A profile of curator Yoko Ott, whose unconventional arts background is helping to lead the arts in a new direction in the Northwest.
Seattle freelance curator Yoko Ott had her first life-changing art experience when she was 16 years old and living in Hawaii with her mother.
The catalyst: David Hockney’s multimedia installation in the Honolulu Museum of Art, inspired by his set design for a 1981 Metropolitan Opera production of Ravel’s “L’Enfant et les sortilèges.” With its artful lighting scheme, sound design and cutout figures creating 3-D effects, it wasn’t like anything else in the museum.
“I was blown away,” Ott says in an interview. “It was the first time that I realized that art wasn’t just a painting on a wall.”
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Ott’s attraction to art that goes beyond the bounds of a picture frame is key to who she is in Seattle’s art scene. She was one of five arts figures involved in creating the Frye Art Museum’s current multimedia show, “Mw [Moment Magnitude],” which has combined an ambitious schedule of performances by some of the city’s most sought-after musicians and dancers with more conventionally displayed artworks, videos and installations.
The show drew more than a thousand people to its opening in October. Critics have called it everything from “adventurous” to “messy.” But most agree that — along with two equally edgy recent Frye exhibits focusing on Seattle performing troupes Degenerate Art Ensemble and Implied Violence — it’s a game-changer for the museum.
At age 42, Ott is one of a number of midcareer arts professionals in the Northwest deliberately setting out to make their mark on the region. These individuals are poised to take the reins from an earlier generation of artists and administrators — think of Seattle Symphony’s Gerard Schwarz and ArtsFund’s Peter Donnelly — who helped build Seattle’s arts infrastructure at the turn of the millennium.
Like Ott, many are pushing to make the arts scene here more experimental, more cross-disciplinary and more social. Also like her, many arrived from outside the city’s traditional arts establishment.
Ott was born in Germany, where her parents were nurses in the Air Force. They moved to the small town of Wai’anae, on Oahu’s West Coast, when Ott was 10 months old. A few years later, the marriage ended and her father disappeared from the picture.
“I didn’t grow up in an art family,” she says. “I was on this tiny little island out in the middle of the Pacific, pretty far removed from a scene of any sort.”
She grew up mostly in Hawaii, but spent a few middle-school years living with relatives in Moses Lake. After an initially bumpy start in college, she wound up at the University of Washington, where she earned a bachelor of fine arts in photography in 1999.
Michael Van Horn, a photography technician with the UW School of Art, had — and continues to have — a tremendous influence on her, broadening her exposure to all sorts of art and artists.
“If I was interested in shooting a particular subject matter,” she recalls, “he would say, ‘Well then you should look at all these artists.’ … He stretched the way I thought about things and how I was defining things.”
Photography remained Ott’s focus after she graduated from college. At that point, she was living with musician David Dayton who played in a rock band called Kuma. The two of them faced that age-old artist’s dilemma: How to pay the rent?
“We quite literally said: ‘Well, we’re going to have to flip a coin because one of us is going to have to get a job.’ And I was the one who got the job.”
That was at One Reel, the producers of Bumbershoot. During her first year there, she handled the administrative side of the open-call application process, while a designated committee of people chose the actual art. Ott, however, couldn’t help chiming in on their decisions.
“I was very opinionated,” she says. “I felt like I had something to say.”
The following year, her supervisor suggested that she take over the whole operation. The first thing she did was change two of Bumbershoot’s six visual-art exhibits from open-call affairs to invitational shows featuring specifically chosen artists. That allowed her to wield a more deliberate hand as curator.
During this time, she continued to think of herself primarily as a photographer. She was also, by now, married to Dayton. She managed to juggle it all for about three years before she had “a little bit of an identity crisis.”
Being both an artist with a studio practice and an arts administrator organizing group art shows while trying to be the wife of an aspiring rock star became increasingly untenable. Something had to give — and by 2006, the marriage had ended.
“Dave continues to be a wonderful friend,” she says. “We are quite close. We just weren’t meant to be married.”
