By Barry Johnson
The Director and Chief Curator of the Portland Art Museum shares his deep thoughts on the Museum’s trajectory.
The Portland Art Museum, the oldest art museum on the West Coast and one of the oldest in the country, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. Seven wealthy, local businessmen and politicians created the Portland Art Association in 1892 to bring art to the masses. Portlanders will find some of the founder’s names familiar, as they figure in other Portland landmarks: Corbett, Failing, Ladd, and Ayer. It took three years to materialize, but in 1895, the group opened a museum in the old library building at Southwest Seventh (now Broadway) and Oak. Technically, the Museum could celebrate another 125th anniversary in 2020, but that might get confusing.
The Museum’s history is fascinating, filled with forward-thinking decisions by strong leaders, mostly women in the early days. A prime example was the opening of the Museum’s visionary Art School in 1909. In 1913, Artist Anna Belle Crocker (who was both the Director of the Museum and the School’s first Principal) brought to the Museum pieces from the revolutionary Armory Show in New York that ushered in the dawn of modern art in America.
But Brian Ferriso, the Director and Chief Curator of the museum today, isn’t interested in talking about the history, except as a way to think about the present and the future. That’s understandable: Sure, the past is full of good ideas, but it also comes equipped with a long menu of mistakes and missed opportunities. An anniversary isn’t the time to get too analytical. “I think for the staff and for myself,” says Ferriso, “this is a moment to touch on that history and then really think deeply about the future.”
Ferriso, who is in his 12th year as Director of the Museum, has just finished up his term as President of the Association of Art Museum Directors. That has connected him to the concerns of museums, large and small, across the country. And they are all trying to figure out whether and how to adjust to the changes in the culture. Given the intensity of the culture war that has revisited us,“changes” here sounds like a euphemism, no?
Ferriso, however, doesn’t hesitate to jump in the middle of that combat by asking: Who is the Portland Art Museum for? The heirs of the seven wealthy white men who started the Portland Art Association? Or should it reflect, somehow, the city and state as a whole and its position in the American West and the Pacific Rim?
“We’re really expanding our reach into the community,” Ferriso said. “How do we reach those audiences that do not come across the river or beyond the freeway? It’s not a very simple equation. It involves what you show, who you hire, who is on your board, who is funding you, your outreach strategies, and your connections to key stakeholders and communities. I’ve learned that change happens one by one by one, and slowly it adds up to something that is real and sustainable.”
The Museum’s exhibition schedule is the clearest indication of the shift. Constructing Identity, an important selection of work by African-American artists in the Petrucci Family Foundation collection, has been a central part of the Museum’s 2017 calendar, and an exhibition of work by African-American Portland artist Arvie Smith extended into the beginning of the year. Last year’s schedule included work by pop artist Corita Kent and a show built around Five Buddhas, a painting stolen from a Korean Zen temple, brought to Portland, and finally repatriated after its history was discovered. Collections of Salish tribe weaving, Japanese children’s kimono, and contemporary Native American fashion further rounded out the broad array of offerings. But it’s not just the exhibitions. “I’ve come to the conclusion that the Museum is about programming,” Ferriso said. “We really invest in programmatic elements—exhibitions, public programs, educational moments—and weaving them together in a very dynamic way.” For Constructing Identity, he said, “a show of a lot of lesser-known artists and a few high-profile names,” the Museum organized more than 50 programs, “which changed the dynamic of that entire moment. I think that’s the future.”
Episodes from the Museum’s history help explain the importance of showing art outside the traditional Western canon. In the 1990s, legendary museum photography curator Terry Toedtemeier purchased a significant early series of photographs by Carrie Mae Weems, the Kitchen Table Series, a set of images constructed by Weems that depicted ordinary life in an African-American household and the way that ordinary life has of becoming dramatic, comic, or telling. In 1994, Toedtemeier showed them at the Museum in a small retrospective of Weems’ work, There, Mickalene Thomas encountered the photographs.
Thomas had moved to Portland in the mid-1980s from New Jersey, working as a barista and going to school. Ferriso picks up the story: “Mickalene wanders into the Art Museum and stumbles across Carrie Mae Weems’ Kitchen Table Series and says this is something I’ve never seen before. And it’s because—as Mickalene has said—there’s a person I can identify with and an artist I can identify with on the wall. And in many ways, it launched her career. Today, Mickalene is highly celebrated.” She moved to New York, enrolled at the Pratt Institute, and is now best known for her paintings, photographs, film, and video art exploring identity, sexuality, Blackness, pop culture, and her relation to the dominant culture.
Not everyone who sees an exhibition becomes a famous artist, of course, but as Ferriso said, it’s one by one by one: the effects of art become apparent over time, in different ways.
