Listening to Community: Reflecting on The Numberz and Portland Art Museum Partnership

Photo credit: Jason Hill

Written in collaboration by Jaleesa Johnston and Stephanie Parrish from the Portland Art Museum and DJ Ambush from The Numberz FM

A central component of our work at the Museum is building meaningful relationships that strengthen the bridge between art and community. This guiding principal has been at the core of an ongoing partnership with The Numberz FM, a community-based radio station that identifies with the taglines “Liberated Black Media” and “The Black Music Experience for Black Portland.” The Museum and The Numberz first worked together during the exhibition Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… in 2019, where The Numberz was a community partner in residence, conducting interviews, broadcasting on-site, presenting playlist workshops, and more. After the Hank Willis Thomas exhibition, the Museum stayed connected with The Numberz, investing in the station with advertising to encourage visitation, and making plans for the future. 

When the pandemic struck, followed shortly thereafter by the murder of George Floyd, the moment was ripe for urgent change. As the Museum’s galleries closed to the public, we used this rare moment of literal open space to continue activation and engagement with The Numberz through a long-term residency. The station’s offices were closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, and they were without a space from which to operate. In August 2020, The Numberz moved into the Museum’s 4th floor Center for Northwest Art, which was shuttered at the time to the public but housed an incredible exhibition of work by artist Ed Bereal. Amid Bereal’s installation, and visitor favorites like William Morris’ Artifact Panel, The Numberz team was reunited in a physical space. Since the Museum has reopened, the station team is now working out of the top floor of the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art.

Photo credit: Ambush

Initially, the residency concept was to highlight local artists through a series of interviews, and has since grown into something much more timely and fulfilling. There is no way to ignore the shift in our city’s energy, shaped by protests for social justice, calls for police reform, political tension, and our evolving relationship to the pandemic. Throughout all of this change, artists are capturing the emotions of their communities, and taking up space everywhere they can. The art is not relegated to galleries or commissioned walls, it is powerful, insightful and in our faces, not to be ignored. This explosion of creativity needed to be captured, highlighted and shared with not just members of the artistic community but the community at large. 

So we took a step back from the original idea, and we shifted focus to provide additional pathways for artists to continue to tell their stories—not just through interviews, but by adding performances and conversations via streaming platforms. This allowed us to extend our reach in a way that encourages all members of the community to participate in the conversation. Through our partnership, we not only saw a way to bring attention to these artists by offering our shared platforms of the airwaves and the museum, but we also realized we have a responsibility to document this time in our city’s history through the lens of its creative community. 

Photo credit: Kan Jones

Throughout the residency, The Numberz have invited artists of many different disciplines to sit down and share their stories, detailing the impact of today’s issues on their work. For some, it has caused a shift in their practice, and for others, it has affirmed their path. No matter where they end up, they’ve entrusted us with their stories. The result will be profiles on newer artists that have just gotten started, as well as some artists that might just be new to you. Artists that have made their mark and are now using their position to highlight privileges that they have while using that same privilege in an attempt to even the playing field for others.

In a similar way, the Museum and The Numberz partnership is a great example of that. Opening its space to meet the needs of a fledgling Black radio station by providing a creative space within a gallery for it’s team to work safely in a socially distanced manner.  We look forward to continuing to work together as the world continues to crack open.

The residency partnership was featured recently in The New York Times! “How Museums Are Reaching Out to Their Local Communities: American museums have stepped up during the pandemic to help address needs in their areas — and those efforts may lead to some permanent changes.” Read the article here (scroll to the bottom).

An interview with members of the residency partnership team

Ambush, The Numberz General Manager 
Stephanie Parrish, Portland Art Museum Director of Learning and Community Partnerships
Jaleesa Johnston, Portland Art Museum Programs Lead

What has this partnership meant? 

Ambush: Timing was everything. We communicated a need based on the challenges presented by COVID-19, in which the bulk of our operations were remote much like many other organizations. Through this relationship we’ve been able to safely engage in interviews and performances both inside and outside the museum. This collaboration opened the door for other community partnerships which resulted in our very first simulcast video streaming and broadcast event. And we’re just getting started! The Numberz staff is encouraged by this partnership and truly excited for what the future holds.

Jaleesa & Stephanie:  As members of the Learning and Community Partnerships team, we are in continuous conversations around building meaningful and deep partnerships that expand beyond stand-alone programs. Our current collaboration with The Numberz builds on important foundational work that the Museum’s Kress Interpretive Fellow, Ella Ray, established during the Hank Willis Thomas: All Things Being Equal… exhibition in 2019. As part of the exhibition, Ella helped to centralize a Community Partners in Residence space as both a physical and conceptual framework for expanding our thinking around relationship building and process within community partnership work. It was during this time that we partnered with The Numberz to host a live broadcasting program within the galleries.  

As the Museum closed at the height of the pandemic in 2020, we found a rich opportunity to further the initial growth of this partnership through a long-term residency within the galleries.  We are grateful to some Regional Arts & Culture Council (RACC) funding that provided the seed money to extend the partnership and pay artists. This residency has been a crucial part of expanding our partnership work beyond exhibition-specific programming to embrace a more fluid and open collaboration process.  As a result, both the Museum and The Numberz are always looking for opportunities to program together, while also respecting space and time for The Numberz to develop their own work.     

What has been interesting, challenging, or surprising about the current residency? Any favorite moments or highlights to share? 

Ambush: The pandemic has limited our ability to be physically accessible to our audience, despite being in a space that we love and have been encouraged to host events in. This quiet period has truly given us the time and stillness to really appreciate how remarkable the space is. The inspiration of working out of the museum inspired the idea of The Numberz starting its own art collection. We’ll be focusing on emerging artists of color with ties to the Portland experience. 

Jaleesa & Stephanie: The uncertainty of the pandemic has made long-term program and work planning more challenging, but this same hurdle has been a beneficial aspect to our partnership. Approaching work “day by day” grants our partnership fluidity and flexibility, allowing for a more organic growth of project and program ideas. It’s been beneficial to slow down and have some time/space to just get to know each other. This informal way of working fosters a more responsive partnership, where we make it a point to regularly check in, update each other on ideas, brainstorm, and see what pans out.

What’s up next? 

Ambush: Our series of summer performances in the “Madison Street Parklette” in collaboration with Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT). We’ll be providing entertainment several weekends out of each month from June to September, with events ranging from dance parties and artist performances to fitness workshops and live podcasting.

Jaleesa & Stephanie: We’ve been working with PBOT to participate in their “Summer Streets” program. Beginning in June sometime, we will close a small stretch of Southwest Madison Street just in front of the museum where there will be tables, chairs, and an area to do occasional outdoor programming. The Numberz team will curate a series of weekend performances in this “parklette.” We are working together on some other community-based programs with the Portland Parks Foundation that will take place toward the end of the summer.  Stay tuned for more info!

How can people get involved or learn more? 

Ambush: Check us out at and become a member! We love audience feedback, so please feel free to email us and follow us on your preferred social media network.  

Jaleesa & Stephanie: Make sure to sign up for the Museum and Northwest Film Center’s weekly e-news or follow the Portland Art Museum on Instagram and Facebook to stay on top of summer outdoor happenings.  

The Numberz residency partnership at Portland Art Museum is sponsored in part by the Regional Arts & Culture Council.

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