On the professional front, Ott came to realize that organizing exhibitions and working with artists brought her some of the same satisfaction that creating her own artwork did. Still, she felt strongly about remaining unattached to any particular cultural institution: “I would much rather be in a position of risk-taking and taking chances, and know that it could mean a gamble for me in terms of a job.”
Given that philosophy, it’s no surprise that Ott’s road has sometimes been rocky. In 2008, her job managing the Youth and Community Outreach Programs at the Frye Art Museum disappeared with staff cutbacks, after two years.
She may be best known for her next gig: as director of Open Satellite, a contemporary-art gallery experimentally placed in the retail floors of a Bellevue high-rise apartment building. But that ended in 2011, a mere 18 months after she took the gallery over, when her financial backer pulled the plug.
That same year saw the closure of Lawrimore Project, the much touted gallery run by her second husband, Scott Lawrimore, where Ott co-curated several exhibits.
Lawrimore landed on his feet at the Frye, as deputy director of collections and exhibitions. In the meantime, Ott joined forces with arts philanthropist Shari Behnke to found The New Foundation Seattle (TNFS).
TNFS aims to place the work of Seattle artists in museums across the country; bring arts professionals to town so they can be exposed to the Northwest arts scene; and beef up higher-education institutions’ contempory-art-curriculum offerings. Through a grant program, it will also fund individual artists’ research, travel opportunities and education.
Ott’s aim, in both her foundation work and her curating projects, is to work collaboratively with artists, providing them with a support system while also pushing them to articulate why they’re making the decisions they’re making. She believes in keeping the curating process “artist-centric.”
The Frye’s director, Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, confirms: “One of the distinguishing characteristics of her work at the Frye was a very close connection to working with living artists.”
Some of Ott’s artists, Birnie Danzker adds, feel a strong commitment to addressing social and political issues. One example from “Mw: [Moment Magnitude]”: Cris Bruch, whose “Home à la Cart” is a grocery cart rigged satirically into a coffin-sized “living space.” It’s one of the most stinging offerings in the show.
Ott’s career may not have always gone smoothly, but she feels she’s been lucky.
“Opportunity has found its way to me,” she says. “I’ve been very, very fortunate that when something was ending for me, something else came along. And I didn’t have to beg or plead or compromise.”
Together, Ott and Lawrimore are immersed in the art world round the clock — and that, says Ott, is just fine.
They met in 2008, and along with their shared tastes in art, they were drawn to each other’s “hands-on” approach to exhibit staging. Ott was especially taken with the way that Lawrimore ran Lawrimore Project: “It’s not like he hired people to get down and dirty. He just did it all himself. And that sweat-equity quality to him was very attractive — because that’s kind of where I came from.”
As curators living together, they’ve learned not to intrude on each other’s projects, especially when deals are being worked out and confidentiality is involved.
“We know when we should share something with each other, and then we know when we shouldn’t,” she says. “Everyone always assumes that if they tell something to Scott that I’ll know it, and vice versa. So that’s a real fascinating dynamic, when you try to tell someone: ‘Actually, I don’t know.’ “
Being creative-sounding boards for each other is “always ongoing,” Ott says, and often involves “whiskey-fueled dialectics that sometimes can only be resolved by competitive pingpong.”
Those games take place on their dining-room table, which has a net strung across it. They only take it down when they’re having dinner guests.
Placed where she is, what trends does she see emerging in the local arts scene?
One development that’s caught her eye is the emergence of artist-driven galleries. Usually in artists’ own studios, such venues are open one or two nights a month or by appointment only. But they offer, she says, “a complete alternative approach to the formal commercial gallery or the formal exhibition space.”
What does Ott like to see in those spaces or in the shows she curates?
She goes for art where she feels “a conversation is being pushed forward, whether that’s by introducing a parallel way of considering something or through simply making us stop and think about something we’ve never even considered before.”
If the piece “looks good” to her as well, then it’s “firing on all cylinders.”
Ultimately, Ott sees her mission as creating meaningful viewing experiences and “trying to demystify some of the opaqueness of contemporary art for audiences.”
She’s upfront about the wayward path that has taken her to this point in her career: “I didn’t go through a curatorial-studies program, a museology program. My background is making things. My background is having this idea and figuring out how to translate that idea into a physical object.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org