

Theme: Taking Inspiration from Portland’s New City Map

Through extensive community input, the City of Portland’s Independent District Commission has developed a new map of Portland that is comprised of four districts, following state and federal districting laws. These districts contain communities of shared cultural backgrounds and common interests. Essentially, these districts have been defined in an effort to promote strong collaboration and community engagement for the city’s future. Including neighborhood voices within the city governance helps ensure every community’s needs are met.

The artwork submitted for this opportunity may celebrate or take inspiration from the people and places of Portland, by connecting to one or more of Portland’s four new geographic districts. Artwork may convey or reference personal, social, historical, political, or natural phenomena that relates to any nook and cranny within Portland’s neighborhoods. The work may also relate to broader ideas of borders, maps, place, community, and similar topics. Note: we understand that themes can be limiting for artists and will consider artwork, whether it abstractly or directly relates to any of these ideas.


Peninsula Park (on N. Ainsworth and N. Albina in District 2) features a turn of the century European-inspired rose garden that is not only encircled with blooming roses, but in recent years has become a site of gatherings, activations, vigils and protests. This site is treasured by many as a place of healing and transformation. Artwork may be inspired by experiences at the park, features in the park, or activities within.

The Portland Mercado is a hub within Portland (on SE Foster and SE 73rd Street in District 3) for Latinx culture with multiple small businesses including numerous food carts, grocery shopping, and gathering spaces. Artwork inspired by this site may convey food, care, celebration, gathering, and vibrant colors.

Other examples of areas in Portland that may inspire or relate to artworks include:

    • Powell Butte Nature Park in District 1
    • Kenton in District 2
    • Mount Tabor in District 3
    • Old Town Chinatown in District 4

Further reading about the new districts:


The goal of RACC art purchases is to ensure that the art in the public realm adequately represents the many communities that make up our region. The Public Art Collection is a rotating collection that is displayed in accessible municipal spaces and can be experienced free of charge. Installations of public artworks can be found within conference rooms, hallways, elevator lobbies, office spaces, and more.

RACC is dedicated to continuing to expand the range of artistic and cultural expression represented in the Public Art Collection to rethink how our models of artist support can be most responsive to the changing needs of the surrounding communities.

Eligibility & Selection Criteria

Artists currently living in the Greater Portland Metropolitan Area are eligible for this opportunity.

Submitted artworks must relate (abstractly or specifically) to the themes associated with the four new geographical districts of Portland.

We strongly encourage artists in under-represented communities to apply for this opportunity, including artists who identify as Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and people of color; LGBTQIA+; and artists with disabilities.

The types of original artwork that qualify for this opportunity are works on paper, paintings, photographs, drawings, textiles, collage, Bas relief, mosaic, glass, ceramic, metal, prints and other original media intended to be hung on a wall with a 4” depth maximum.

Artists, please specify clearly if the submitted artwork is part of a series of works, and if the series needs to be purchased together as a whole, or if individual works in the series can be purchased.

Artworks with electrical components are not eligible for purchase at this time.

Size: 2-D artwork that fit the following dimensions will be prioritized; however, we will consider larger work:

30”W X 40”H X 4”D or smaller (76cmW X 102cmH X 10cmD or smaller)

RACC and the City of Portland will ultimately determine whether work will enter the broader 2-D collection entitled the Portable Works Collection, or the Visual Chronicle Collection of Portland.

Framing: Please submit finished, unframed artworks, unless the framing is an integral part of the concept of the artwork (please state that in the “Conceptual information” field in the application for that submitted piece). RACC reserves the right to reframe purchased artwork if a submitted frame does not meet the collection standards. Consider the potential for your submission to be framed behind glass or acrylic, to ensure its longevity within the public realm.

All submitted original artwork must be completely finished, dry, sprayed (if art media could smear), and work must be in suitable condition for framing or public presentation. Please do not submit artworks with conservation issues such as rips, tears, peeling, flaking, and/or water damage. RACC reserves the right to return any artwork that does not meet the collection standards.

The panel reserves the right to purchase work by an artist who does not directly apply to this call, if appropriate.

