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Thursday 01.22.09

« Contemporary Textiles | Main | Durost + Sisley »

PNCA and Museum of Contemporary Craft become one?

PNCA's Goodman building, one of 2008's two real estate acquisitions

Isn't 2009 dynamic? maybe too dynamic. Still, Portland really can't let one of its major institutions, the Museum of Contemporary Craft, fail and PNCA still isn't quite whole yet after splitting from the Portland Art Museum in 1994 (disclosure PNCA is a PORT sponsor and I had a solo show there last April). Now this merger solution is being seriously considered by the boards of both MoCC and PNCA. My cautionary stance is thus: this proposal puts a lot of eggs in one basket and requires a lot of discipline and clear definitions of roles to pull off. Put it this way, Portland loves to collaborate but it isn't great at creating well-defined (and thus fundable) institutions. Only PAM under Ferriso's tenure has really gotten things right in the institutional discipline sense and that example goes back only 2 years.

The Museum Of Contemporary Craft (photo Basil Childers)

The idea of PNCA merging with (ie absorbing) the troubled Museum of Contemporary Craft has been kicking around for a few weeks and I feel cautious about this elegant solution of necessity becoming the mother of invention. For example, nobody wants PNCA to get overextended in juggling such a multinodal approach as they are already dealing with growing pains. There is a reason Reed, PSU, OCAC, PAM, PICA, L&C and PNCA don't combine into one silly Voltron like multi-robot, multi-acronym cultural monstrosity. Autonomy has advantages too, but in this case that might mean MoCC's demise and a continued hole in PNCA's progam.

Holes? MoCC's move into its new Pearl district digs was not accompanied with any sort of endowment campaign, leaving it to live off of a million in cash reserves, annual donations and gift shop sales. Once in the Pearl the MoCC acted programmatically like a museum but financially lacked the necessary 5 million dollar plus endowment which allows such activity in perpituity.

Likewise, one example of a hole at PNCA, despite their amazing gains like an MFA program and the acquisition of 2 buildings... is that their curatorial program has been a little inconsistent since Nan Curtis retired from the Feldman Gallery she founded. Sometimes it's impressive, sometimes it feels rudderless and the addition of ultra-disciplined MoCC curator Namita Wiggers to the PNCA portfolio along with an interesting collection does improve their position in the "respect" department. From MoCC's side it solves the problem of not having an endowment and relying too heavily on its sales gallery for revenue while remaining/becoming a solid a museum. In fact, I've always wanted more design integrated with the art and craft aspects at MOCC... The current Natzler show being a great example (I have no idea why only PORT has covered it).

Overall, this isn't like the unseemly and thankfully unsuccessful LACMA attempt to take over MOCA in LA. In this case we have an art and design school and an art/craft/design museum with certain holes. In better economic times this wouldn't even be an option but I do sense a certain ominous lack of fundraising potential in Portland for the next 6 months... during that period MoCC would run out of time. Still, has MoCC really shaken all of the trees in the West Hills? Lastly, on many occasions I'vementioned a need for a major league university museum in Portland, maybe this is the the moment? Another thought, would MoCC simply break away from PNCA when economic times get better? Unless the museum has a high degree of autonomy and a director directly under PNCA president Tom Manley (i.e. a VP position) it would likely stifle the museum's growth down the road.

It isn't a done deal but on Tuesday the joint taskforce (including senior museum staff and board PNCA chairman Al Solheim) made the following recommendation:

our missions are synergistic and supported by complementary educational and public programming;

integration of curatorial and educational programming would add depth and vibrancy to PNCA's current vision; and cost efficiencies could be gained by integrating staff functions that would create a stronger blended team and further our reputations and scholarship.

The taskforce also noted integration would:

preserve the region's tradition and history as a center for craft, and provide a platform upon which to creatively explore the future of contemporary art, craft and design and to support the existing artist community;

accelerate implementation of previously anticipated academic and Continuing Education programming goals; strengthen the financial capacity and stability of both; and support the region's growing role as a mecca for creative services and design.

