A Brief History of the Museum
The oldest art museum in the Pacific Northwest, the Portland Art Museum was founded in late 1892 when seven leaders from Portland’s business and cultural institutions created the Portland Art Association. The goal of the Association was to create a first-class art museum that would be accessible to all citizens.
The Museum purchased its first collection, approximately one hundred plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculptures, with a gift of $10,000 from prominent local citizen Henry Corbett. Two other local citizens, Winslow B. Ayer and his wife, selected the casts during a trip to Europe after receiving advice from professionals at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
This initial collection purchased by Ayer, named the Corbett Collection, went on display in the Portland Art Museum’s first location in a public library at SW 7th and Stark streets. It immediately became one of Portland’s most important and popular cultural resources, attracting art groups, school field trips, and large lecture audiences.
By 1905, the Museum had outgrown its location in the public library and moved into its own building at SW 5th and Taylor. The first exhibition in the new building featured watercolors and paintings from the 1905 Lewis & Clark Exposition, which was held in Portland. Museum Curator Henrietta H. Failing organized the exhibition with New England artist Frank Vincent DuMond.
Three years later, in 1908, the Museum acquired its first original piece of art, Afternoon Sky, Harney Desert, by American impressionist painter Childe Hassam. Hassam frequented the landscapes of Eastern Oregon’s Malheur and Harney counties with his friend, C.E.S. Wood, one of Oregon’s earliest cultural icons.
In 1909, Anna Belle Crocker succeeded Henrietta Failing as Curator of the Museum, a position she held until her retirement in 1936. Crocker became one of the Portland Art Museum’s most important early figures. She was also the first head of the Museum Art School, which opened in 1909 and is now the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
In late 1913, the Museum hosted one of its most important early exhibitions. The exhibition featured artwork that had been on display earlier that year at the famous 1913 New York Armory Show, which introduced American audiences to Modern art. The exhibition included works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Gaugin, Matisse, Manet, Renoir, and the controversial Nude Descending a Staircase by Marcel Duchamp.
The Museum continued to grow during the years following World War I. In the 1920s, the Museum hosted two memorable exhibitions organized by Sally Lewis, the daughter of a prominent Portland family. Lewis had befriended many well-known artists on trips to New York and Europe. In 1923, Lewis organized an exhibition at the Museum that included 44 paintings by Picasso, Matisse, André Derain and American Modernists, such as Maurice Prendergast, Charles Burchfield, and Max Weber. She was also one of 22 patrons who purchased Derain’s Tree for the Museum’s permanent collection. The success of her first exhibition led to her second, more daring endeavor a year later that juxtaposed paintings, drawings, and sculptures from Europe with African masks. Among the sculptures was Brancusi’s A Muse, which Lewis owned and donated to the Museum in 1959.
The Museum’s final location opened to the public on November 18, 1932, at the corner of SW Park Avenue and Jefferson Street. The building, designed by noted Portland architect Pietro Belluschi, is situated along downtown Portland’s South Park Blocks and remains a landmark in the city’s Cultural District. It was constructed with a lead gift of $100,000 from Winslow B. Ayer, the same patron who selected the Museum’s collection of plaster casts 40 years earlier. For this reason, the original portion of today’s larger main building is referred to as the Ayer Wing.
Barely six years later, construction began on a new wing to expand the main building. The Hirsch Wing, also designed by Belluschi, was funded largely through the bequest of Ella Hirsch in honor of her parents, Solomon and Josephine Hirsch. Opening on September 15, 1939, the new wing doubled the Museum’s gallery space.
The Portland Art Museum celebrated a subdued 50th Anniversary in 1942, due to World War II. The following year, staff completed the Museum’s first full inventory, which counted a permanent collection of 3,300 objects and 750 works on long-term loan.
The 1950s were distinguished by two record-setting exhibitions. In 1956, nearly 55,000 visitors came to the Museum during the six-week run of an exhibition featuring paintings from the collection of Walter Chrysler. The exhibition was organized by the Portland Art Museum and toured nine other cities. More than 80,000 people visited a Vincent van Gogh exhibition in 1959, and the proceeds were used to purchase Waterlillies, by Claude Monet. Also of note in this decade was the creation of the Museum’s Docent Council in 1955. This dedicated group of volunteers continues to support the Museum to this day.
The Museum underwent a major renovation to build the Hoffman Memorial Wing in 1968, named for L. Hawley Hoffman, who served as president of the Museum twice. Funded by the Museum’s first capital campaign, the new wing began construction in November of 1968 and was finished in September 1970. Pietro Belluschi was the architect again, and the project allowed him to realize a complete vision for the Museum that he had conceived nearly 40 years earlier. The expansion created classroom and studio space for the Museum Art School, a sculpture mall, a new vault for the collections, and an auditorium.
Over the next decades, the collections and programs of the Portland Art Museum continued to grow and evolve. Vivian and Gordon Gilkey began their association with the Museum in 1978, bringing with them a collection of thousands of works on paper. This extraordinary collection eventually led to the opening of the Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Center for Graphic Arts in 1993. Also in 1978, the Northwest Film Center was incorporated into the Museum, offering a wide range of film festivals, classes, and outreach programs focused on the moving image arts.
The Portland Art Museum celebrated its centennial in 1992, which was marked by the purchase of an adjacent Masonic temple, now known as the Mark Building. The purchase was completed in 1994, the same year that a capital campaign to finance a refurbishment of the Main Building began. This ambitious project included improving the galleries, reinstalling the permanent collection, and equipping the building with a climate control system. The refurbishment allowed the Museum to host the Imperial Tombs of China exhibition, which brought 430,000 visitors to the Museum the following year.
A major renovation of the Hoffman Wing was completed in 2000 and added more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space to the Museum, the first gallery space addition since 1939. The new galleries included the Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art and the Arlene and Harold Schnitzer Center for Northwest Art. The renovation was funded by the largest capital campaign by a cultural organization in the State of Oregon, which raised $45 million.
In 2001, the Museum made its largest single acquisition through the purchase of New York art critic Clement Greenberg’s private collection. The 159 works by artists such as Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitsky, and Anthony Caro substantially enhanced the Museum’s permanent collection of 20th-century modern and contemporary art. To house this new collection, the Museum renovated the former Masonic temple, transforming it into the 141,000-square-foot Mark Building, which opened in October 2005. The renovation added the six-floor, 28,000-square-foot Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, the largest exhibition space for modern and contemporary art in the region. The renovated Mark Building also houses the 33,000-volume Crumpacker Family Library, meeting spaces, ballrooms, and administrative offices.
Now with a collection consisting of some 42,000 objects, the Portland Art Museum is one of the leading cultural institutions in the Pacific Northwest. Under the leadership of Brian Ferriso, the Museum’s Director since 2006, the Portland Art Museum is looking forward to a future even brighter than its past.