Portland’s Trailblazer

For 25 years, the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art has been a home to trailblazing visual and performance artists. Executive director Victoria Frey leads the charge.

PICA’s Victoria Frey is used to ruffling feathers.
PICA’s Victoria Frey is used to ruffling feathers.

In the mid-’90s, Portland’s contemporary arts scene was nearly nonexistent. Artist Kristy Edmunds filled the void by founding the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art, an organization dedicated to showcasing what it describes as “vital and provocative” work from experimental artists. Edmunds couldn’t have gotten PICA off the ground without Victoria Frey, who, in her 18 years at PICA, has helped turn Portland into a hub of progressive art and activism.

Frey spent her childhood on a peach orchard outside Medford, Oregon, until her family moved to Portland when she was in sixth grade. After stints in New York and Los Angeles during her late teens and early 20s, she moved back home and fell headfirst into the city’s budding arts community. In 1984, Frey opened PDXS, an alternative space that “filled many holes in the art community,” she says. “[We] started a street fair…we staged performance in loading docks.” PDXS later became Quartersaw Gallery, where Frey spent 17 years representing some of the city’s most deserving but unknown artists. In late 1994, Edmunds recruited Frey to help establish PICA, and by 2001, Frey had closed Quartersaw to join PICA full-time.

Under Edmunds and Frey, PICA permanently changed the art game in Portland, winning financial support from local philanthropists and the National Endowment for the Arts with its innovative programming (avant-garde musician Laurie Anderson played live in a symphony venue) and unconventional tactics (Elizabeth Streb’s flying dancers performed outdoors in downtown Portland). When Edmunds moved on from PICA in 2005, Frey became executive director. Since then, she has transformed the organization into an even more inclusive destination by partnering with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and establishing the Creative Exchange Lab, an international residency program in which regional artists work alongside artists from across the globe. And as an arts education advocate, she served on a committee that helped create Portland’s first arts tax, which supports art in public schools.

Point out these successes to Frey, though, and she’ll turn the focus back to PICA’s mission and her ultimate goal: “to really live our values through structure, artistic programming, civic involvement, and social justice,” she says. “This demands that we be thoughtful in all our actions and continue to build a place that inspires, speaks out, nurtures—a living organism.”

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