10 Artists Not Currently on View at the Portland Art Museum

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In nearly all cases, a museum’s collection will be larger than the space it has to display that collection. This is where curating comes in. Decisions regarding what objects to display and what information to include are made in order to tell a larger story about those objects, whether art or archaeology. How the museum defines curatorial departments, and the financial support and wall space they receive, determines a great deal of what a museum goer will see.

Due to restrictions of funding and space, it’s common for museums to rotate their collections in order both to protect fragile work and to get a greater part of their art on view to their audiences. To do so tells a broader story about the history of cultural production than would be possible with a static hanging.

Which brings us to these 10 artists not currently on view and the question of why they’re not included in the art historical narrative presented at the Portland Art Museum. Household names or not, they were or are significant contributors to the American cultural landscape. We should expect to see them now and again, but it isn’t clear that they get their fair share of attention. An employee of the museum pointed out the majority of these artists’ works in the collection are on paper, thus they fall under the domain of the Graphic Arts curatorial department.

Graphic Arts has one small gallery in the basement of the museum to showcase a historically, stylistically, and geographically varied array of work. In most museums, graphic arts and drawing fall lower in the arts hierarchy than painting and sculpture, and because they are considered second-tier art, they’re relegated to tertiary placement within museums. The result: Artists relevant, even central, to American art history aren’t included in American galleries because they are represented by works on paper.

There’s yet another layer to this issue: you might have noticed that all the artists in the slideshow are people of color. This is intentional on my part because it was while searching for works by Jacob Lawrence, Diego Rivera, and Carrie Mae Weems that I started to notice a pattern: Fewer of these artists’ works are on display than you would expect them to be, if you’re familiar with American art history.

Obviously, works by major white American artists are also in the Graphic Arts department and are rarely seen, but if you look at the museum’s holdings of Robert Rauschenberg, for example, you can see how these structures play out. The examples of his work that fall under Graphic Arts aren’t on display, but Patrician Barnacle (Scale), a sculptural assemblage, is on view!

Why is it that the museum doesn’t have holdings of the artists in the slideshow that fit in with their criteria of “high” art? One reason is that there aren’t (m)any works by these artists that fall into that category, and that has a lot to do with the fact that prints, drawings, and photographs are less expensive to create and reproduce than paintings and sculptures. Artists working before the end of WWII were often employed by the WPA, or made work that was socially motivated. They placed a higher value on reproducibility in order to address a wider audience. It’s not that the museum is deliberately hiding works of art by artists of color. Rather it is how art historical hierarchies map onto social hierarchies to create the “ghettoization”* of these artists and works, as a friend and former museum employee put it to me.

Despite what the museum thinks of works on paper, I expect that a wide array of Portland audiences would find these artists’ work interesting and relevant. I know I do. Which is why I’ve started looking closer at the PAM’s holdings and curatorial habits in a new blog. It’s why I’ve written this post and another. I think the question of who is included in the art museum’s historical narrative is a matter of public interest, because a publicly funded museum serves multiple public groups. An inclusive museum should showcase America’s diversity. To do otherwise it to present a false historical narrative and vision of our future, through the erasure of the contributions of artists of color.

This erasure, this lack of representation is additionally significant because it can discourage people from imagining themselves beyond what the dominate culture teaches them about themselves. For example, how can girls know they can be scientists, artists, and business owners if all they’re allowed to play with are kitchen sets and the only time they see themselves valued is when they’re being sexualized?

Now take that logic and expand it to even more marginalized groups in American society, and that’s why the matter of who is shown as an artist at the Portland Art Museum is a matter of who is allowed to see themselves, and be seen, as artists in Portland.

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Ghettoization The process by which minority groups are forced out of the mainstream aka structural marginalization, which can include physical structures (housing), economic structures (jobs), and cultural structures (mass media) among others.

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