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Monday 01.28.08

« Works, Public & Personal | Main | Michael Cogliantry at Rererato »

Brian Ferriso checkup: 1 year as director of the Portland Art Museum

PAM's Executive Director Brian Ferriso

This January marks the one year anniversary for the Portland Art Museum's new director, Brian Ferriso. As arguably holding the most important cultural position in Oregon, Ferriso's actions have far reaching implications and set expectations both within the museum and the rest of the state's philanthropic/artistic community. It is time for an annual checkup. (disclosure: Im VP of the Contemporary Art Council at PAM and PAM is a PORT sponsor)

The Ferriso effect:

For contrast, John Buchannan, Ferriso's predecessor was a successful and aggressive entrepreneurial promoter (but questionable as a connoisseur), and for years many other organizations followed his lead, putting hype ahead of content. Lately, Portlanders have grown tired of the "constant PR" type leaders as purveyors of empty cultural calories. [*Note to our so-called journalists, coverage should focus on qualifications of leaders and the quality of shows (aka the only results that matter) not grandiose promises and PR glosses over inferior programming simply designed to produce attendance.] In fact, the first thing Ferriso did was cool down the board who wanted to build on the new property PAM had acquired so he could focus on solidifying the museum's fundamentals like its; endowment, collections and programming tuned to Portland's needs (more contemporary with a bustling arts scene). He's also empowered his curators and that's good for deeping PAM's intellectual relevance.

Ferriso is the antithesis of PR showman and has received some national attention for not being a Thomas Krens clone. Instead, he's refreshingly focused and content oriented. For example, he canned the meatmarket Museum After-Hours series because it wasn't making the museum any money and wasn't directly related to the museum's core mission of presenting art.

Herzog & de Meuron's Beijing National Stadium for the 2008 Olympics

Though he's far from perfect (the museum still hasn't had a major contemporary art show)...but the China Design Now exhibit this summer should finally give Portland's army of designers a reason to care about the museum. Ferriso and I discussed the need for a design oriented exhibition the first time we had lunch last year and I think he found a really great show as it features a model of Herzog & de Meuron's "Birds Nest" Olympic stadium and Koolhaas's CCTV building etc. Let's have Rem Koolhaas (the master of contradictory spatial/social thinking) do a lecture...I wonder what the hell he'd think of the Jubitz Center?).

That China Design Now show was no accident, Ferriso's a design guy who worked with Calatrava when at the Milwaukee Art Museum. In person Ferriso's shown himself to be very knowledgeable and articulate about art and as a business person tends towards very un-dramatic, solid and obvious/transparent financial decisions. This sets a new standard in non profit competency while shifting the focus from lavish gala parties and dramatic announcements to intellectually grounded programming. For example, suddenly lots of small "dossier" shows culled from the museum's collection (a majority of them contemporary like Rock Paper Scissors) have appeared. Even The Dancer, which opens this weekend, though French is very scholarly and devoted to the cultural stew that helped break down 19th century class interactions making way for our more modern "superflat" attitudes. The book's essays and illustrations point to a great show.

PAM's large and intellectually relevant catalogue for The Dancer

So, instead of pinning the future of the museum on the next blockbuster he's focusing on the growing endowment and solid programming. Not exactly a sexy move, but smart. Endowments free museums up to be more adventurous rather than chasing the funding. Also, according to the AAMD's statistical survey of Art Museum's the Portland Art museum is about the 27th largest in the nation (factoring in size and # of employees) but ranks about 50th in terms of endowment with 49,000,000, which is slightly behind the Whitney and the Museum of Contemporary Art Cincinnati but ahead of the Des Moines Art Center (which frankly outclasses PAM as an art museum [in terms of quality of; architecture, collection, collecting and engagement with the community, it's no contest… so don't put down Des Moines]). Still the story here is PAM is underendowed, space-wise the Whitney is tiny compared to PAM as is the DAC. The plan is simply to endow the curatorial positions. Currently (and surprisingly) only the Curator of Northwest Art is endowed. Frankly, it's a great way to raise endowment dollars as the positions should last as long as western civilization does. I suspect it will also allow PAM to make hard-working and frankly ass-kicking curator of Photography Terry Toedtemeier full time too.

It also incentivises the museum to fill vacancies as endowed (restricted) monies cant be applied towards other projects.

Some other interesting developments:

-the Rental Sales Gallery has moved out of gallery spaces into the glass condo across street. Retail space replacing exhibition space is a bad thing and it's smart to move it across the street into a retail building.

-the Museum has just recently set up planned giving. It's somewhat unbelievable that the 7th oldest museum in the country hadn't been doing this all along (while our public television station has). One suspects this will revolutionize top end cultural funding in Oregon, and things like PNCA's 10 million dollar Hallie Ford Bequest will become more common everywhere in the state. As the Big Kahuna and the most stable large arts institution in the state a large percentage of estate gift $$$'s will come their way.

-A new website is coming in February, though not a complete rebranding it will bring PAM's website into the 21st Century and be more navigable.

-Acquisitions of A Rauschenberg, Van Gogh, Rembrandt etching, Judy Chicago, Joe Goode and this just in; acquisitions of an Ursula von Rydingsvard drawing as well as suite of Darren Waterston prints we reviewed at L&C college last year.

-re hang of the fourth floor northwest art galleries, no longer cramped it breathes nicely. (nice work Jennifer Gately) Now if only the entire Jubitz Center for Contemporary Art could be similarly rehung???

