The largest art museum in Oregon and one of the oldest in the country, the Portland Art Museum was organized in 1892, and its first exhibition was a set of magnificent plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture, displayed in the upper hall of the city’s library. Those casts still dot the museum, a reminder of how the museum — and Western art — began.
These days, the art museum is central to the city’s cultural district on the South Park Blocks, occupying two historic buildings and housing a large and wide-ranging collection of artworks of all kinds. In 1932 the museum moved into the primary building, designed by Pietro Belluschi: a gracious contemporary update of the Georgian style, sleek-lined and advanced in its ideas. The museum’s renovation of the Masonic temple to its immediate north added more exhibition and office space to the campus in 2005.
Belluschi’s original design was ahead of its time. It was airy and admitted natural light into the museum’s galleries, especially the court beyond the entryway, and the visitor today experiences that grand space as a sort of surprise, given the museum’s relative scale. More wings were added, first to house the Pacific Northwest College of Art (then known as the Museum Art School and ultimately separated into its own institution) and then a warren of smaller galleries. The old Masonic temple has become the Jubitz Center of Modern and Contemporary Art, though its old, ornate meeting rooms have been retained.
The museum has strong collections of prints and drawings, photography, Asian art, Native American (especially Pacific Coast) art, and Northwest art, and its European and American collections contain some extraordinary individual pieces, especially from the 19th and 20th centuries. The huge prints and drawings collection was built largely by the late Gordon Gilkey and includes Old Masters printmakers (Dürer, Rembrandt) and the most recent examples of the art forms. And under chief curator Bruce Guenther, the museum’s modern art holdings have increased dramatically, in part because of the addition of the collection of the great modernist critic Clement Greenberg, which gives the museum a unique window into the development of advanced art in the mid-20th century.
Native American art
The Native American collection was built from two primary sources: the Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast art, with its fabulous masks and whaling canoes, and the encyclopedic collection of Elizabeth Cole, which brings the exquisite work of Southwest, Plains, Plateau and Woodlands tribes into focus.
Northwest art is a primary attraction, tracking the development of art in Oregon and Washington since the 19th century. The museum’s curators have wisely spread this work throughout the galleries, placing the best work of Northwest abstractionists alongside their more celebrated New York peers, for example, but a gallery specifically dedicated to Northwest art supplies a good introduction to the fine artists who have worked here (C.S. Price, Mark Tobey, Morris Graves, Hilda and Carl Morris, Sally Haley and Michele Russo).
Good to know
The museum is closed on Mondays. Children 17 and under are always free. Admission is free on the first Thursday of every month from 5-8 p.m., and free admission and special family programming is offered several times a year (check calendar).