Tag Archives: Portland Art Museum

Thursday scatter: church blues, high spirits, NW Biennial

So, what does a possible breakup of the Episcopal Church in the United States have to do with the price of tickets in Portland? Nothing, maybe. Then again, maybe something, after all.

At first blush this morning’s news in the New York Times that a small group of conservative bishops has declared itself divorced from the American branch of the church (though not from global Anglicanism) doesn’t seem to have much to do with the world of art. The dispute seems to be mostly over American Episcopalians’ welcoming of gay and lesbian parishioners, and conservatives’ continuing disgruntlement over the ordination five years ago of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. The temptation is to scratch your head over how, in a supposedly sophisticated spiritual communion in the year 2008, homosexuality can still be a bitterly divisive issue, to declare that 20 years from now the children of the breakaway churchmen and churchwomen will be similarly scratching their heads trying to figure out what in the world their parents were thinking, and move on. Their church, their problem: Every great social movement has its backwater of protest.

But. If this really goes through, almost inevitably there will be lawsuits
over which faction owns church property when a local church breaks away from the larger group. And because churches enjoy tax-exempt status, the possibility of spillover to the nonprofit world isn’t out of the question. When this fight hits the courts the question of why churches aren’t taxed will be raised in a lot of quarters. And although we all complain about the lack of public support for the arts, the fact remains that our local and national governments do provide nonprofit arts groups (which in a city like Portland means just about all of them) with the very big financial advantage that nonprofit status entails — a public underwriting, in the fine print of the ledger books, of the arts and other community-based endeavors. Don’t expect, in our current atmosphere of bailouts, defaults, rising unemployment and scary recession, that this form of public spending won’t be challenged, too. Especially amid the rising libertarian movement, which looks suspiciously on any and all hands it thinks might be dipping into its pocket.

With the recession already coming down heavily on arts groups — for instance, Oregon Ballet Theatre has dropped live music from the majority of this month’s performances of The Nutcracker, a major step backward for a company that’s been making a name for itself nationally — an added hit in the tax and underwriting pocket could be devastating. And don’t think it can’t happen. A few years ago a judge on the Oregon Coast decided that the tax breaks to a small community theater in Lincoln City weren’t legal. If he’d prevailed (he didn’t) the entire structure of arts support in Oregon would have been jeopardized. So, onward, cultural soldiers. Don’t take anything for granted. Keep in touch with those city council members and state legislators. And keep making your case.


On a bubblier note, a friend points out that Prohibition ended 75 years ago Friday — on Dec. 5, 1933 — and we’ll drink to that. The 18th Amendment, which ironically put a lot of the roar into the Roaring Twenties, had gone into effect on June 16, 1920, and had the effect mainly of manufacturing a lot of criminals out of previously law-abiding folks. It also led to a thriving moonshine industry, the possible naming of the great Li’l Abner character Moonbeam McSwine (and the comic strip’s house tipple, Kickapoo Joy Juice), and those eventual twin pillars of American pop culture, the movie and song versions of Thunder Road.

So, celebrate — quietly, moderately, enjoyably — tomorrow night. We’re putting a bottle of Saint-Hillaire 2004 Blanquette de Limoux brut in the Art Scatter refrigerator right now.


It’s no secret that the old Oregon Biennial was about as high on Bruce Guenther’s list of priorities as his shoelaces: Asked once what he’d like to do with the Biennial, the Portland Art Museum‘s chief curator grinned and said, “Kill it off.”

Eventually, he did.

But if the state of Oregon doesn’t have a broad-overview showcase of the visual arts any more, or even the more narrowly focused showcase that the Biennial became before it quivered and died, the Pacific Northwest does. Today the Tacoma Art Museum announced the featured artists for its ninth annual Northwest Biennial, and followers of the Portland art scene will recognize a lot of the talent.

Michael Brophy (that’s his highway scene above), Linda Hutchins, Victor Maldonado, Stephanie Robison and Susan Seubert all made the cut of 24 (from 543 entries), as did Tannaz Farsi and Chang-Ae Song of Eugene. All of the others are from Washington state, mostly Seattle: Rick Araluce, Gala Bent, Jack Daws, Eric Elliott, Sarah Hood, Denzil Hurley, Robert Jones, Michael Kenna, Doug Keyes, Isaac Layman, Zhi Lin, Micki Lippe, Margie Livingston, Deborah Moore, Susan Robb, Ross Sawyers, Scott Trimble. No one from Idaho or Montana was chosen.