James Allen, The Trolley Years, Book excavation, 2016. This piece is within the Portable Works Collection.

How to Apply

All application materials must be submitted through the RACC Opportunity Portal, an online application system. Applicants will need to create an account, or log into their existing account at www.racc.org/apply.

For first-time users of the portal, view a brief video learning how to register here.

Application Requirements

  • Statement of Interest: Provide a brief description about the artworks submitted and your overall art practice and how your work relates to and celebrates the people and places of Portland, inspired by the four new geographic districts.
    • There are two options in submitting these responses:
      • Written Statement: 3000 characters or less
      • Oral Statement: Upload a video/voice recording no longer than 2 minutes. Please note this is not expected to be a highly produced/edited recording, a short recording that responds to the questions is enough. The intent of this option is to provide an opportunity for individuals who feel they can better represent themselves through an alternative medium to writing. Some examples include applicants for whom English is a second language, those who identify as neurodivergent, people living with disability and/or other accessibility considerations.
  • Up to 6 images of past work: You can submit up to 6 artworks and provide up to two images per artwork. Images should be jpegs no larger than 5 megabytes each. For each artwork, provide the title, media, dimensions, year completed, and purchase price. Conceptual information is optional.
    • (Note: If you are submitting a series that consists of more than six images, please include images that best represent the series and provide additional information regarding the series in the conceptual information field.)
    • Please only submit original prints and artworks, and not reproductions of artworks.
    • You have the option to upload a video file of the artwork instead of a jpeg.
  • *Optional* Resume/CV: Upload a PDF no more than two pages long that outlines artistic activities and /or professional accomplishments.

Once you have started your application, you can save after each step and sign out—your application will be saved as a draft that you can continue to work on as needed. Once you hit “Submit,” your application is final. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions during the process.

Due date: Wednesday, October 18th, 2023. Applications must be submitted online by 11:59 p.m. PST

If you don’t have a computer or online access, please don’t hesitate to contact RACC for assistance.

Selection Process

Note: A panel of artists, curators, community members, and City representatives will select artwork for purchase. In the first round, digital images and their descriptions will be submitted and reviewed by the panel. In the second round, high scoring work will be reviewed in further detail in-person. Artists will be required to drop off or ship their work to RACC in advance of this in-person review. Details will be provided to artists.

We’re Here to Help!

    • Info Session for Artists: September 19th, 12-1pm on Zoom, RSVP here.
      • Attendance is encouraged but not required to apply for this opportunity. Follow @regionalarts on Instagram to stay informed of this and other upcoming opportunities.
    • Questions about the overall opportunity? Contact: Morgan Ritter at mritter@racc.org
    • Questions about the online portal and application materials? Contact: Nicky Cook at ncook@racc.org
    • If you don’t have a computer or online access, please don’t hesitate to contact RACC for assistance.

Getting Help with your Application

(Optional) We strongly encourage you to attend the info session, especially if you are a first-time applicant. Public Art team members and RACC partners will share background information of the call for artwork, what we are looking for, and exactly how to submit an application.

Interpretation services available, email info@racc.org

Servicio de interpretación disponible

Предоставляются услуги переводчика

Có dịch vụ thông dịch


Why a Regional Arts Approach is Best for the Community to Thrive – Oregon ArtsWatch

Carol Tatch (second from left), Executive Director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council, with (from left) Javon Johnson, Ted Lange, Regina Taylor, and Phillip Bernard Smith. RACC hosted these artists during the recent Pacific Northwest Multi Cultural Readers Series and Film Festival. Photo: Meech Boakye

The City of Portland has notified the Regional Arts & Culture Council of its intent to end a 28-year fiscal relationship by Summer 2024. Carol Tatch, Executive Director of RACC, wrote an opinion piece for Oregon Arts Watch on why a regional arts approach is best for the community to thrive. 

“Our grantees are not just names on applications; they are our partners in our mission. RACC continues to demonstrate how our local region can successfully engage, support, uplift, highlight, and share arts and culture. RACC has clearly demonstrated it is the solution for clear access to funding, engagement with respect and dignity, and a regional advocate for more funding and support for arts and culture, for the past 28 years.”

