By Sam Crispin
The Pigeon Press (Portland, Oregon)
Think of an art gallery. What do you see? Is there a big room with lots of snobby people dressed in suits and cocktail dresses pretending to be experts on art? Are there paintings hung on a plain white wall? Art galleries are often snobby, but in downtown Portland, on SW 11th and SW Morrison, a tall, eccentric Taoist teamed up with a thin artist covered in tattoos to create a one-of-a-kind art viewing experience: the Angry Pigeon.
“[The Angry Pigeon] is a gallery dedicated to student artists, community artists and all people who are interested in promoting and enjoying the fine arts, both performance and graphic,” David Wagstaff, Dean of Students at Northwest Academy, said.
Northwest Academy has always given its students unique artistic opportunities. A lot of schools have a band program or a dance team, or even photography classes, but not many middle/high schools also have their own gallery equipped to handle art shows, as well as theatrical performances and concerts.
Stuart Larson, 2010 Northwest Academy graduate, is the curator of the Angry Pigeon. According to Larson, the gallery’s greatest accomplishment is existing in the capacity that it does, being connected to a school, while remaining free to show what they want.
A curator doesn’t just decide where to put each painting, which on its own takes skill and practice. Spending time handling the artists and taking care of the paintings are just a few of the many jobs a curator has.
“It’s really interesting, curating a gallery,” Larson said. “It’s like a creative puzzle. People drop off their work and you have to figure out where these things go, if you even can, it’s a weird creative puzzle, and it’s great.”
Wagstaff and Larson weren’t always partners, in fact Wagstaff was once Larson’s freshman English teacher. Now, just years later, they are back together, but this time as co-workers.
The space for the Angry Pigeon was offered to Northwest Academy for cheap. When Northwest Academy first started renting it, they did not have a use for it. But Wagstaff quickly came up with the idea to make the space into an art gallery. There was only one problem, a problem that accompanies every new endeavor: money.
“We did everything with volunteer labor,” Wagstaff said. “Volunteer alumni, volunteer parents. I spent a couple hundred hours working in there. Just getting it ready was intense. We only had several hundred dollars to open. That money was raised by a defunct society from within Northwest Academy called ‘Artists as Educators.’ It seemed like an impossible task.”
Seven month later, after many long hours of hard work, the Angry Pigeon finally opened with its first, and self-proclaimed, best show, “Launched.” The event brought in close to 50 people as well as rewarding the alumni by having their art showed in a real gallery.
According to Larson, the majority of art galleries simply don’t make money. The Angry Pigeon is no exception, taking into account the size of the gallery and how much of the work shown is amateur, it is no surprise that the Angry Pigeon doesn’t have a great amount of revenue, only around $12,000 a year.
“We don’t get a lot of money,” Larson said. “It’s a really small operation; that goes for any gallery of this size. It’s not very profitable.”
Without any funding from the Northwest Academy, it is safe to say that it is nothing short of a miracle that the Angry Pigeon has stayed open for the last three years.
“The Angry Pigeon Gallery’s single greatest achievement is its continued existence,” Wagstaff said. “It’s hard. To begin something is easy, to sustain effort over a period of years is difficult, even when things are going good. So enduring and sustaining is always a challenge in any artistic endeavor.”
Now, not only is the Angry Pigeon expected to continue holding art shows, but Wagstaff and Larson both have big plans for the gallery in the future. Unlike the Pearl District, which underwent urban renewal in the 1980s, and is located a mere five city blocks from the Angry Pigeon, not many people walk around SW 11th and SW Morrison just to wander, nonetheless buy pieces of art on a whim.
“We can thrive here for a couple of years,” Wagstaff said. “Then eventually, we will somehow get some kind of major funding that does not take away from school funding, so we can move the gallery to the Pearl.”
Wagstaff believes that the Angry Pigeon is good for teaching students about the art world, but also helps the school.
“It would be really great for the reputation of the school,” Wagstaff said. “To be the only school in Portland, maybe, that we know of the United States, that actually has an independent art gallery, owned by the school, run by the school, and yet functioning as a gallery in the community.”
The Pearl would be the perfect location for the Angry Pigeon. Just recently, Frank Ramme, an artist who shows painting at the Angry Pigeon, sold a piece for $3,000. If that was possible in such a drab location, the profits from moving to the Pearl could be incredible. The stoop of the Angry Pigeon is a common place for people to sleep.
“It’s the kind of ‘sleep-at-will’ traffic that hurts us,” Wagstaff said. “There was even a fellow that decided to move his bowels on the cement outside the gallery. We had to clean it up and bleach it. It is definitely a contributing factor to wanting to move.”
Not only does Wagstaff plan to find the Angry Pigeon a new home, but he has other plans for the future of the gallery as well.
“Along with my co-curators, we have been focusing on the Pigeon’s future,” Wagstaff said. “We came up with an idea that we think might work. To actually have students run the gallery. With advisors, a group of five or six students would actually run the gallery. Our purpose here is to make it more part of student life. We want it to be something that the students own and run.”
The future of the Angry Pigeon is at a very crucial point. The success of the gallery so far is greatly attributed to the men who run it.
“It’s interesting working with Wagstaff,” Larson said. “I had him as my freshman English teacher, which was strange. He is definitely an interesting guy to work with, our areas of expertise are different. He is good at organizing things with the school, and he trusts me to do what I do and do it well. As everyone knows he is quite the eccentric guy, so it is always interesting. I think we work well [together].”
Although Larson and Wagstaff make a great team running the Angry Pigeon, there is still something they need: Art! Being connected to a school with an arts-based curriculum. gives a constant flow of art to hang on the walls. Additionally, the experience of working with a gallery is invaluable for students wanting to pursue a career in the art world.
The artist get exposure as well as experience with a curator. The artist-curator relationship is not always a healthy productive partnership.
“Some artists aren’t as prepared as others,” Larson said. “If someone hasn’t planned, like doesn’t have a wire on the back. One half of the place is concrete, so I can’t put screws in that. Some people have plain pictures, so we have to figure out some kind of magnet contraption to keep them up. Honestly, way too many artists are not prepared enough.”
The Angry Pigeon has had somewhat of a history struggling with artists. In 2013 an unnamed artist created an installation for a one woman play starring Northwest Academy alumnus Galatea Swart, The Belle of Amherst. At some point, the pipes in the Angry Pigeon burst causing water damage to multiple pieces of art.
“[The artist] had done an installation for us in relation to the Emily Dickinson play, The Belle of Amherst,” Wagstaff said. “What happened was that the pipes leaked in the gallery and damaged a part of the installation. We had to take it down. We offered the artist compensation for his materials, but he declined saying that he wanted compensation for his artistic work.”
Yet, artists keep coming back. With all the artwork done by the students, as well as external artists, the Angry Pigeon’s future is only looking up.
The Angry Pigeon is only a small sliver of a city block, but the little art gallery has more personality than its big competitors. People go to galleries just to see the art, but you go to the Angry Pigeon for the entire experience.
Photo Credit: Unsplash