Portland, Oregon’s Blue Sky Gallery entered its 40th year with a retrospective exhibition at the Portland Art Museum, and the launch of Blue Sky Books, a new print-on-demand publishing program that offers affordable books by 36 of the artists who’ve shown at the gallery.
Since it opened in 1975 as a collaborative project by local photographers, Blue Sky Gallery has grown into an important photography outlet with an international reputation, showing the work of both emerging and established photographers from the region, the country and throughout the world.
The museum exhibition, which includes more than 120 works, looks back on more than 700 exhibitions at the gallery by 650 photographers.
The book program grew in part from the gallery’s DIY esthetic. “We’re a very populous, democratic gallery,” says Christopher Rauschenberg, the president of the Blue Sky board of directors and the editor of Blue Sky Books. “We’re an artist’s space, and artists don’t have any money,” he adds. The books cost $18 dollars on average and can be ordered through MagCloud, the print-on-demand service owned by Blurb. The price includes a 15 percent fee for the artist and a 15 percent fee for the gallery.
The program was inspired in part by an artist who’d shown at Blue Sky, who reached out to Rauschenberg about a deal a publisher was offering him: the publisher would put out the artist’s book if he raised $30,000. Rauschenberg told the artist it was a standard deal, “but I can’t say it’s a good deal and I don’t have anything else to offer you,” Rauschenberg recalls. Other photographers had asked similar questions. Rauschenberg realized he wanted to be able to offer photographers “something else.” In looking back at the history of the gallery, Rauschenberg also realized there were “all these bodies of work that were never published as books and great shows that we had 30 years ago,” he says. He chose to use MagCloud, which he had used to make small catalogues of his own work for portfolio reviews, to create a series of books that were affordable to buy, and to publish.
By releasing 36 books at once, as the gallery did last week, Rauschenberg felt the artists could leverage their collective networks to promote the endeavor. “We’ve asked everybody to not just put your own book out but promote the whole series,” Rauschenberg says.
Community support and collective effort have contributed to the gallery’s longevity. For instance, Bruce Guenther, who recently announced his retirement as the chief curator of the Portland Art Museum, was instrumental in helping the gallery figure out how to buy the space they now occupy, Rauschenberg says. “Portland has a really wonderful spirit” in which people come together to get things done, and the local audience responds.
Rauschenberg remembers the flood of exhibition proposals the gallery received soon after they opened so many years ago. “We came in with a certain amount of a dream, and then other people’s dreams have added to it.”