We invite your questions and ask that you actively demand that the city support RACC in continuing its mission, which deeply honors equity, transparency, and community uplift. Please check out the RACC Advocacy Hub as well as joining with us for our “RACC in Community” conversations coming soon (check our website and social media for updates on where and when). All are invited!

Read the full article here.

Call for Event Volunteers: Making the Case

RACC and the Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (OVLA) are joining forces this fall to host a series of three workshops geared towards educating artists and art workers on legal matters pertaining to their creative practice. This series aims to empower artists with the knowledge and tools they need to make informed decisions in their creative endeavors, while also offering a chance for our local art community to come together and connect.

The Event Volunteer will assist in the facilitation of these important learning opportunities. The event will run from 5pm to 7.00pm, but volunteers will be required to help set up from 4pm, and to help tidy up after the event.

Role Overview

  • Event Volunteer – Making the Case – RACC & Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (OVLA)
  • Status: Volunteer
  • Dates & Times: September 13th, October 11th, November 8th, from 4pm-7.30pm
  • Location: Regional Arts and Culture Council, 411 NW Park, Suite 101, Portland, OR
  • Department Lead | Supervisory: Yaelle Amir, Grants Program Specialist, and Sean Cumming, Hiring & Volunteer Lead

Essential Functions and Responsibilities

  • Be willing to learn about RACC, our core values, history, and programs 
  • Attend virtual RACC volunteer orientation and training
  • Assist with setting up the space for the event
  • Greet visitors and assist with access to the event
  • Support the Grants Program Specialist with facilitation of the hybrid elements of the event
  • Assist in any tidying of the space after the event

Required Knowledge, Skills and Abilities

  • Positive energy and people skills
  • Excellent verbal communication skills
  • Ability to stand or sit for up to 3 hours
  • Ability to communicate effectively with diverse people
  • Knowledge of facilitating hybrid events, Zoom, and audio visual technology preferred
  • An interest in the arts, culture, arts funding, community engagement, arts & culture advocacy, or arts organizations

 Time Commitment Needed

  • 1 ½  hour training and orientation
  • Minimum of 3 1/2 hours at one of the events
  • No maximum commitment; time slots available for all 3 events

Support Provided

  • Training and orientation will be provided prior to the event 
  • Volunteer Handbook for resources and information
  • Snacks, tea, and coffee will be provided
  • Travel reimbursement with receipts
  • Team members from RACC will be available to offer insight and support

Suggested Dress

This is a fairly informal event and will be in an air-conditioned building. Masks may be worn, but are not required. Please reach out with any concerns or questions.

To Apply

Please fill in the intake form here. Please state the role as: “Event Volunteer – RACC and the Oregon Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts (OVLA).” Note: Spaces are limited. 

RACC’s Unwavering Commitment to Arts: Discussing the Future of Arts Funding on “Eye on Northwest Politics”

In a recent “Eye on Northwest Politics” segment on KOIN 6, Carol Tatch, Executive Director of the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC), addressed Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan’s decision to terminate the city’s contract with RACC. Carol spoke with Ken Boddie about how this action raises critical concerns about the future of arts and cultural development in Portland at an especially pivotal moment.

RACC is a community-based organization that stands for the values and desires of the community. The organization was formed 28 years ago with a mission to foster artistic expression in the Portland metro area, and this mission is reflected in everything we do. Since then, RACC has been at the forefront of arts and culture, leading the region in understanding what our artists and creatives need.

The decision to terminate the contract is particularly concerning for several reasons. First, it removes arts funding decisions from the hands of the community and places them within government agencies. RACC was established to ensure that arts funding is decided by the community.

Second, RACC is more efficient and faster in its operations than what can be replicated at the government level. RACC uses community reviewers who are familiar with the arts and have specialized knowledge. This ensures that funding decisions are equitable and reflect the voices of the community. We also offer professional development opportunities and engage with the community at levels that cannot be replicated at the City level. RACC is a nonprofit, non-partisan group that has been responsive to the community’s needs.

