Behind the Curtain

With a new First Friday series, Oliver Doriss is opening up the back room of his Hilltop gallery in hopes that crowds will save the date (and the arts).

It’s early in the evening on the third Thursday of December, and Tacoma art lovers are canvassing the city on its monthly Art Walk. BKB & Company, Tacoma Art Museum, Traver Gallery, Museum of Glass, Two Vaults Gallery and the other participating venues have opened their doors as museums and galleries have done for the event’s twenty years of existence. By eight p.m., most of the walkers will retire their final cup of cheap wine and head home. At Fulcrum Gallery, however, the party is just getting started.

Beyond the gallery’s front room, through a red curtain and a wash of blue neon light, a twentysomething crowd is scattered about on a horseshoe configuration of upholstered benches, gathered for a fundraiser featuring “ambient sculptural music.” The dreamy symphonic sounds of Going Shopping fill the dark space in concert with video created by Kris Crews. During the performance, there is little chatter in the audience. People sip from their cans of Pabst and thoughtfully consider the work: a brilliant audiovisual exploration of consumerist-fueled desire.

Photography by Young Lee

The video includes a colorful kaleidoscope-like montage of Botox-injected bimbos hawking sparkling diamonds and pearls on the Home Shopping Network. That segment is sufficiently absurd to provoke laughter. The scenes of frenzied shopping shift to black-and-white footage of deep-sea divers, hazardous-waste handlers and Mad Men-era advertising. Accompanied by an avant-garde composition that melds synthesized wizardry with minimalist trumpet, the effect is mesmerizing. It’s also beautiful and very much the kind of performance that speaks to the ever-evolving ethos of cool that gallery owner Oliver Doriss has brought to the city’s arts landscape.

Doriss is always spinning a fresh idea. As the man himself, who is known in certain circles as DJ Broam and in others as the Viceroy of Hilltop, will tell you, it’s all part of the gallery-owning biz, an industry that calls for good instincts and an agile problem-solving mind. Those attributes have never been more necessary than they are right now.

“Artists are so accessible,” Doriss contends. “They have their own Web sites so buyers can just sidestep me.” In the face of these Internet-age realities and a tough recession-era market, Doriss is not giving up. The thirty-six-year-old maverick continues to host Third Thursday art openings and feed the demand for up-and-coming culture while evolving his business model. The key, Doriss believes, is to leverage Tacoma’s love for a good party.

Beginning this month, Doriss will kick off his latest recession-busting initiative by hosting the first in a series of First Friday fundraisers: music-based events cultivated with an ear, and an eye, for the cutting edge. Since opening Fulcrum in December of 2007, Doriss has received numerous requests from people wanting to throw parties in his space. But after-hours raves put his business at risk and don’t fit his conceptual vision. “Everybody has that fantasy club scene in their head – the kind of thing you see in a movie, but that actually never happens,” he says with a chuckle. “But Fulcrum is a contemporary arts space and a hub for the arts community; it’s not a club. Basically this is the party that I want to go to.” Judging by the high turnout at his past openings, Doriss’s idea of a good time suits the crowd just fine.

The atmosphere of Doriss’s recent openings and fundraisers evokes that of the hipster epicenter of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Doriss, who lived in Williamsburg in 2006, seems pleased by this idea. “Good, good,” he replies. A native of Cape Cod, Doriss recalls being drawn to Tacoma because of the city’s similarities to the East Coast. “Tacoma’s got this really gritty identity. People are invested in this town in a very heartfelt way. I identified with that,” he says.

Doriss is now firmly entrenched as one of those investors, not only as the owner of Fulcrum but as a fundraising agent for Tacoma Contemporary, the nonprofit organization that curates site-specific art in the windows of the Woolworth building at 9th and Commerce/Broadway.

What he is hoping to do with these First Friday events is to “curate the best of Tacoma and give artists and arts-oriented types a beautiful, safe environment in which to enjoy themselves,” he explains.

For a mere five-dollar cover charge, gallerygoers will gain access to the newly renovated backroom, the heartbeat of the First Friday Fulcrum universe where the artists that Doriss is so eager to support will be on display. As a glassworker, teacher, artist, gallery owner and performer, Doriss is not a guy who likes tidy little compartments. “When I’m DJing I tend to flip around between crossover, electronic, down tempo and modern hip hop,” he says. His curatorial style will reflect this wide range of tastes.

Two years into his venture, Doriss says he’s grateful to be still going strong. He admits that he’s barely making a profit, but he sounds optimistic and thrilled to be living life on his own artistic terms. His biggest hurdle, aside from not having health care, is pacing. “I could work sixteen hours today. So how do I figure out a rhythm where I can produce and provide, and still have it be enjoyable?” Last year in the midst of major stress he had a revelation: “I was ignoring my walk in the woods!” Resolving to carve out some personal downtime, he made Sunday his official day off. “This cool, collected art savant you see today: it’s taken me awhile to get here,” he says. This statement jolts him out of conversation mode; suddenly he’s in a hurry to get back to all of the things he has to do. A collector just bought a big piece, so Doriss is having a custom box made to ship it to Santa Fe before Christmas. And there is paperwork, and a photo shoot, and an event just hours away. •

Read Oliver Doriss’s picks for artists that should be part of your new year…