CoCA reframes itself with new location, director and annual show
Seattle Times art critic
Wondering what happened to the Center on Contemporary Art?
Well, I can tell you how to get there (it's installed in a new location on Capitol Hill) and that the Northwest Annual is happening (judged this year by Linda Farris) and that the organization does have a director, Don Hudgins, who describes his previous job experience as working for "a little-known one-eyed glass artist" (he was Dale Chihuly's collection manager). But beyond that, it's pretty hard to figure out how the beleaguered nonprofit is keeping its head above water and paying Hudgins' salary.
Simple, Hudgins says. "Memberships, donors, and I'm going into debt. We all recruit our friends and uncles. I'm trying to get the board to do a doughnut sale. We're being very creative."
Another big source of income has been the artists themselves: CoCA charges an entry fee to submit work for consideration to the Northwest Annual. This year, more than 200 submissions came in. Beyond that, it's just one step at a time toward getting re-established after a period with no gallery space or staff.
"We had a long search for a place to live," Hudgins says. "One of our things is getting staffed up so we can stay open evening and weekend hours. We want to be user-friendly."
CoCA's new space is fairly small and very exposed, with a wall of windows opening out on a parking lot that adjoins 11th Avenue. This year's annual, while interesting as always, probably won't have people knocking down the door to get in. The day I went, it was pretty quiet.
Farris selected 24 artists out of 200 entries and most often chose more than one work by each. Normally in the past, CoCA has used an out-of-town judge for the competition. Hudgins says the board selected Farris, a former Seattle gallery owner, because CoCA's exhibitions this year are all focused on the Northwest.
Some of the works Farris chose are by well-known names in regional art, such as a characteristic geometric abstraction by Mary Henry and several photographic images by Paul Berger (who both won honorable mentions from Farris).
There are some big, turbulent candy-colored abstractions by Donnabelle Casis that, to me, evoke the scene of a cartoon massacre. And dominating the gallery entrance is a strong, almost mesmerizing monotype by Cathy Sarkowsky. It's the face of a gape-mouthed clown rendered in smeary carnival colors who greets you with a mute scream as you walk in.
Other names aren't familiar, including that of Lisa Liedgren, whose two large-scale, minimalist grids of yellow paint and pencil marks took first place (a $1,000 prize). Farris gave Damali Ayo of Portland second place ($500) for more conceptually driven works about racism. Much as I sympathize with the issues that drive the work, I found Ayo's piece "Diction" — a Funk & Wagnalls New Practical Dictionary with the embossed words "of racist terms and phrases" added to the cover — unenlightening.
When it comes to conceptualism, I prefer Jack Daws' "Manifest Destiny," a tricycle with saw blades for wheels. It takes a minute to sink in, but the image sticks with you and keeps on working.
The Center on Contemporary Art has had a long, roller-coaster history, since it opened in 1981 on First Avenue with a show by internationally known light and space artist James Turrell. It's had an incarnation in Belltown, a brief appearance in a loft at the former Consolidated Works space at the south end of Lake Union, and it's gone through so many directors in recent years I've lost track.
But Hudgins may be bringing a different modus operandi into play. With all his experience in the for-profit world (besides working for Chihuly, he ran an art moving company), he talks more about commerce and less about getting grants than one would expect. He's gearing up for a gallery shop and is thinking ahead to the Christmas season show "Little Things Count" with gift-priced artworks for sale. He is stressing that artists need to become members of CoCA to help support the organization.
That's all fine. But if CoCA is going to become another artists cooperative, with entry fees and memberships providing the major operating costs, and have an exhibition schedule selected by the board on that basis, it needs to be clear about it. Without a strong artistic director and reliable outside sources of funding, CoCA may end up looking like a ghost of its former self.
Hudgins doesn't want that to happen. "It's really important to me to make CoCA new again and to thrive," he says.
Sheila Farr: firstname.lastname@example.org.