Furthermore, it is essential to understand that RACC is not a government agency. We work with our communities to ensure that there is a diverse and equitable lens in our approach to arts and culture. We have garnered community trust over time and have become a leading voice in the arts and culture ecosystem in the Portland metro area.

As we move forward, we remain focused on the larger community and are exploring how best to continue in our role. What’s more important is the loss of community input and the community’s voice in making decisions about which artists and arts organizations have their voices lifted or diminished. We were created by the people for the people, and today’s RACC is the culmination of long-time community regional needs.

We are excited to be part of the solution for the City of Portland and all our partners. Portland is at a pivotal point in its economic recovery, and we look forward to being part of the solution. We are the fabric of the Portland Metro region that threads together art and cultural communities, and we are ready to face the challenges ahead with the expertise, heart, and vision that RACC has sustained for over a quarter-century.

Thank you for your continued support. We encourage you to watch the full segment to learn more about our efforts to support the arts community, our plans for the future, and the significance of a centralized organization serving artists, creatives, and the broader creative economy. Despite the upcoming changes, we remain diligently committed to our mission. 

RACC Grantee Heléna Dupre Thompson’s “Unintentional Spectacles”

Laura Vincent Design & Gallery is a space in downtown Portland known since 2018 for its careful selection of contemporary artists. We visited to interview artist Heléna Dupre Thompson and view her exhibition Unintentional Spectacles, funded in part by a Make|Learn|Build grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council (RACC). 

Thompson was raised in the industrial city of Providence, Rhode Island, and worked as a firefighter. This exhibition served as a testament to her background. Thompson extracts stories from what many overlook: utility poles covered in posters, skate parks, and the undersides of skateboards, transforming close-up images into abstract worlds. 

On view alongside Unintentional Spectacles was James Florschutz’s exhibition, Assembled Fragments. Constructed out of found materials, these objects carried their own histories, challenging our views on urban sprawl and consumerism. Together, these two artists’ were in conversation, their works resonating with each other, weaving narratives of urban life and transformation from the seemingly mundane.

The phrase “industrial beauty” seems like an oxymoron, but in Thompson’s hands, it becomes an exploration of the aesthetic potential hidden in the mundane. “I’ve always been drawn to abstraction,” she says. Providence is a city with an industrial history like her current home, Portland. Despite the geographical distance and the years away, she found unexpected similarities between the two cities. “Providence is kind of like a really small version of Portland,” she notes, describing the shared landscapes, content, and political undercurrents, though also acknowledging a few east-west coast differences.

Her work, characterized by magnifying her lens deep into her subjects, is layered with history, the passage of time, and the gentle or not-so-gentle interventions by humans and nature alike. Focusing on the elements that resonate most with her, Thompson encapsulates vast landscapes within tiny surface areas. “Most of my [photographs]…are about a one to two-inch surface area,” she shares; yet these miniature compositions hint at large geological formations. 

Thompson challenges the notion that her work is a form of documentation. While she captures the tangible realities of her subjects, she intends to remove them from their context and allow them to stand separate. It’s an intriguing juxtaposition of preservation and abstraction that pulls viewers into an almost ethereal space, urging them to question and rethink what they’re perceiving. “I do this…for the viewer to see it however they want to see it,” she explained. The result is an abstraction so detailed, it becomes a world unto itself.

Thompson embraces spontaneity in her creative process, and her work emerges from the unexpected, while staying grounded in the physical world. “Most of my work happens on-site,” Thompson reveals. But there is an element of serendipity at play. She explains, “Sometimes I’ll be riding my bike and I’ll find chunks of metal or glass [on the roadside]. I’ll [then] take them back to my studio and compose them there.”

“Being in that environment, hearing the sounds, seeing the people, meeting the people, smelling the smells… It makes me more connected to the city and the people.”

