How did Portland become an art city with so few art museums?


Thank goodness the word “artistic” has for the most part fallen into disuse. But tell an outsider about Portland, and there’s a pretty good chance the imprecise descriptor will appear. Even after the events of 2020. Much of this holds true: We are a city dotted with gallery space, from Pearl to Alberta to Kenton, and filled to the brim with manufacturer markets. But for a place so ostensibly preoccupied with art, something curious stands out: we lack art museums.

For over a century, the Portland Art Museum was the one and only in the Pink City. Started in 1892 as the Portland Art Association and located at its current home on SW Park Avenue since 1932, PAM has held an important place in our cultural history.

“The museum was founded at a time when the city was taking its place,” says Brian Ferriso, PAM director and chief art curator. Our priorities, he says, are built into it. “The main museum building, designed by [Italian-born architect] Pietro Belluschi, was built in 1932. This means that at the height of the Depression, there were leaders in this community who said, “We need art and culture, even though our world is turned upside down.

There is plenty of other art the spaces in the city, some of which are major players. One thinks of Oregon Contemporary (a recent new image of Disjecta) and the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA). But very few of these spaces present themselves as “museums”, opting instead for labels like “center” or “collective”, and the rare projects in Portland to claim the title of “museum” tend towards the non-traditional: the Portland Museum of Modern Art, founded by artist Libby Werbel, lived in the basement of Mississippi Records for four years before closing in 2016. The King School Museum of Contemporary Art (KSMoCA) bills itself as a ‘project of’ art of social practice ”- it features a permanent collection in the halls of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary in the northeast, and focuses primarily on connecting public school students with contemporary artists through workshops.

Debates about the definition of a “museum” and its role are currently bubbling up in culture. Last year the New York Times published an article entitled “What is a museum?” Which broke down the central question of the Paris-based International Council of Museums. Are museums, according to the definition of the 1970s reached by ICOM, simply “non-profit institutions at the service of society”? Are they more? Less? The aftermath of the story included meltdowns, a series of resignations, and hurt international feelings. Many at the heart of the debate seemed to take the porn approach: you know a museum when you see one.

For his part, Ferriso says that PAM is learning what it is through community engagement: “By creating a very broad engagement with all the people who are part of this organization, that raises all the tides. The All-Black Numberz radio station has found a permanent home on site at PAM during the pandemic. In recent years, PAM has invited artists like Werbel to mount exhibitions that question the Ivory Tower museums, ready to get involved in the process. Last June, Blazer Carmelo Anthony won the inaugural Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Award for NBA Social Justice Champion and donated his $ 100,000 prize to PAM’s Black Art initiative.

“Follow the money”, unsurprisingly, is a successful pursuit here. In Portland, charitable giving is not the kind of institutional backer they might be elsewhere – a 2020 Murdock Charitable Trust study found that this money is much less of the operating budgets of cultural organizations in the region. Portland metropolitan area than it does in the national average. Add fickle public funds to the relatively small philanthropic base, and it becomes a little clearer why we may not be showering art museums.

There is also something to be said about the influence of the city’s DIY sensibility.
Portland’s museum culture is idiosyncratic and personal. Not to mention the financial barriers, but with PAM ticking many institutional boxes, maybe our creative communities are content to pursue smaller-scale initiatives. As PAM Press Director Ian Gillingham puts it: “My confidence in the Portland creative scene is that if they need another art museum, they will invent it.


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