The picks were made by Tacoma museum curator Rock Hushka and Alison de Lima Greene, contemporary curator for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. You can zip up the freeway and see the show between Jan. 31 and May 25.

Remembrance of things past: Art that pays its respects

One of my most vivid memories from a visit to St. Petersburg, Russia, almost a decade ago is of walking into a ramshackle room in a tumbling old palace and seeing, as if they were ghosts, long-smocked artisans painstakingly copying old masterworks: eerily antique-looking men and women making giant decorative objects based on the art of the past.

St. Petersburg is and always has been something of a museum city, hermetically sealed in its own royalist aesthetic. Even in the late 1990s, as the new thuggery of the ascendant Russian opportunist class was evident everywhere, the urge to re-create the glories of the past was also busily hammering away around every corner. By rebuilding with obsessive accuracy so much that the Germans had destroyed in the Siege of Leningrad, Petersburgers weren’t just taking their central city back to the glories of the days before World War II. They were replicating the age of the czars.

Is this art, or mummification? My guess is, yes and yes. It is what it is, for better and for worse, and in St. Petersburg, which like few other big European cities has resisted the hard edge of modernism (although it does have its share of Soviet Brutalist architecture) there was an abundance of each.

The urge to retreat into the verities of the past is strong, especially when you’re not sure about the present or the future. The past in one sense is a popular commodity, with eager buyers looking for a patina of instant heritage and sellers willing to feed their nostalgic fantasies. So the art world has a furtive underground market in fakes (read Robertson Davies‘ sly and very good novel What’s Bred in the Bone for some sharp insights into the mind of a brilliant forger), and the American and English antique-furniture markets are in an uproar right now over purportedly fraudulent high-end pieces cobbled together (with exceptional skill, it must be admitted) from old pieces of semi-junk.

An obsession with the past can also rise from uncertainty over our ability to make contemporary decisions. In its early years the only art in the collection of the Portland Art Museum was cast reproductions of ancient Greek and Roman statuary: Citizens of the pioneer city were invited into a sacred space to see knockoff versions of the foundations of Western art and accomplishment, as if the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, for instance, let alone the crude vigor of the American frontier, had simply never existed.

Yet it’s equally true that to ignore the past is to fundamentally misunderstand the present. What we are is built on everything that’s come before, and one of the objects of art is to explore that past in light of the present. That’s the great gift of a good museum. And it’s what makes Homage: Re-enactments, Copies and Tributes, which continues through Dec. 7 in The Art Gym at Marylhurst University, such an intriguing experience.

Curator Terri Hopkins built Homage around Sherrie Wolf‘s giant re-creation of Gustave Courbet‘s 1855 painting The Painter’s Studio: Allegory of Seven Years of My Artistic and Moral Life. It’s crucial that Courbet’s painting isn’t just any old Courbet. It’s a painting about painting, a lively and affecting treatise in oil on the nature and context of making art. And Hopkins has done with it the sort of thing good curators do: She’s surrounded it with other pieces that approach the same general question from different angles. To Wolf’s audacious act of reinvention she added a liberal smattering of photographer Christopher Rauschenberg‘s passionate pursuit of Eugene Atget‘s Paris, plus a pair of largely academic projects that, while they don’t add much to the visual pleasures of the exhibition, nimbly frame it and give it context.

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Thursday scatter: of foxes and hen houses, etc.

An egg crisis is ravaging the hen house.

They’re disappearing.

And the foxes are shocked, shocked.

While the hens bemoan the loss of their little ones — several survivors have been running around crying that the sky is falling — the foxes have gathered the whole barnyard to declare that Something Must Be Done. Trust them: We Must Act Now.

The head fox has declared that the true victims are the foxes themselves, who have been cruelly deprived of their stockpile of eggs. To avert catastrophe, the foxes’ hoards must be replenished: The hens must lay 700 billion new eggs, right now. The farmer, blinking owlishly, agrees. One wise old fox, who yearns to live in the farm house, has declared that he will Suspend All Other Activities while he Helps Find a Solution. That solution will be found by foxes, and foxes alone. And the solution is that the Hens Will Provide.

Meanwhile, no omelettes this morning. And for music lovers, the rooster doesn’t much feel like crowing, either. Where’s Aesop when we need him? Where’s George Orwell?


NEW GUY AT THE GUGGENHEIM: Those who can curate, curate. Those who can curate well, lead museums. At least, that’s the mini-trend among major museums in New York.

