The big news Thursday from the Portland Art Museum – a new $50 million building on its South Park Blocks campus – is about filling in blanks.
- First, the open glass structure will fill in the space between the museum’s two major buildings, its 1932 Belluschi Building on the south and the Mark Building, a former Masonic Temple that the museum bought in 1994 and renovated in 2005, on the north.
- Second, it will help fill in one of the most glaring holes in the museum’s collections, its almost total lack of works by Mark Rothko, the most famous visual artist ever to call Portland home.
The new building, called the Rothko Pavilion, is scheduled to break ground in 2018 and open in late 2020 or early 2021. It will connect the two current buildings and add almost 10,000 square feet of gallery space in its total of 30,000 square feet.
It also marks a 20-year agreement with Rothko’s children, Christopher Rothko and Kate Rothko Prizel, to loan major Rothko paintings in rotation from their private collection. Whether or not that leads to an eventual gift of major paintings, it makes it possible for Portland museum visitors to see and study first-hand the work of a leading innovator in 20th century art who grew up and graduated from high school here before moving to New York to take part in an artistic revolution. “Our family is thrilled to enter into this partnership with the museum,” Christopher Rothko said in a prepared statement from the museum. “Portland played a formative role in my father’s youth, and we are eager to share these works with the public and give Rothko a more active role in the vibrant cultural life of this city.”
Connecting the two current buildings is an essential and long-awaited task. When the museum expanded into the old temple building it added much-needed gallery space but also created a daunting and confusing warren that even museum regulars find difficult to navigate. To get to the Mark Building gallery spaces, which include such significant collections as the Northwest galleries and the Jubitz Center for Modern and Contemporary Art, visitors must trek through lower-level passageways, and many people simply never bother. The museum’s very good collection of Impressionist paintings, once a centerpiece of the Belluschi Building’s European galleries, is in the Mark Building, where it often seems lost. J.S. May, the museum’s chief advancement officer, noted that museum studies show a large number of visitors never get to it.
The Rothko Pavilion will rise three stories on what is now a courtyard between the two buildings, and will become the main entry to a unified complex. It’ll have entrances on Southwest Park Avenue and opposite on 10th Avenue. The current open space will be divided roughly into thirds, May said, with the new pavilion in the middle third and entryways on the outside thirds east and west. Those spaces will also be used as sculpture courts (the current space includes a sculpture garden), and a third-floor sculpture garden will be added to the pavilion.
The roughly 10,000 square feet of new gallery space is significant: It amounts to more than the space in the Belluschi Building’s two large special exhibition galleries, which are 4,500 square feet each. But even more important, the new pavilion is being designed to bring sense to the museum’s current configuration. Its purpose is not just to add square feet, but to unify the two existing buildings and help them talk to one another. When visitors enter the museum they’ll have two choices: turn one way to enter the Mark galleries first, or the other way to go into the Belluschi galleries. Several of those spaces will be reconfigured to make the new layout work smoothly and logically. If it all works as planned, a new dynamism will be added to the collections. As May pointed out, with bridges on the pavilion’s second and third levels, the Native American, modern/contemporary, and Northwest galleries will be across from each other and able to make vital connections.
The $50 million project has been spurred by an anonymous $8 million lead donation – the biggest single gift in the museum’s history, May said – stipulating that the pavilion be named for Rothko. The project has long been in the works, and the silent portion of fund-raising began about a year and a half ago, he added. The capital campaign is concurrent with a $25 million drive to add to the museum’s endowment. So far 43 percent, or $21.75 million, of the capital cost has been raised, and the endowment drive has brought in $5.4 million, or about 23 percent of the goal. It’s important to try to raise money for both at the same time, because endowment drives often falter if they come soon after capital campaigns.
Architects for the pavilion project are Vinci Hamp Architects, of Chicago. There are Portland firms, such as Brad Cloepfil’s Allied Works Architecture, that are experienced in museum work, but Vinci Hamp also has a long history of such projects, including work for the Art Institute of Chicago, the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Neue Galerie in New York, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and others.
Although the main lines of the project are clear, much design work remains to be done. The museum shop and café will be revamped, although details haven’t been worked out. The current main entrance in the Belluschi Building will be closed off and become gallery space. The loading dock will move to Jefferson Street on the south side of the museum. The Crumpacker Library, now in the Mark Building, will move to the pavilion, opening that space for other purposes. The pavilion will include a community commons for public events, a rooftop deck available for public programming and events, a new Education and Design Lab, and gallery space for contemporary and media art. A glass-walled stair tower will anchor the pavilion and connect it to the existing spaces.
The significance of Mark Rothko to the story of art in Portland has long been understood and long been notable because of the absence of major work in the public museum of his home town. The new relationship struck with his children has the potential to change that situation markedly. Rothko moved to Portland with his family from his native Latvia in 1913, when he was 10 years old, and graduated from Lincoln High School, then housed in what is now Portland State University’s Lincoln Performance Hall, in 1921. After high school he spent a year at Yale, then moved to New York, first working in the Garment District and soon becoming active in the art scene. Though he shied away from labels, he was to become a leader of modernism in the city that remade the 20th century art map.
A search of the Portland Art Museum’s online data reveals only two Rothko works in the collection, both untitled. One, a small black-and-white tempera on an 8 x 10-inch sheet of paper, is from about 1930 and is interesting partly because the signature is still in his original name, Mark Rothkowitz, before he shortened it. The other is a modest acrylic on paper mounted on Masonite from 1967. The Portland museum’s most visible evidence of Rothko’s existence is in the 1934 painting “Bathers, Coney Island,” by his friend Milton Avery, which shows the Rothkos and Averys at the beach, with Rothko front and center sitting on the sand in a tank top and wearing a green eye visor.
The museum also owns a large lot now occupied by a ground-level parking lot just to the north of the Mark Building. It is available for long-range expansion, but because a street divides it from the rest of the campus it would have to be a stand-alone building. The eventual possibilities are multiple: a separate Native American museum, perhaps, or a museum of Northwest art, or a graphic art museum built on the museum’s excellent Gilkey collection. But any such move would likely happen years in the future, if at all. “We felt like we’ve got to make our current buildings work before we think about another building,” May said.