CANNON BEACH — Understanding the Northwest arts scene is a lifetime study. Few are more at the center than Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson.
In 2010, she became the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Northwest art, where she was responsible for curating and building the museum’s collection of regional art from the late 19th century to the present. She presented exhibitions and a biennial group show by artists in Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington state and Wyoming.
“Everything I did really prepared me for working with artists in the Northwest,” she said.
The Cannon Beach Arts Association’s “Artists Talk” series kicked off this month with a talk from Laing-Malcolmson. The recently retired arts professional answered questions from audience members about curating shows, unique museums and her background.
Laing-Malcolmson grew up in Seattle among Northwest art, taking art classes and frequenting the Seattle Art Museum and galleries. After learning that she could study with artists she admired at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, formerly located at the Portland Art Museum, she enrolled and began studying sculpture and painting in 1970.
“It was really interesting going to school and learning about the insider art scene in Portland,” she said. “It was an interesting time being a woman going to art school because it was still pretty sexist.”
After leaving school, Laing-Malcolmson spent time on the Oregon Coast. Back in Portland, she formed a house-painting business with other artists. Then she wound up back at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, this time as director of academic affairs and admissions.
“That was my first arts administration job, and I really enjoyed it,” she said.
Later, she obtained her master’s degree in art from Montana State University and spent time getting to know regional artists. She gained experience as executive director of the Beall Park Art Center, executive director of Paris Gibson Square Museum of Art, and president of the Oregon College of Art & Craft.
“I knew quite a bit about the collection because I started as a student in 1970s and was an administrator after,” she said. “I’d seen a lot of the work that the museum owned until 1987.”
The first thing she did at the job was go through the stacks of artwork to take stock of what the museum had in storage. During her time as curator, she worked to put the entire Northwest collection online.
Laing-Malcolmson also promoted regional artists through curating the Contemporary Northwest Art Awards. To learn about different artists, she would have arts administrators, gallery owners, collectors, critics and others in the Northwest list the top contemporary artists in the region. She chose art, wrote about it and helped educate people through docent and education lectures.
“The wonderful thing about all the museums and galleries I’ve worked in is that everyone works there for a reason,” she said. “From the guards to those sweeping the floor, they’re there because they love art or they are artists. You’re privileged to work with people who are working for a passion. That’s one of the charms of working in the art world.”
At the Portland Art Museum, artists who get a show tend to be well-established, with major shows and gallery representation under their belt, she said.
In response to a question about how she balances her right and left brain, Laing-Malcolmson said that art, like chess, is about thinking spatially and planning.
Asked to name some of her favorite regional museums, Laing-Malcolmson recommended the Missoula Art Museum, Tacoma Art Museum, Hallie Ford Museum of Art in Salem, Yellowstone Art Museum and Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art in Eugene.
Laing-Malcolmson also discussed art auctions, donations from private collections and financial difficulties faced by galleries.
“Support your local arts organizations,” she said. “It’s very important.”