Following the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s appointment earlier this month of European tapestry curator Thomas P. Campbell to replace the venerated Philippe de Montebello as director, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation has named Richard Armstrong, director of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, as the Guggenheim‘s next director.

Like Campbell, Armstrong rose in the ranks on the strength of his curatorial qualities, not his showmanship: His specialty is contemporary art, a good fit for the Goog. And the ever-busy Carol Vogel, in her report for the New York Times, suggests that after years of expansion in Bilbao, Venice, Berlin and (coming in 2013) Abu Dhabi, Armstrong and the Guggenheim are ready to shift their focus back to New York. Another good report comes from The Art Newspaper.

Is it possible that sober financial times are bringing more prudential museum leaders? De Montebello, of course, has combined prudence, measured daring and a brilliant commitment to the art for more than 30 years at the Met, following the mercurial reign of supershowman Thomas Hoving. At the Guggenheim, Armstrong will follow high-rolling Thomas Krens. And when the Portland Art Museum‘s Hoving-like director John Buchanan headed south to take over the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the museum board replaced him with Brian Ferriso and charged Ferriso to quiet the waters and keep things on an even keel.

The question is, will an even keel fill the cruise ship with customers? Is generating excitement gauche, or is it part of what a museum is about? To what extent does a museum exist for insiders, and to what extent does it have a duty to appeal to the general public?

These are uneasy times, and leading a major — or modest — museum is no easy task. To Armstrong, Campbell, Ferriso and their compatriots, then: Good luck, be wise, balance well, take risks, and don’t forget the public.


HAPPY BIRTHDAY, SOMEDAY: Someday Lounge, that is. The Old Town Portland night spot and hub for interesting alternative arts has turned two and is celebrating with a bunch of events this weekend. The one that catches our eye is the premiere of Pig Roast and Tank of Fish, a documentary about Portland’s Chinatown (which is more or less where the Someday coexists) to be shown at 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28. Here’s what the Lounge has to say:

Portlander Ivy Lin directed and produced Pig Roast & Tank of Fish. “I’ve always wondered why our Chinatown went from being the second largest in the U.S. to almost like a ghost town. It’s in the heart of downtown, with that beautiful gate and garden and nothing much else,” says Lin. “Earlier this year, 70 Asians showed up at a city council meeting to testify against the the siting of another homeless shelter on Block 25 in Chinatown. I was not even involved with the Chinese community then, but I was very moved and this event became the inspiration for this project.”

This documentary is the first-ever motion picture to acknowledge the history/legacy of Chinatown, Portland’s oldest neighborhood where the pioneers of many ethnic communities once called “home.” It includes some rarely seen footage of ongoing cultural/social activities behind closed doors…Chinatown is not dead!

See you there, Friends of Art Scatter.

A bridge too far: Connecting Portland’s performance halls

“While you’re catching up on weekend papers,” our blogging compatriot Mighty Toy Cannon of Culture Shock writes, “I’d be interested in your comments on the Oregonian editorial regarding the renovation of the Schnitz and the possible enclosure of the Main Street Plaza (Saturday, August 30).”

As Mighty Toy points out, the editorial got lost not only by running on a Saturday but also because it was buried beneath the flurry of news about vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin (pre-grandma version) — and wasn’t that an artfully worded baby announcement, by the way.

The editorial’s gist is this: Even though most Portlanders could care less about the symphony and opera and ballet, these things are important to our economy and our sense of civic pride. The city’s most prominent performance space, downtown’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, is in need of big fixes — at least $10 million, maybe a lot more — partly because its acoustics are subpar, and it’s used 60 percent of the time by the Oregon Symphony, a group for which acoustics are exceedingly important.

So far so good. But then the editorial gets down to what really seems to excite its author: the possibility of reviving the idea of some sort of bridge between the Schnitz and the theater building that houses the Newmark and Dolores Winningstad theaters right across Main Street. It’s an idea that was part of the original 1982 blueprints for the Portland Center for the Performing Arts but was scrapped for financial reasons. And it would include permanently blocking off Main between Broadway and Park Avenue to create a plaza that would connect the two buildings.

“In the offing now,” the editorialist writes, “is an opportunity to finally connect the two buildings, to animate their too-often-dormant lobbies, to cleverly create downtown’s long-sought ‘gateway’ to its cultural district.”