The boards of PNCA and MoCC also each voted to tentatively pursue an integration plan. There is an amazing opportunity here but it is going to take extreme discipline and inventive thinking (think US constitution) from both boards.

I think this could be a great thing but it wont work unless the curatorial authority that is the strength of the museum strengthens both the museum and PNCA. Likewise, the multinodal PNCA approach needs to develop well-defined internal hierarchies insuring the museum remains a full museum and not downgraded to a teaching museum and teaching collection. In fact, the collection needs to grow and that might be the biggest adaptation for PNCA if this is to go forward. Museum curators and university curators are very different creatures, but at the highest levels, like at top-tier university museum such asThe Henry... the model really works. That still means a separate endowment BTW.

I'll add more thoughts here tomorrow, what are your thoughts?

*Update One logic test I like to apply to situations is a simple inverse... ie if MoCC had gotten the 15 million dollar Ford endowment instead of PNCA would they seek to bail out and rehabilitate an art school? No. That doesnt mean this is a bad idea but it does heighten my sense that the boards need to be ultra savvy and disciplined to negotiate this proposed merger with well-defined clarity. Each institution has weaknesses, but MoCC's are more pressing.

Other media responses:

At first the Oregonian posted this pretty supportive take.

But today DK posted this (these are good questions but PORT asks harder ones that must be dealt with if there is any hope of pulling this off).

I'm glad PORT has kept its comment section because this is the time for reader input. Ok PORT readers, what do you have to say?

Posted by Jeff Jahn on January 22, 2009 at 0:05 | Comments (6)


Thanks for making this post Jeff.

From what I read about the Museum of Contemporary Craft on PORT and in the newspapers, I thought that their problem was creating a sustainable endowment. It is not easy to problem to solve, especially in this economic environment, but it is at least clearly defined. Also the Museum has done a great job in communicating a clear vision of how the institution serves a unique role and purpose in the Portland art scene.

Understandably, it is very difficult to try and build an endowment right now. I do not think that anyone would say differently. But I am very surprised that the Museum is trading a very clear problem for the one that is practically indefinable and most likely impossible to solve.

PNCA is an art school not a craft school. The crafts that they teach is one subject amongst many. In other words, PNCA is a generalist, as it should be, where as the strength of the Museum is that it very focused one specific area. I am not sure why people think that these two visions are compatible. Perhaps, more importantly, Portland needs both perspectives.

Isn't it inevitable that the two visions will inevitably conflict with one another? What happens then?

PNCA will be the one paying the bills and so the independent vision of the Museum will be inevitably compromised. Also is the Museum's permanent collection exactly compatible with PNCA's mission? In my opinion it doesn't seem like an easy fit but it is the permanent collection at the Museum that sets it a part and truly makes it a Museum and not a gallery space.

The closer that you look at this, the clearer it becomes that PNCA and the Museum of Contemporary Craft are to very different types of institutions with different missions, interests, collections and audiences. They can not be combined without losing one or the other.

On the financial side, PNCA has a very large construction project on the horizon so I am not sure that they have will have a lot of money to spend. To think that a significant part of the budget of the museum will be covered by retail sales is probably overly optimistic. The more resources that PNCA has to put into the Museum to make it sustainable, the less likely it will be to respect the Museum's independence.

The boards of directors of both institutions really have a lot of thinking on this issue. Is this really their vision for Portland? Is the best way to fulfill both the mission of the Museum and PNCA? For me, the boards have a tremendous amount of responsibility here because this decision will irreparably change what craft means for Portland. That is not a decision to be made lightly because it is almost certainly a life or death situation for the Museum.

Is joining PNCA really easier and better for the Museum's mission that simply biting the bullet and creating a capital campaign for a new endowment?

I know that Sam Adams is having his own problems right now but shouldn't the city step in and do something about this? Does the city have any responsibility to the arts? Portland needs both PNCA and the Museum of Contemporary Craft.

Posted by: Arcy [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 22, 2009 11:11 AM

Are the negotiations too far along for MoCC to create a capital campaign?

