If you’ve visited CoCA’s gallery in Pioneer Square in the last month, you might have been taken aback by the big names with work on view: Prints from James Turrell and Chuck Close, a poster by Shepard Fairey, glass floral sculpture by Ginny Ruffner, videos by Gary Hill and Paul Rucker. One of the more peculiar pieces in the group show is a fluffy pillow stationed on a plinth near the door. If you lay your head on it as instructed, Laurie Anderson’s voice filters up through the cushion with message-laced lullabies.
CoCA is short for Center on Contemporary Art. In the 36 years since its inception, the nonprofit has reimagined and wrestled with the term “contemporary” as the art world—and the world itself—has evolved. That adaptability is a big part of why CoCA is still around. After decades in various spaces around the city, in September 2016 CoCA moved into a street-level gallery in the Tashiro Kaplan building, currently flanked by SOIL Gallery and the storefronts for Gramma Poetry and Mount Analogue.
On a sunny weekend day in November, multimedia encaustic artist and CoCA executive director Nichole DeMent sits behind the gallery’s front desk. Behind her, a wall of shelves displays dozens of glossy catalogues chronicling a staggering range of CoCA exhibits, which have featured work by more than 3,000 artists over the years.
“We put this show together to show that we have exhibited a lot of artists who weren’t necessarily prominent at the time, artists who were just getting out of college, who now have international careers,” DeMent says of CoCA Legacy, which opened Oct. 5 and runs through Nov. 18.
DeMent has been a CoCA member since 2002 and became the organization’s executive director in 2012. Prior to leading CoCA, the Evergreen-educated artist taught at Pacific Lutheran University and Photographic Center Northwest, and served as gallery director at ArtsWest and program manager for the Creative Career Center at Artist Trust. What has always made CoCA worth investing in, she says, is community.
“Seattle has a rich community but there’s still so much need to get the voices out there, a need really for the alternative voices.”
Accessibility is key to CoCA’s sustainability. In any given year, the organization has 250–300 members, and the affordable fees include trade for volunteer hours. Flexibility has also been key—since its founding, CoCA has made its home in multiple exhibition spaces on Capitol Hill, at the Seattle Design Center, Equinox Studios in Georgetown and elsewhere—but that itinerancy has prevented the organization from staying on people’s radar. Putting down roots in Pioneer Square is making CoCA more visible, as the gallery remains dedicated to contemporary and alternative work.
“It’s a complex question—what is ‘alternative’ in the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and now?” DeMent asks. “When I started on the board we were focused on experimental techniques and technology. Now with the political system as it is we’re really focusing on the voices of underserved artists. We’re always trying to elevate, highlight, normalize the alternative.”
Among the works in a recent retrospective was a print made by writer and sex educator Annie Sprinkle. It’s an impression of her breasts made with murky violet paint—erotic and ethereal. Sprinkle performed at CoCA in 1990 as part of a group show centered around body issues. DeMent didn’t witness it herself, but considers it a significant moment in CoCA history.
“She laid herself down in the gallery on a table with her legs in stirrups, a speculum in her vagina,” DeMent says. “People walked by and looked into her cervix, all for the sake of normalizing sexuality and women’s bodies. It was uncomfortable, but I think the best shows are always the ones where you have a visceral response—and that response is often triggered because of taboo.”
CoCA is currently expanding programming, including artist residency programs in Seattle and Portland, and is undergoing a major effort to catalogue decades of physical ephemera, documents and exhibits. This month they also produce an annual 24-hour art-making marathon that culminates in an auction, held Nov. 2–3 at Elysian Brewery in conjunction with the monthly Pioneer Square art walk.
“We’re focused on growing, and connecting the present with the past,” DeMent says. “We’re putting on exhibits where artists are given an opportunity to speak to their experience, whether that’s people of color or other artists who have not been supported in the past. CoCA aims to bring those conversations to light, address taboos and highlight artists who have not been given a platform to speak.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Nichole DeMent as CoCA’s first executive director. We regret the error.