Her experimentation is not confined to stationary objects; she draws inspiration even from the fleeting, like skateboarders gliding by at the park. “I’m interested in the surfaces that the skaters skate on, but also what the undersides of their boards look like,” she says, unveiling an exciting recent find, recycled skateboard decks. “This is the thing that scraped the wall that I was photographing and now…already…this is a piece,” she marvels, cradling the board. “I love [this] kind of layering…First of all, there’s a graphic on it, right? And then somebody bought it and put these stickers on it. And then who knows where this board has been? Now, through the actions of the skater, it becomes a mashing and regeneration of the original colors, lines and textures,” she contemplates, her words subtly drawing parallels between her work and life itself – a multitude of intricate, layered experiences.

Thompson sees the relationship with these environments and communities as a two-way street — she was observing them, and they were inadvertently shaping her. 

“Being in that environment, hearing the sounds, seeing the people, meeting the people, smelling the smells… It makes me more connected to the city and the people. Even if I see them once, there’s a bond that I feel more connected to,” she confessed. “Being amongst artists and communities, I’ve gotten so much out of that and learned so much from it.” These interactions fostered a sense of shared understanding, a silent bond that she found incredibly nurturing. “I feel like it makes me a more present person, more caring. As artists, we have this connection that a lot of people don’t have. It’s made me feel more whole in a lot of ways, more connected to my environment and myself.”

Thompson also noted the crucial role of funding bodies like RACC, acknowledging how its support had impacted her journey as an artist. She concluded, “[This grant] allowed me to take a few leaps forward, to prioritize my craft, to grow, and to learn. I truly believe I wouldn’t have been in this gallery now if it weren’t for the timing of that grant.” 

As we wrapped up, I was given the exciting news that Thompson had been asked to be represented by Laura Vincent Gallery as the show concluded, confirming the steady evolution of her artistic trajectory. Laura Vincent Gallery’s invitation emphasizes Thompson’s unique visual language and the raw intimacy she brings to her work. With her journey marked by a non-traditional, self-guided education, Thompson’s story reflects the potential for diverse routes into the art world, celebrating creativity that thrives outside established norms. 

All images by Heléna Dupre Thompson, from Unintentional Spectacles.” 

For RACC – Community Matters

By Carol Tatch, Executive Director

Many of you have heard: Portland City Commissioner Dan Ryan announced he has created a separate office of arts and culture inside Portland city government. He is also planning to not renew RACC’s contract when it expires on June 30, 2024. This will seriously impact RACC’s ability to serve you.  

Here’s why this matters  — and why we believe Commissioner Dan Ryan is making a grave mistake.  

Everything RACC does  — through our grantmaking, support to artists and arts organizations, and public art programs — is focused on the health and well-being of arts and culture in the Portland Metro region. Our work benefits city residents as well as everyone in the larger metro area. A thriving arts and culture community is what our area is known for across the nation, and RACC plays an essential role in this.  

Perhaps the most critical idea for people to understand is that a decentralized approach to distributing public support for arts and culture will lead to significant gaps in service and support. The potential for lasting damage to a fragile eco-system that has experienced tremendous challenges in the last three years is real and considerable. There is an important distinction between what is, and what could be if city commissioners vote to defund RACC. We consistently put the region’s artists and creatives, and our communities, first, and have a documented tenure of distributing our partners’ funds with integrity. We listen to the individual voices within our communities, and believe that you should be part of artistic decisions in your community. There is currently a Cultural Planning process underway that is not upheld by this decision. If there are changes to be made to how RACC and the City operate together, it should be done following the analysis of community input. 

We have been hearing from many community members that you support the continuation of RACC as the primary steward of public funding for arts and culture. If you want to learn more about why it is vital to maintain RACC and protect our communities’ artists and creatives, ensuring everyone’s access to art, here’s what you can do: 

  • Share your perspective: Reach out to your local officials to voice concern for Commissioner Ryan’s plan to end RACC’s contract and create a government-run office of arts and culture. We’ve prepared some letter templates that you can adapt to your point of view; please click here for information and downloads to get you started. 
  • Speak your mind: Sign up to testify at a City Council meeting. This is your time as a member of the public. Let City Commissioners know you’re not happy they’re leaving you out of future arts funding decisions. 
  • Join us: In a few weeks we will host a series of community conversations to listen to your concerns and suggestions. We’ll also share highlights of what we’ve achieved in the last 28 years — and what you could lose if the city follows through on its plan to take arts funding from the Regional Arts & Culture Council. 
  • Sign up: If you haven’t already, please sign up for our newsletter and share with friends and family who may be interested in supporting our collective mission! 

