Contemporary art is a lot like baseball: you can't really enjoy it until you understand a few rules. Nobody, not even the hippest art insider, is born appreciating abstract expressionism or conceptual performance. In fact, no two people will give you the same definition of contemporary art. It can be anything, from abstract painting to live performance.
With her stylish clothing and regal bearing, art educator and curator Yoko Ott looks like she was born in one of the world's great art capitals. But appearances are deceiving. "It doesn't get further away from the contemporary art scene than a little island in the middle of the Pacific," she laughs.
Ott was born and raised on the leeward side of Oahu. She didn't know any artists, and she didn't decide to study art until she arrived at the University of Washington in the late 1990s. Less than two decades later, Yoko Ott has become one of the Seattle area's contemporary art taste makers.
Immediately after college, Ott took a program assistant position with One Reel, the organization that produces Bumbershoot, Seattle's annual music and arts festival. Ott was assigned the task of sorting through applicants to the visual arts exhibitions. She didn't hesitate to chime in with her opinions when her bosses were culling the applications. By the end of her tenure with One Reel, Ott was running the visual arts show.
Yoko Ott says her six years with Bumbershoot exposed her to a wide range of art and artists. They also helped refine her sensibilities about contemporary artwork. When she decided to step away from One Reel, Seattle's Frye Art Museum immediately invited her to apply for a new position in the institution's education department. Ott advocated for new outreach programs that would attract a younger audience to the Frye. She was particularly interested in bringing in Seattle-area artists to work directly with teens.
Jen Graves, visual arts writer for The Stranger newspaper, says Ott's outreach strategy was a great first step for cultivating new audiences for the museum. "What she was doing in the education department was great," enthuses Graves. "You're terrified because you don't know any artists. As soon as you know some, then you realize this is really, really fascinating." By the time Yoko Ott left the museum in 2008, the Frye had transformed into one of Seattle's hippest art venues.
Ott has spent most of her time since curating contemporary art shows, first at Seattle University's Hedreen Gallery, then at an experimental art residency program in a downtown Bellevue high-rise. The latter gave her a unique opportunity to expose building residents to cutting edge contemporary art.
"I understand that coolness of a pure white gallery is intimidating to some people," she acknowledges. "For me it's satisfying, but it's more satisfying when someone off the street would come in and say, what is this? Then end up staying for half an hour."
Unfortunately, Open Satellite proved to be an expensive experiment. It closed two years ago, and Yoko Ott was left to contemplate her next move. Her future was decided, in part, by longtime Seattle-area arts patron Shari Behnke. Together, Ott and Behnke decided to create a foundation to help bolster Seattle's contemporary visual artists. The New Foundation Seattle was launched in July 2012. Ott says its mission is intentionally open-ended, but the goal is to make Seattle a place where contemporary artists can live and thrive. That could mean everything from buying work by a local artist to nurturing young arts journalists.
Yoko Ott's work now isn't so different from what she did at Bumbershoot. For Ott, it's all about sharing her passion for Seattle artists. "You can't believe how good it feels looking at something somebody has put together," she explains. "I could never imagine that not being part of our world."
If Yoko Ott has her way, contemporary art will be part of your world, too.
In 2013 KUOW presents “13 for '13”, in partnership with the Seattle Times. This 12-part series profiles 13 members of the Seattle-area’s diverse cultural community, people who have had an impact and are poised to shape the cultural landscape in the decade to come.
Related story in the Seattle Times: "Yoko Ott: always looking at art outside the frame."