-Klaus Moje retrospective in May 2008 keeps the generalist PAM museum competitive with the smaller more focused museum of contemporary crafts. A little professional competition is good. I will pay to see Namita Wiggers and Bruce Guenther arm wrestle though.

-the Apex gallery is getting younger with a show by PORT's own Jenene Nagy in February. Let's face it, the Apex galleryspace is too small for huge, super established artists like Chris Johanson and Roy McMakin and it was a strange fit. It's a tiny project space and picking some up and comers is a great way to liven up those 4th floor galleries and engage the community. Frankly its way better than the old Oregon Biennial because it might really help artists in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana reach up to the next rung. Good move.

Richard Deacon, Dead Leg (work in progress), 2007, Oak and stainless steel, 8 x 28 x 9 feet (2.4 x 8.5 x 2.7 m).
Copyright of the artist. Courtesy of L.A. Louver, Venice, CA.

-the Miller Meigs space now boasts Turner Prize winner Richard Deacon. Will the O publish another idiotic review about this great space and series? P.S. Victoria Blake should be asked to present her credentials as an art critic (there are some valid points but if you attack a museum try not to resort to imbecile-level suggestions like photo's of other shows, sheesh). PS. PORT staffers offer to tutor (for a fee). I'm actually OK with everything else the O has put out in 2008 (so far) so yes Victoria (someone whom I like personally), it was that bad. David has shaped up lately... do you really want to carry the philistine torch? Yes, a bad review is almost always better than a good one because they are more difficult to earn but I prefer not to be utterly embarassed by what comes out.

Needs work:

-Announcement of a major contemporary art retrospective. Chief curator Bruce Guenther is working on this and I wont spill the beans but as a matter of course I have to point it out. We havnt had a major contemporary show since the UBS Paine Weber art collection show in 2002 (that's too long and everyone, including the art smart public, curators, etc. are keen to change this).

-The Contemporary Northwest Art Awards replaced the Oregon Biennial and though comprised of solid choices the announcement created all the anticipation of frozen casserole waiting to be microwaved. Neither Seattle nor Portland cared when the 5 solid but hardly radical or unexpected contestants were announced... so the hang has to challenge our assumptions. Dan Attoe is the closest thing to cutting edge but his Slayer meets Northwest trees and Jason Rhoades-lite neon already looks so 2003. Not to be unfair but had Alex Schweder and Sean Healy been on the docket people would have cared. Of course this might all be premature... surprise me.

-Jubitz Center for Contemporary Art. It's a cramped hang and I realize it's all there to educate Portlanders as to what we have but can we have a serious rehang in the next 2 years? The tight quarters actually exacerbate the bowling alley feeling of the galleroies and if left to breathe the building could speak better for itself. Long ago I realized people judge art (rightly or wrongly) by how it feels in the space it inhabits and a roomier hang would do wonders.

-Collection building, while we are at it, let's create an endowment for acquisitions. The collection needs a major Warhol, Ellsworth Kelly, Basquiat, Johns, John Chamberlain or Picasso. None are cheap, and one collector in particular could make some of these happen. Ed Cauduro. Similarly many thanks go to Paige Powell for the long-term loan the oddest and obviously super personal Basquiat on the planet... a pink valentine of a painting with 2 monkies.

-Regular free days at the museum? It's true that an amazing amount of disrespectful people damage art on free days… how about this lil' suggestion; send out free (but funded) passes to existing members to share until an official free day (with tons of security) can be funded.

All in all PAM is a big ship turning about as quickly as a big cultural institution can but they will be judged on the quality of shows they present. That's where the attitude change is most obvious, they now invite that kind of judgement. There is a lot to do in Portland so it is important that they stay focused even if are THE generalist art institution. It sets the expectaions and rhythm for the entire city. After 1 year they are definitley a better institution, serving Portland better at all levels but I think they are just one year into a five year shift.

Posted by Jeff Jahn on January 28, 2008 at 16:26 | Comments (4)


I suspect that the hang has a lot to do with any damage from free days... the corridors are so narrow, it's not surprising that there's some inadvertent art-bumping as people try to back up to look at a painting or are forced to squeeze by others. Having more free days would probably alleviate the damage and the need for tons of extra security, because if the free days were regular (say, once a week or month), they probably wouldn't be such a crush of people.

Posted by: SimEnzo [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 29, 2008 08:08 AM

Nope, from my experience the damage is pretty deliberate. Ive personally stopped people from touching both the Robert Irwin and the Ann Truitt. Funny thing is Ive touched both of those artiists by shaking their hands.

My point is there is an innate need to touch somethingin order to understand the work. ...And people in the NW love to touch art. They are even worse up in Seattle. There needs to be some kind of eductational push for better museum ettiquete.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 29, 2008 09:00 AM

Thanks for informative post, I appreciate the new directions PAM and it's staff are exploring. I also liked your passing commendation to Des Moines Art Center. I was born in the Bay area but grew up in Des Moines and now that I'm back out here I miss the potency of that Art Center. For example, I know this is old news, but I would love one Rothko at PAM of anywhere near the quality of the Rothko Des Moines has. And once again, it's nice to see what I feel is more substance and hopefully modern energy being nurured at PAM.

Posted by: Charles [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 29, 2008 09:48 AM

Re: touching art - In my experience, if you give people art they *can* touch, they're happier and they tend to leave everything else alone, as long as you make it clear that this object is the only touchable object.

At PAM, I'm thinking specifically of the big inflatable creation in the Jubitz center...

Posted by: Megan [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 29, 2008 11:23 AM

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