For almost three decades, RACC has walked the talk of our mission and values: To enrich our communities through arts and culture and create a thriving region, powered by creativity, bringing arts and culture to every neighborhood. This mission was thoughtfully designed in collaboration with our public funding partners.  

Please let us know if you have any ideas or questions and stay tuned. Thank you so much for your ongoing support – it means the world to us.  

— Carol 

RACC Grantee North Pole Studio Recount their Experience at the Outsider Art Fair

In the spring of 2020, North Pole Studio emerged as a testament to creative inclusion and artistic empowerment. In June of 2023, I spoke with Sula Willson about the organization and their recent experience at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City, a trip made possible through a Regional Arts & Culture Council Arts3C grant. Co-founded by a dedicated group of artists, educators, and advocates — Sula Willson, Mary Ellen Andersen, Davis Wohlford, Sarah Mensah — the organization serves as a robust platform supporting careers in the arts, particularly for artists with autism and intellectual/developmental disabilities. As Willson shared in our conversation, “…we decided to open North Pole Studio as another option for folks who needed a creative space that was intentionally smaller, intentionally quieter, and highly individualized.” 

A large, colorful artwork filled with bold lines and abstract shapes sits on a wall. Below it, a comfy looking couch. On the adjacent wall sit five smaller artworks of varying size.

Housed in NW Marine Artworks, Portland’s largest collaborative of professional artist studios, North Pole Studio is more than a 1,200 sq/ft space for creation: it embodies the belief that understanding diverse human experiences is foundational to a vibrant and whole community. With an unwavering commitment to fostering self-determination and facilitating meaningful connections, the organization ensures that its artists thrive as visible contributors to both local and national contemporary art communities. “We always say that the space belongs to the artists… and we are here to facilitate whatever artists come to create and pursue,” says Willson, encapsulating the mission of North Pole Studio and its focused approach. 

In a vertical line, three small paintings on cardboard sit on a wall. Each depict colorful, costumed, faceless figures. To the right and left are more gestural and abstract framed works. A potted plant peeks into the left side of the image.

Communication is central at North Pole Studio, bridging gaps and enabling artists to navigate opportunities and employment within the art world and beyond. Willson explains, “…we scaffold communication in a lot of different ways, but we use a lot of social stories, visual supports,” tailoring contracts or other documents that may be inaccessible to individual artists. Collaboratively, unique strategies are crafted for each artist. For some artists like James Enos, the studio acts as the primary liaison with his book dealer. For others, like Austin Brague, guidance is provided as he applies for opportunities independently.  The need for spaces like this studio is great, as evidenced by North Pole Studio’s rapid growth. As the organization begins to tackle questions of growth and scalability, one thing is clear: at North Pole Studio, the individual needs of the artists will always take center stage. 

As with many arts nonprofits, the challenging landscape of funding underscores their mission. In an endeavor to make their workshops more accessible, the studio has introduced a sliding scale fee for all programs, which in turn amplifies the need for more robust external funding. Despite this terrain, the determination of Willson, Andersen, and the myriad collaborators that allow the space to run smoothly, remains unwavering. What keeps them going is their recognition of the transformative influence that this support and advocacy has on artists’ lives. Willson describes, “having someone recognize that you are capable of something bigger than you thought… is empowering within itself.” 

In our conversation, Willson highlighted North Pole Studio’s core belief of fostering individual growth and opening doors to opportunities for artists with autism and intellectual/developmental disabilities. Their commitment to this mission was brought to life when they attended the Outsider Art Fair in New York City, made possible through funding from RACC. This experience served as both an enriching platform for their artists and a milestone in the studio’s journey. Now, to truly capture the experience, let’s turn to the team at North Pole Studio, who share below their firsthand reflections and insights from the fair: 

In March 2022, RAAC awarded an Arts3C grant that made it possible for North Pole Studio to represent three artists at the highly competitive Outsider Art Fair in New York City. This eye-opening and career-changing exhibition opportunity would not have been possible without RACC’s funding, and we are deeply grateful for the support. The fair was a true whirlwind — an enriching, educational, challenging, colorful experience that provided a valuable new perspective for our staff, artists, and their advocates, family members, and community members.