Posted by: BG [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2009 04:45 PM

Technically no. Right now it is just a tentative agreement that this could merger happen on principal and both boards are beginning to draw up a more detailed integration strategy. If either board were to get skittish after getting into the details then they could back out and MoCC could persue an endowment campagn. Its doubly tough because of vthe bad economic environment and David Cohen stepping down... the sort of person MoCC would need to spearhead such a campaign.

I can say this, it is an extraordinary situation when a 70 year old institution has to consider being absorbed by a 100 year old one to exist and should only be undertaken if an endowment campaign isn't feasible. Only MoCC's board can answer that issue and they should. Absorbtion should be the last option persued not the first.

BTW, Ive spoken to a lot of very bright people about this in the past 2 days and they are asking that same question BG.

Also, what is needed is technically an endowment campagn (ie restricted funds, I used to be the computer guru for a university's non profit foundation so Im very familiar with this). A capital campaign is undertaken to fund a building (MoCC already did that) but typically endowment $$$'s are raised when you have a capital campaign. MoCC did not, and I feel like I was asleep at the wheel not noticing that till after they moved. In general endowment $$$'s are harder to raise, especially when the institution is in peril, it takes a white knight willing to bail them out like Broad did with MOCA .

For a typical example, PAM raised endowment $$$'s when they undertook the Norh wing (aka Mark Building) project in 2003-2005.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 23, 2009 05:28 PM

you are doing a really good job investigating !
these are very important topics and need to be discussed in the art community .
I am glad you are on top of your game. keep going! cheers .

Posted by: Modou [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 26, 2009 05:26 PM

Thanks Modou,

It's unfortunate how the other media doesn't pick up on this stuff... maybe its that I'm actually NOT "investigating" like a journalist would. Instead, Im drawing on experience, and Ive got a lot to draw upon. Ive served on boards, done the nuts and bolts work in foundations, have a BA business degree (MA in history specializing in art history, including visual art institutional history) and have been talking shop with other curators for decades now.

Let's just say this is an incredibly delicate operation folks... Normally an art school gets a museum because a donor hands them a collection + capital & endowment dollars. This is different.

Right now it seems like a lot of so called investigative journalists just read the press release and let them set the agenda and tone of argument and I dont think it serves the boards (Im seriously underwhelmed by all of the coverage of this so far). Criticism is an important reflexive exercise and sometimes it means looking at previous case studies and asking basic questions.

Glad you appreciate it (it's here to make us all better... myself included, I feel horrible about missing the MoCC's strategic flaw). We've had a ton of traffic on this post and nobody else is asking these same basic questions...

There is a difference between reporting and analysis... We tend to lean pretty heavy on analysis here.

Overall, I'm feeling very cautious. It could be great but there is no way PNCA can do this without setting up a separate endowment for the museum soon... that includes planned giving (objects + assets).

Amazingly PAM just started doing planned giving... You know it's strange when the public television station has a longer standing tradition of planned gifts than the big museum in town. Ferriso is on it and his moves for PAM are just following "best practices" and that's what PNCA/MoCC will need to do too.

Note to every journalist in town... "best practices" is a basic term I should be seeing a lot in institutional analysis, but don't. It is a problem in Portland. For example that omission led to the shell game that was PAC and now the MoCC crisis.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 26, 2009 06:31 PM

Jeff J -- thanks for the reporting. As a longtime supporter of MoCC the thought of its disappearance pains me tremendously. That said, it seem that the only way the shotgun marriage of the two institutions will work is clear hard boundaries between the two, with occasional well defined crossovers -- which would leave MoCC the weaker of the two partners, in that PNCA has far more to gain from the exhibition space and programming than MoCC has to gain from association with an increasingly avant-garde art school. (Not that I don't think that PNCA is a wonderful resource...) It would seem the better solution is that capital campaign... maybe a bridge loan from the city or the deep pockets at PAM...

Posted by: Jeff Shay [TypeKey Profile Page] at January 27, 2009 02:20 PM

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