In a groundbreaking move, Portland arts organization Yale Union is transferring its land and building to Native ownership.

Yale Union announced last week the facility would be transferred to the Vancouver, Washington-based Native Arts and Cultures Foundation (NACF), a Native-led national organization that works with artists, communities and leaders to strengthen and advance Indigenous arts and artists.

NACF President/CEO Lulani Arquette said the decision would “set an example” for recognizing the value of Native ownership of property in urban areas across the country. 

“It’s liberating and encouraging to witness this kind of support for First Peoples of this country,” Arquette said in a statement. “The potential for local community and national partnerships around shared interests through Indigenous arts and cultures is wide open.”

NACF Board Chair and U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo (Mvskoke) , called the transfer “unprecedented.”

“This sharing of resources in a place first occupied by Indigenous peoples initiates healing for the whole community. We now have a home, a central place for Native arts in this country,” her statement said.

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The decision was a fulfillment of the vision of Yale Union’s former executive director, Yoko Ott, a longtime leader in Seattle’s arts community. She began the discussion of transferring ownership in 2018 with Yale Union’s board President Flint Jamison, focusing on the potential for art institutions to create models of restorative social change, NACF said. After Ott’s unexpected death in late 2018, Jamison and NACF carried on her work. 

The transfer of Yale Union’s property is a  fulfillment of the vision of its former executive director, Yoko Ott (shown here at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum in 2012), a longtime leader in Seattle’s arts community who died in 2018. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)
The transfer of Yale Union’s property is a fulfillment of the vision of its former executive director, Yoko Ott (shown here at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum in 2012), a longtime leader in Seattle’s arts community who died in 2018. (Alan Berner / The Seattle Times)

Seattle conceptual artist C. Davida Ingram met Ott as they both explored working in local museums. Ingram said in a time when it’s difficult to get museums and cultural institutions to even repatriate art and artifacts that were stolen, the Yale Union decision is remarkable.

She said the move creates a model for how organizations can return land and resources to their rightful owners. “What does it mean to have radical acts of imagination around restoration with Indigenous communities?” Ingram asked. “It’s exciting to think, so what else is possible?” 

Ingram described Ott as one of the most “intellectually rigorous” people in the Seattle art world and said this decision was a tribute to her leadership. 

“I find it almost beautiful that Yoko would be revenant in this moment,” Ingram said. “It was so devastating to lose her … and it’s wonderful to see her evoked in this way.”

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Due to COVID-19, Yale Union suspended in-person events for 2020 but plans to copresent programming in 2021 with NACF before dissolving the nonprofit later that year.

Since opening in 2010, Yale Union has presented the work of hundreds of artists in its 9,400-square-foot exhibition space inside the 36,000-square-foot building.

The new national headquarters for NACF will be called the Center for Native Arts and Cultures, and the property will continue to be a site of contemporary artistic and cultural production, NACF said. 

“[We] stand united with all to reclaim Native truth, engage anti-racism, and address important issues we face today,” Arquette said.