John Buchanan, the former director of the Portland Art Museum at a crucial time (1994-2005) has died at age 58 of cancer
. It is a great tribute to his legacy that he can be credited with complicating Portland in the best way possible, leaving us questions the city still seeks to explore fully. Under his tenure from 1994-2005 the once flagging Portland Art Museum (like many of the city's institutions) was faced with the daunting task of reinvigorating its connection to its patrons at all levels.
A devout populist and francophile John was the kind of director that took a hands on approach to programming. That programming often carried a flashy theatrical flair with imported exhibitions like; Imperial Tombs of China (1996), Let's Entertain: Life's Guilty Pleasures (2000 featuring Damien Hirst, Richard Prince, Murakami etc), Stroganoff: The Palace and Collections of a Russian Noble Family (2000), The Triumph of French Paining (2003) and Hesse: A Princely Collection (2005). From 1994-2000 he and his wife stunned the city by turning PAM into an attendance powerhouse, all while making its patron parties the premier social events in the city. This was a powerful thing that made him perhaps the most loved and reviled personality in the city. John relished the job energetically and always knew exactly to whom he was talking to (a great skill)... I remember one time he crossed the street just to shake my hand and say hello after finishing a power lunch at Paley's.
The man had hustle, yet at that precise moment in 2000 he helped engineer two very serious acquisitions, the Clement Greenberg Collection and the hiring of Chief Curator Bruce Guenther. By 2005 John had raised over $125,000,000 and built a new modern and contemporary art wing. He understood that Portland was growing up very rapidly and acted accordingly, yet still things were complicated. For example the Oregon Biennial was a program John particularly supported. It was a cheap to produce blockbuster and played kingmaker in the local art market, which is a very complicated even precarious position to be in as the largest cultural institution in the state. Not surprisingly the "top down" museum found it difficult to respond to the increasingly rapid shifts of the scene...whose aspirations and reach had become international in scope.
Thus, when John and his wife Lucy left the museum in 2005 perhaps Portland and PAM itself had outgrown his style but a larger and already fully developed city like San Francisco had multiple institutions allowing a broader range of programming strategies. In fact John became one of the highest paid museum directors in the country at the time. This established PAM as a good career move and has since attracted Brian Ferriso and Christina Olson to its ranks... both of whom are so good I worry that San Francisco might try to recruit them next.
Ultimately, museums should highlight and complicate our understanding of the world as well as ourselves while encouraging the community to invest in itself. John, through his fundraising and exhibition successes taught Portland how to believe in itself at a time was always in the shadow of San Francisco and Seattle. John was crucial to the process of Portland stepping into a well deserved spotlight... take a bow maestro.
I suspect any time a list of the 100 all time most influential Portlanders is produced he will always make that list and our thoughts are now with his wife Lucy and their loved ones, he accoplished crucial things I doubt many others would have.
Here is a statement from the Portland Art Museum by the man who succeeded John Buchanan