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Thursday 02.04.16

« First Thursday Picks February 2016 | Main | Celebrating James Archer »

Thoughts on Museum of Contemporary Craft dissolution

MoCC Exhibition view: Laurie Herrick Weaving, Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (2011) Photo Jeff Jahn

Yesterday PNCA announced that it will sell the property which currently house the Museum of Contemporary Craft and transfer the collection to its new headquarters building at 511 NW Broadway just down the street creating a new Center for Contemporary Art and Culture (a name that could mean anything). It has provoked strong responses ranging from anguish to relief and PNCA's leadership is getting a lot of blowback (some fair, some is simply hurt finger pointing). We could use some deeper and more nuanced thinking regarding this sad news as PNCA's hand was simply forced after years of subsidies. The troubled museum, which began life as craft oriented social/professional club simply had difficulties making the transition as it tried to become a museum. In fact, it has always been on life support from PNCA since the merger in 2009, which PORT covered extensively. It's the sort of thing that old newspaper journalists have difficulty covering if they don't have cultural board experience (I'm a cultural historian and have sat on boards, and was advising key people during the merger). It's also something that artists with ties to this artist focused museum cannot be expected to be objective about. Basically, it all comes down to three things:

1) endowments (discussed here in depth)
2) finding/serving a constituency
3) and more endowments

In terms of endowments, they simply never materialized in the short window of patronage they had from 2009-2013 (The Great Recession and some recovery) and the complication of PNCA already raising money for the 511 building. Endowments were absolutely essential for institutional leverage/independence. The fact that they never developed meant they were on life support from PNCA who is beholden to its students and alumni constituents first and foremost. The only reason it went on so long is PNCA could not afford to torpedo itself during a very long capital campaign for the 511 building. This was also a time when there were pay reductions and general dissolution of the Museum's independence accelerated after interim director Jeffrey Thomas left. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing as lately PNCA has updated the museum's scope significantly with more design and focus on social phenomena like Alien She last year... but something had to give and budgets are unforgiving. Maybe there is a third way if a savior appears to decouple the institutions... otherwise existing as a teaching collection and an initiative at PNCA is better that wiping out the craft legacy completely. I remind people that PICA came from the defunct Art On The Edge program at PAM.

In terms of constituency the MoCC after the merger suddenly had to serve too many masters, specifically PNCA students and the hand made craft that curator, eventually former director Namita Wiggers favored (foregrounding a dialectic of hand Craft vs Design when such craft is simply a subset of design). There was promise there with an early Ai Weiwei exhibition at the museum but the makers she favored alienated other growing communities of makers in Portland like computer coders and the ever expanding design community here (all involve technique and therefore craft, art schools like PNCA and OCAC all approach it that way). Some exhibitions like the Laurie Herrick retrospective were great but similar shows were often so overhung that the design crowd was put off (the typical northwest hoarder way of exhibiting too much needs to die). Overall, the resources were simply stretched too thin and PNCA had their own growing pains to adapt too. It would have taken additional personnel and fundraising initiatives that PNCA alone could not undertake at the time. Still, PNCA's plan is to still display the collection in the 511... something that was decided upon years ago.

This may not be the final chapter but if it is the issue has lingered unnaturally long. The decision by PNCA may trigger a response to save the museum, perhaps a Deus ex Machina where a savior donor or deep pocketed consortium of donors could offer to buy the property and collection from PNCA? If they do, remember an endowment is still required and it would make sense to refine the institution's mission. I will have more on this in a larger article I've been working on (new developments of bad news keeps making it longer). PNCA isn't the villain here but they may have overstepped their reach long ago and they have carried the institution on life support from the outset. Last year, before former President Tom Manley left he formed a committee to look into all possible alternatives. This course of action was the result of the recommendations from that committee. There may yet be a third way and I'll have more on that situation in a more extensive think piece. The biggest question is who or what is the best custodian of the MoCC's legacy? Surely existing in some form is better than nothing but in this time of real estate prosperity it also seems like this is not the ideal situation, maybe a spinoff of this merger could happen? ...otherwise this is far from the worst scenario. Artist's live and breath ideals, institutions are more pragmatic so lets see how this plays out. Portlanders generally want/need to voice concerns before anything final happens but this is perhaps where PNCA had to make a unilateral decision?

Posted by Jeff Jahn on February 04, 2016 at 14:06 | Comments (0)


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