Portland’s thriving and innovative art scene keeps in touch with international trends while remaining true to its Pacific Northwest roots. Events like First Thursday (in the Pearl District) and Last Thursday (in the Alberta Arts District in the summer) draw big crowds, but local galleries, museums and arts organizations continue to churn in the interim. Mainstays like the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art and the Portland Art Museum have full calendars of visiting artist lectures and events that supplement exhibitions around the city. Read on for our guide to the city’s thriving visual arts scene, then head to our events calendar to discover even more things to do on your next visit to Portland.
Know Before You Go
To slow the spread of highly transmissible variants of COVID-19, a statewide mask mandate is in place. Oregonians and visitors ages 5 and up are required to wear face coverings in all public indoor settings, regardless of vaccination status, unless actively eating or drinking. Masks are also recommended in crowded outdoor public spaces where physical distancing is not possible.
Additionally, some event organizers and venues may require proof of vaccination, or a negative COVID test, for admission. Other events may be canceled, postponed or held virtually. Please check individual event websites for the most up-to-date information.
Holding sway as the premier collecting museum in Oregon, the Portland Art Museum occupies an entire city block in the South Park Blocks. Home to a dizzying array of work from all over the world, it also boasts the Clement Greenberg Collection, a personal look into the taste of one of Modernism’s most powerful critics. Alongside these 20th century masterpieces, the museum also highlights regional contemporary artists at its APEX space, possesses a fine collection of Native American art, schedules regular exhibitions of its collection of world-class prints and drawings and frequently hosts blockbuster events from major collections, both public and private.
Outside of the museum walls, commercial and alternative galleries abound. Some venues have stood the test of time (and the reinvention of the Pearl District), while others are upstarts looking to make a splash with young artists and new media. Cornerstones like PDX Contemporary Art and Elizabeth Leach Gallery show a mixture of local and international emerging and mid-career artists. Their exhibitions run the gamut from photography to abstract painting to more conceptual considerations. Russo Lee Gallery, Charles A. Hartman Fine Art, Augen Gallery and Froelick Gallery all continue this trend, with a mixture of original works from prominent locals and the occasional blue-chip name.
Nearby, younger spaces like Upfor focus on video, new media and installations that speak to Portland’s place in the ever-decentralizing art world. Straddling the area between traditional gallery and alternative exhibition space, PNCA’s 511 Gallery, Adams & Ollman, and Fourteen30 Contemporary stand at the edge of the avant-garde. Meanwhile, the venerable nonprofit Blue Sky Gallery has a long history of advocacy and showing first-rate photography, while Elisabeth Jones Art Center specializes in works with a focus on ecology and social justice.
Alternative Art Spaces
Beyond the more traditional models, some spaces fully embrace the moniker of “alternative space,” playing host to exhibitions, performances, publications and films. The Everett Station Lofts are a group of combined living and workspaces in Northwest Portland, focusing on small galleries and project spaces with an immersive and community-oriented approach. Other exhibition spaces like Building 5 expand on these ideas to showcase emerging artists and more experimental endeavors.
Oregon Center for Contemporary Art in the Kenton neighborhood, is less grassroots but works to further a regional understanding of the arts through professional publications, retrospectives and their Portland Biennial. If you want to buy some books, prints or various art objects, while also taking in an exhibition, head over to Ampersand Gallery or Nationale, where their galleries thrive alongside commercial spaces.
Exploring all of Portland’s art scene can be a daunting task. Luckily, there are multiple maps, calendars and schedules to simplify your art outing. For public art, check out Public Art PDX. Interested in attending First Thursday? Click through to the Portland Art Dealers Association for a smattering of member galleries and related institutions.
“Portland Art Museum honors a local legend with its presentation of Isaka Shamsud-Din’s vivid narrative paintings, including the recent acquisition that gives this exhibit its title. Shamsud-Din uses his painterly brushstrokes and glowing colors to depict his own personal experiences and scenes of local culture and history, and his murals (also featured in the show)…
Brighten your February with glowing sculptures and thousands of twinkling lights at the annual Winter Lights Festival.
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