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Joni Sternbach, “08.04.13 #7 Pilot Peak,” 2008, unique tintype. Critical Mass Book Award Winner, 2007

It was no surprise that when the emails and phone calls started coming in from the Photolucida folks following my last post about their organization, they weren’t looking to name me Guest of Honor at this year’s black tie gala. Although it was conceded here and there by various players within the nonproft that I had raised some good points, the key message was delivered succinctly by the board member who called my piece “naive.”

Last Friday I met with Photolucida Director Laura Moya to talk about what I had written. She pointed out a few factual errors I made, listened to me further articulate my grievances, filled me in on some of Photolucida’s challenges, expounded on their strengths, and ultimately proposed a “common ground” arrangement that will hopefully please us all (not just she and I, but photography enthusiasts at large). At no point, however, did I see where my naivety came into play: A understaffed, underfunded nonprofit, fueled by well-intentioned volunteers and board members who have varying degrees of involvement and experience, is what I presumed to be true of Photolucida, and that organizational profile is the very line of defense that everyone wished to impress on me.

In other areas I wasn’t so smart, though. My original post contained two sizable blunders: At one point I mentioned not having received press releases from Photolucida in years, which I thought absurd, since I’m the most photo-centric art writer in town. Moya said that she absolutely sent me one, and later provided me with a copy of the press release she mailed to the three local papers. I am more than willing to blame the grouchy mail sorter at my old workplace for this, but I’ll take a polygraph stating I never received that press release. But then it gets worse: You might remember that I wrote Photolucida provided zilch in the way of public programming, aside from their portfolio walk night. Evidently, in addition to the p-walk, the last event featured lectures by Louie Palu and the two artists exhibiting at Blue Sky, the Portland Grid Project exhibition at the now-defunct Portland Art Center, and workshops at Newspace by Mary Virginia Swanson and Darius Himes. I greatly regret my errors on this point (just as I regret not knowing about these events last year).

So was my mind completely reversed about Photolucida, and did I realize that my passive aggressive blog posts are but pathetic cries for attention? Take a guess, and then see if you’re correct after the break.

Peter Van Agtmael, “An Iraqi soldier stands guard outside a house in Mosul where a substantial weapons cache was discovered,” Critical Mass Book Award Winner, 2007

There are few things I remember better than the thankless, tireless, penniless life in the nonprofit art world. I’ve lived it, and it almost killed me, so I understand about the sting of limited resources. But every once in a while, it would be refreshing to hear something underwhelming organizations besides the usual refrain of “We don’t have the money or manpower.” (I’m not just talking about Photolucida here.) I am thinking of one organization in particular who threw their hands up in resignation years ago and settled into a comfortable life of mediocrity until a crisis struck; the same nonprofit has since entirely revitalized itself under new directorship, having reestablished its credibility in the local and national community, organizing exciting programming, and expanding its physical space, all without a huge windfall of unexpected cash. In no way am I suggesting that Photolucida needs a new director, only that fresh energy and creative problem-solving can go a long way in keeping an art organization relevant.

It also helps if you keep the public passionate about what you’re doing, which has not been Photolucida’s strong suit. I didn’t realize that Moya spent the bulk of her energy producing three books a year as part of the Critical Mass competition. The main reason I wasn’t aware of this is because I’d never seen one of these books until today, and given my deep interest/involvement in photography, books, and Portland, that just doesn’t make sense. (I received copies of the three latest books today, and they’re extremely handsome.) If I were Photolucida, I’d be tracking down media sponsors, local artists, volunteer coordinators, writers, bloggers, gallerists, teachers, whomever, to get people jazzed about this event outside of the small, core group who will always show up. No, Photolucida will never be swimming in cash, but creating something that people will be excited about and pay attention to can go a long way to generating goodwill and respect in the eyes of sponsors, members, benefactors, and institutions.

I was startled to learn that Photolucida is only now beginning its grant-writing process, which is usually the first thing that happens once an organization receives its 501(c)3 status. I had just presumed that PL was on the receiving end of various grants—from RACC at the very least. They have also never sought corporate sponsorship, which could help offset everything from airfare to advertising. A strong Board of Directors should be all over this, and ideally should be soliciting support on the side, in addition to organizing fundraisers.

All of these issues were discussed, and in the end, Moya and I agreed that what we both wanted was a stronger Photolucida and a stronger photography scene in Portland. She shared her new adopted philosophy, inspired by my blog criticisms: “When people start griping about us, I’m going to put them to work,” which is exactly what she did. Without going into it too much here, I agreed to do some behind-the-scenes work for Photolucida 2009, which will hopefully yield postitive, visible improvements in next year’s event.

(If not, I’ll write a scathing blog post about how I lack inspiration, enthusiasm, and forward-thinking.)

Joni Sternbach
Peter van Agtmael


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