OK, first a little history. When the performing arts center was being planned in the early 1980s, it was all to be built on land donated by Evans Products adjacent to Keller Auditorium, which was then known as Civic Auditorium. That plan would have created a Portland version of Manhattan’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts — an arts cluster near downtown but not quite at its center. And except for the old Civic, all the halls would be built new, so the acoustics and seating would be up-to-date and you wouldn’t run into any of the surprises and compromises that go along with historical renovation. (The Schnitz at the time was known as the Paramount, and was a shabby onetime vaudeville and movie house that was being used for rock ‘n’ roll concerts.)

But downtown business and political interests pushed through a swap so the new center would be housed instead along a stretch of Broadway that had become run-down, creating an economic spur to help the center of the city out of its recession doldrums. The Paramount, with all of its problems, became the key player in the switch, and the city took over the block across from Main to build its two smaller theater spaces. Economically, the plan worked like a dream (for the business district, at least: the arts center itself, and the companies that used it, still suffer because the center’s financial structure covered only the costs of construction, with no regard for maintenance or operation).

Flash forward to 2008 and the latest push to create a “gateway” to the cultural district, which also includes the Oregon Historical Society and the Portland Art Museum along the South Park Blocks. And forget for the moment the nasty realities about actually funding any sort of project, because that’s a subject far too complex for this post. As the Oregonian editorial stresses, it would require plenty of individual, corporate and foundation support in addition to tax money.

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The high price of art, the cost of keeping up with it

Maybe a dozen years ago, when I was filling in for a few months for the art critic at the daily newspaper that was my bread and margarine, I decided it was a good idea to print the prices of the works of art being discussed in reviews of gallery shows. Seemed reasonable at the time. Why shouldn’t the paper give its readers an idea of whether that new painting by Gregory Grenon, say, was going for $1,800 or $18,000? Why not let the working-two-jobs-to-make-ends-meet art fan know that if she really liked that piece by the brand-new art school grad, she could pick it up for $250 instead of assuming it was going to be swooped up by some dot-com turk because it was out of her price range?

The response around me in my corner of the newsroom was unison and aghast. It amounted to this: Art is for art’s sake. Money has nothing to do with intrinsic value (I wasn’t arguing that it did). To discuss price is to taint the critical process (all I wanted to do was list the prices in the information box). Besides, money is, well, you know, tawdry. I quickly scotched the idea, and pretty much forgot about it: No smudge of commerce would taint the culture pages, where truth and beauty are all you need to know.

So why is it so damned fascinating to read about the high-roller art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s? The latest report comes from Carol Vogel in the New York Times, and the frenzied buying seems to indicate that, while working-class saps are getting kicked in the rear by the recession, the big spenders are spending, well, big. Real big. Like there’s no tomorrow big. “The market is defying gravity,” Vogel quotes financier and collector Eli Broad.

Follow the money, everyone says, to which you can add, Follow the art — it’s following the money. To Japan in the 1980s, to Las Vegas and the marketing and advertising whizzes of London in the 1990s, to the culture-cloaking Wal-Mart matrons in the ’00s. And to just about anybody who’s cashed in on the biggest upward transfer of wealth since the days of the 19th century Robber Barons (who actually seem a bit like pikers compared to the new bunch of sudden zillionaires).

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Balletptomaines at the museum


In Paris they were called abonnes.

In Moscow and St. Petersburg they were balletomanes.

Lincoln Kirstein, the impresario who founded New York City Ballet with George Balanchine, rolled his eyes and referred to them waspishly as “balletptomaines.”

One way or another, they are nuts: nuts for the ballet, for the dancers, for the social swirl, the easy access. The ones who know every step, and know better than the choreographers how the steps ought to be combined. The ones who give money to the company and assume they’ve bought the right to make decisions about how it’s run. The starstruck, the shoulder-rubbers, the bedazzled. The gents who love the bodies — in an entirely aesthetic sense, of course. The best friends a ballet company can have, and a bane on its existence.

Degas' Dancer Looking at the Sole of Her Right Foot

The Portland Art Museum’s current exhibition “The Dancer: Degas, Forain, and Toulouse-Lautrec,” which continues through May 11, 2008, gives an almost unseemly amount of attention to the abonnes, those wealthy and well-connected Parisian gentlemen of the late 19th and early 20th centuries who, by virtue of their season subscriptions to the Paris Opera and other performance halls, had unprecedented access to the backstage life. Some of Degas’ prints in the exhibition touch on the subject, but they are the compulsion of Forain and to a certain extent the exhibit as a whole, throwing the thing into a curious imbalance: Forain, by far the least important of these three artists, becomes the defining figure in the show.

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