The Outsider Art Fair is the largest exhibition of self-taught artists in the world. It occurs biannually in Paris and New York, and is internationally attended by exhibitors, visitors, and patrons alike. “Outsider Art” or art brut (raw art) historically describes artists who are creating outside of educational institutions and traditional techniques, or those without exposure to (whether intentional or not) or influence from popular art culture and trends. Aesthetically and philosophically, this work has a rawness to it — and is valued for its pure, expressive, seemingly unselfconscious quality which captures the artists’ completely original experience.A scanned piece of paper filled with pink and red handwriting.

Some of the most renowned “Outsider” artists include Bill Traylor, who was born into slavery and began creating art in his eighties; Martín Ramírez, a railway worker who was institutionalized with schizophrenia in his later life; and Judith Scott, a deaf woman with Down’s Syndrome who discovered her creative voice in a supported art studio. In the contemporary art world, the “Outsider Art” movement has broadened significantly, encompassing a diverse community of artists both dead and living. Today, the commonality among artists represented at the fair is that they are entirely self-taught, and are creating extraordinary artwork in a style and technique that is completely their own. 

As the field has evolved, the term “Outsider” itself has become controversial. Many of the artists represented at the fair are from marginalized communities, including artists that are low-income, disabled, and BIPOC with many intersections in between. North Pole Studio is intentionally embedded inside the professional arts community. Our location is a strategic choice to combat the isolation and access barriers that artists with disabilities continue to face in their communities. While almost all of the artists we serve are entirely self-taught, the desire to identify as an “Outsider” in the art world varies from artist-to-artist and is rejected by many.

North Pole Studio is part of a nationwide movement of progressive art studios who are working to amplify the voices and work of artists with disabilities. The energy of this movement is vibrant, and very much alive at the fair. Using these funds from RACC, we were so proud to represent artists Austin Brague, Dan Tran, and James Enos. Our highlight by far was having Austin and Dan join us in New York City to represent their work firsthand. Austin worked on his submission for over a year — a large scale pen and ink drawing of New York City — which he triumphantly sold at the fair, breaking many New Yorker hearts. Artist James Enos is co-represented by Booklyn, Inc. and this was his second appearance at the fair. He also sold an original work on the first day. James’ work truly stands out at the fair, as he is among a minority of artists working in book form and has developed an unparalleled binding technique, which includes large-scale illustrations which can fold out over 5 feet long. Dan Tran is a rising star in the progressive art world, and it was our pleasure to make face-to-face introductions to fans from all over the country who continue to follow his work.

Austin shared that he had no idea that he was part of such a vast community of self-taught and disabled artists. He was “blown away by the creativity, how vast the collection of work is…[he] had no idea.” Selling work at this level made him realize that success as a professional artist is in reach, and it has motivated him to focus his art practice and dream bigger moving forward. Prior to joining North Pole Studio, many of the artists we serve were creating work in isolation, with little access to resources and exposure. Beyond the art sales and professional connections, the community aspect was perhaps the most powerful impact of our experience at the Outsider Art Fair — the sense of place and connection with an international community of self-taught artists who are valued as professionals, and core contributors to art history and contemporary art. 

We learned so much, and returned to Portland with valuable insights to share with North Pole Studio’s community, and Portland’s art community at large. We can’t wait to go back!

To learn more about North Pole Studio, please visit their website. They are currently seeking new artists to join their Main Studio Program this year. If you or someone you know is seeking supported studio space and looking to connect with a community of artists, they’d love to hear from you!

Image Captions, from top to bottom: A glimpse inside of North Pole Studio’s cozy, art-filled space. Detail of various artworks hung on the studio wall. Work by James Enos, Writing