The 1% Solution: Revamping the Multnomah Arts Center Gallery
By Gauri Rajbaidya
Back in 2010, I performed a musical piece to open the discussion on Arts and Culture in Portland as part of the City’s Portland Plan process. This is where I first met Michael Walsh, the Executive Director of Multnomah Arts Center Association. That particular event was at the Gerding Theater, an old armory converted into a performance center. Conversation segued to the performance space needs of the Multnomah Arts Center (MAC). Michael mentioned that the center could really use a shoebox theater but did not have the resources to pull it off. At the time I offered to provide pro bono help should he decide to build a new theater.
In the summer of 2012, I got a call from Michael asking if my offer to help was still available. If so, he needed help not for a theater but with the renovation of the gallery and programming the recently acquired cottages – a series of small buildings to the west of the MAC that used to be a Montessori school. I was swamped at work – totally immersed in construction administration for the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt Federal Building – but this was when the help was needed, so how could I refuse?
I am very proud that SERA Architects has a long tradition of helping non-profit organizations. One just needs to walk around our community to see the examples – the p:ear project, the new PICA offices, Blanchet House, helping out the Sisters of the Road, neighborhood planning effort in Oak Grove – the list goes on. I had the opportunity to add to that portfolio by helping a non-profit that has the reputation of being one of the best community visual and performing arts centers in the nation, serving hundreds of local community artists and teaching thousands of students and art enthusiasts from all ages and backgrounds each year.
The design team from SERA Architects was comprised of Tuan Vu, Travis Dang, and me. We helped with both the programming of the cottages and the renovation of the gallery (the subject of this post).
There were several challenges in the redesign of the gallery. The existing gallery was small, dark, and had circulation issues; it also lacked storage space. Due to the small space, display walls were placed against a large, north-facing window. We needed to provide energy-efficient lighting that did not compromise on the light quality a gallery deserves. We needed to provide enough accessible storage space within an already cramped area while not reducing the amount of wall display area. We had to improve some fire safety issues. Our designs needed to accommodate the future addition of audio visual and security cameras. And, of course, we needed to provide all of this within a limited budget. We needed to do more with less.
We worked collaboratively with artists, the Multnomah Arts Center Association Board, and staff members to develop several design concepts. To address all the constraints and provide maximum flexibility, we approached the design with a modular strategy that allowed the staff to transform the gallery to fit any configuration they might need. Finally, we combined the best ideas into one concept.
We designed a series of boxes that would appear as walls and “float” unobtrusively in the gallery. Their volume solved the storage needs and the increased surface area allowed us to increase the amount of display area for hanging art. The display boxes have hidden, integrated casters that allow the gallery staff to easily reorganize the space to suit different media displays. With the display boxes “floating” in the space, we were able to open up the north-facing windows; as a result, the small gallery space now feels more spacious and is filled with a soft light. We refreshed all the surfaces of the space, removing the aged carpet and polished the existing concrete slab, and introduced a natural material to complement the northern light.
SERA’s own lighting consultant, Lisa Petterson, came to our rescue with the most suitable lighting strategy. We specified LED lighting that provide 2700 K warmth at 18 watts. These fixtures are dimmable, energy-efficient, and have a longer life span. When no displays are in place, more efficient, ambient lighting is provided on a separate circuit – an elegant and efficient solution for a small gallery space. And of course the space is equipped with appropriate light sensors.
SERA Architects team did more than just help with the design and material selection. We realized early on that the Multnomah Arts Center Association did not have enough financial resources to realize the design vision. Our team worked to leverage relationships we had built with technical and construction professionals to put together in-kind donations, including contribution of labor, design time, and construction expertise. As such, much appreciation is due to all of our collaborators: Mortenson Construction, Cascade Acoustics, Rosendin Electric, Fine Painting, Performance Abatement Services, Temp Control Mechanical, Viking Automatic Sprinklers, KPFF Consulting Engineers, PAE Consulting Engineering, Solus Lighting, and Northern Illumination Company.
Several weeks after the completion of the gallery, I was back at the Multnomah Arts Center to perform again – this time, sadly, to commemorate a friend who had passed away. At the memorial, I met an artist who was raving about the newly renovated gallery and how she was looking forward to her scheduled showing at the gallery. She did not know that I was from the team that made the renovation a reality nor did I tell her. I just smiled – very gratified!
The Gallery: A “Before and After” Look