In 1995, around the same time that Thomas saw her first Weems photographs, the Museum hosted the Imperial Tombs of China exhibition, the first major exhibition during the late John Buchanan’s tenure as Director of the Art Museum. Thanks to a significant marketing effort mounted by Buchanan and his wife Lucy, the show attracted more than 400,000 visitors and helped the city understand its place on the Pacific Rim. And Ferriso thinks it did more than that. “People who were civic leaders who might not love art but love their city—they are business, cultural, educational leaders— started to realize that the Museum was an important ingredient for our city. So someone like Pete Mark [Melvin “Pete” Mark, the real estate executive and philanthropist who died in June] becomes attached to the Museum because he could see the power of the cultural anchor in Downtown. You’d talk to Pete, and he would say, ‘It’s not about the art, it’s about a great city.’”
The Museum has also begun to acknowledge other elements of a great city with recent and upcoming exhibitions that are more about other institutions and cultural achievements than about fine art. The recently concluded Quest for Beauty: The Architecture, Landscapes, and Collections of John Yeon showed Portlanders the wide-ranging the gifts of architect John Yeon, for example. And looking ahead, the Museum and its film division, the Northwest Film Center, will celebrate LAIKA, the local animation studio responsible for the achingly beautiful Kubo and the Two Strings, most recently. In Animating Life: The Art, Science, and Wonder of LAIKA, visitors will encounter photography, video clips, and physical artwork from the studio’s movies, which have done pioneering work in the meticulous stop-action animation process.
The future of the Museum involves connecting more directly and deeply to the city’s various cultural communities. But it also will involve connecting the pieces of the Museum’s campus.
“One of the things I’ve heard over and over during my time here is complaints from people who get lost and can’t find restrooms or the elevators,” Ferriso says. “It’s an issue.” The Rothko Pavilion is intended to solve that problem. “We haven’t completed the project yet—we’re at about $30 million towards a $50 million capital goal. We have some things to work on, but we’ll get there. I want to make sure it’s done a way that people will really celebrate and remember as a big moment in our history.”
The pavilion will connect three different parts of the Museum: the original building, the Ayer Wing, designed by Pietro Belluschi and completed in 1932; the Hoffman Wing, completed in 1970 to house the Museum Art School, among other things; and to their north, separated by a large plaza and sculpture garden, the Mark Building, a Masonic temple purchased in 1992 and opened in 1994. That space will hold the Rothko Pavilion, which will become the main entrance to the Museum and connect the various wings to each other in a much more direct way. The three-story, glass-walled pavilion will likely close down night pedestrian passage from Southwest 10th Avenue to the South Park Blocks through the existing plaza, but it should help the hundreds of thousands of visitors negotiate the labyrinthine halls of the Museum. And it marks a partnership with the family of abstract expressionist pioneer Mark Rothko, who took art classes at the Portland Art Museum as a teenager before heading to New York where he gained fame and fortune. The family has agreed to share major paintings from the family collection with the Art Museum during the next 20 years.
The pavilion will include almost 10,000 new square feet of gallery space, a new education and design lab, and new library space. A third-floor sculpture garden and rooftop deck are also part of the plan.
Ferriso said that critics of the pavilion’s design (by Vinci Hamp Architects) compare it to an Apple Store, but that doesn’t faze him. After all, he once worked at the Newark Museum in New Jersey, which founder John Cotton Dana famously compared to a department store: something to use, “not precious little boxes to hold objects,” in Ferriso’s words.
“You go to an Apple Store, and it’s become a community center, a place for engagement,” Ferriso observed. “It’s become a magnet, a place for conversation. Are there things we can learn from that? Absolutely. And so, Dana’s thinking of how other industries or areas can help [museums] understand a pathway forward is thoughtful. Starbucks has influenced how museums function as well.”
Ferriso continued: “I think my team is always about one foot in the past, one foot forward. I never want to abandon the past. I want to use the past for a meaningful future and not just create a repository…a box to preserve the past. It has to be put to use in a respectful way.”
Ultimately, the future of the museum in American cities is subordinate to the future of the culture as a whole, a culture increasingly overwhelmed by digital technology. Ferriso is optimistic about how that will turn out, both for the culture and the Museum.
‘The town square, the Italian piazza—these are places that have taken on even more meaning in our lives as the digital age has shaped our interactions,” he pointed out. “What are those places and spaces that can facilitate human interaction in the best ways—community, pride, dialogue. I think the Museum is a place to reassert that, which is so precious to so many in our society, and it’s a matter of making sure we can still unlock it or introduce it.”
For the Portland Art Museum, survival is dependent on playing a role for as many people as possible. “I like the word ‘democratic,’” he said. “Because we’re not a wealthy institution, we have to be democratic.” He later added: “To me, that is a core value…a museum that is democratic, is responsive.”
Ferriso said when he came to Portland, he didn’t think he’d be here this long but can now see himself retiring here.
“It’s a special place,” he said. “I think the most successful museums are where the leadership digs in. They have a long trajectory in their thinking about the place. And there are incredible amounts of patience and thoughtfulness. I think we’re on that track. I’m on my 12th year, and I’m thinking about the Museum as…I’m just getting started. And that’s pretty exciting.”