The Portland Art Museum takes into account the pandemic and the turbulent history of the art world
Closing a large art museum isn’t as easy as turning off the lights and locking the doors. Protecting fragile and priceless works of art is a full-time responsibility: even if a pandemic does arise and ruin your plans.
So when COVID-19 forced the Portland Art Museum to close its doors last year, director and chief curator Brian Ferriso said there was still a lot of work to be done.
“Our bills don’t stop when we close,” Ferriso said. “We still have climate control systems; we have a number of things that are in place like security that still need to be in place 24/7. ”
It has been a year of quick pivots and tough choices for this 129-year-old institution. The museum has had to close its doors completely to the public twice: once in the spring and again in November 2020. During the months when it could, it was operating at a fraction of its normal capacity: at one point, when the county of Multnomah was in the “ extreme risk ” category, state regulations required that the museum only allow six guests at a time – it’s inside a building with over 112,000 feet of gallery space and an official capacity of nearly 2,900 people.
Like many cultural institutions, the Portland Art Museum has had to respond with drastic cuts. The museum cut its budget by 40% last year. It laid off and then laid off a significant number of its employees. Without income from ticket sales and rental of event spaces, reductions were simply inevitable.
“I would say that on the whole museums are undercapitalized,” Ferriso said. “We have huge fixed costs, we have very large collections to manage, we have a large staff who really make our museum what it is today.”
A slow return to normal
Today, things are looking much brighter for the museum. It is again able to admit a 50% carrying capacity now that Multnomah County has fallen into the “ low risk ” category. The museum is recruiting staff and speeding up programming. He even has a much anticipated (and twice delayed) exhibition of the work of iconic western photographer Ansel Adams on display now.
But this is not yet the case in the blocks of the park. Last week, the Portland Art Museum signed a commitment with 13 other cultural institutions in the Portland area to continue to require customers to wear masks for the time being. Ferriso said that as keen as the museum is to get back to normal, he also didn’t want to rush it: “We felt, why not take this step and be a little more conservative, continue to implement this politics together as a community. It has really been very helpful for all of us: our organizations, my staff and the public feeling a sense of comfort.
Ferriso said part of the decision was based on the museum’s responsibility for revitalizing downtown Portland, where foot traffic has evaporated over the past year. He said that cultural institutions like the Portland Art Museum have a special role in this healing: both as a business, but also as a restorative symbol of our cultural ideals.
“We feel privileged and understand the responsibility we have as an organization,” he said: “Especially the one about inspiration, hope and our shared humanity.”
Account with a past history of oppression
As disruptive as the pandemic is, the biggest change undertaken by the museum could be the calculation that last year’s racial and social justice movements have caused the institution. Founded in 1892, museum officials often note that the institution was born “in the golden age”.
Ferriso acknowledged that, like many fine arts institutions of his day, the museum’s collection is replete with works that celebrate a white, Euro-centric view of art history.
“Many of these collections throughout history have been acquired in ways that are more oppressive to others,” he said. “Whether it is countries colonizing other countries and taking works of art or the church supporting certain aspects of patronage. We need to think critically about how these collections should be and why they were celebrated. “
Ferriso acknowledges that the curatorial decisions the museum has made over the years have continued to marginalize artists who do not fit into the traditional art tradition, and that “whole swathes” of the museum are now lacking in focus. a diverse representation of artists.
“In the 20th century alone,” he said, “the number of artists working in the field – let’s just say abstract expressionism – we have a very narrow perspective of the representation of artists working at the time. . For example, we don’t have a large Norman LewisA black painter who was an important member of the Abstract Expressionism movement who explored the social issues of the Civil Rights Era in his work. “We don’t have a Norman Lewis. There are many other artists that we want to be represented on the walls.
But the Portland Art Museum is trying to change. Last June, the museum make a statement in solidarity with the protest movements that began after the death of George Floyd, stating:
“We also recognize the role of our own museum in supporting systems of oppression and inequity over a 127-year history, and we are committed to continuing our commitment to listen… to learn… to be accountable. to our common humanity… to be a civic space doing what is necessary. and urgent work on anti-racism and contributing to a fairer and more equitable society. “
Ferriso said the museum is making a concerted effort to add more works by marginalized artists to its collection. “It starts with our staff, who we hire, how they research, how our curators think about the development of the collection, how we look for where to buy works of art,” he said.
It is also about taking internal equity work seriously. The museum began hosting Affinity Groups for Black, Indigenous and Colored Employees (BIPOCs), and White Learning Space groups for people to discuss race and racial equity in the workplace. .
The museum also said it is also looking for new ways for the Portland Art Museum to support the art community here in the Pacific Northwest. Deep in the pandemic, he launched many Sleeves aid grants to artists and deepened its partnership with The Numberz FM, a black-run community radio station in Portland. The museum plans a number of performances focused on PNW artists, including an exhibition “Black artists of Oregon” this October which will be invited by the artist from Portland Intisar Abioto.
A place of hope
Ferriso said the multiple accounts from last year are forcing the Portland Art Museum to think more deeply about its role in the community – and the areas in which it still has a lot to learn. “It accelerated our need to be very responsive to the community we are in. We need it to be from the community and not just her.
But eventually, as spring turns to summer and we begin to remember the easy joys of common spaces, he hopes the Portland Art Museum can be a refuge for a community that has suffered too much, in too many ways, in the city. over the past 15 months.
“I think a museum is about hope,” he said. “A place to take the mind to different places. So being a place where people can find joy, hope and contemplation is so important right now.
Listen to Portland Art Museum director Brian Ferriso’s conversation with OPB Weekend Edition host John Notarianni using the audio player above.