At PSU’s new museum, art for all

The new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at the urban university gives Portland a new center for contemporary art. And it's free to everyone.

As you walk around the new Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University, the eyes have it. Staring out from the prints on the walls in the museum’s inaugural exhibition, Art for All, they leap across the space between art and visitor, intimate and visceral and commanding. When the new museum’s interim director, Linda Tesner, was shaping its first show she wanted to appeal to as broad a potential audience as possible, and decided to stress portraits: person to person, universal and immediate. What could be more democratic?

“Art for All” might well also be the new museum’s motto. When the newest Schnitzer-named university art museum – the third in the Pacific Northwest – opens its doors on Thursday at PSU, Portland will gain something that’s common across Europe but almost as rare as hen’s teeth in the United States: a free art museum. That’s free, no strings attached: free admission for any PSU student or staff member; free for anyone and everyone, from anywhere and everywhere, who wants to visit.

Left: Robert Colescott’s Haircut, 1989, oil on canvas, 84 x 72 inches. Right: David Shrobe’s Keeper of Secrets, 2018, oil, acrylic, graphite, paper, canvas, wood, fabric, metal, and vinyl. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

That fact alone distinguishes the new JSMA from most American museums. It tears down the stubborn economic wall that traditionally keeps lower-income people on the outside and turns museums into havens for the middle and upper classes. The costs of building, maintaining and exhibiting museum collections are high, and in the U.S., where government underwriting of cultural institutions is scant, that usually means high admission prices, too: standard admission to the much larger Portland Art Museum, for instance, is $20, an amount that doesn’t even begin to cover the costs of keeping its doors open.  

Chances are, a lot of the new museum’s visitors will be from outside the university community. As an urban university, PSU is close to the center of downtown Portland, a brisk walk from the Portland Art Museum, the Oregon Historical Society Museum, and the Portland’5 Centers for the Performing Arts. The university’s Lincoln Performance Hall, just a couple of buildings away, already is a de facto urban arts center, used frequently for performances by many non-university dance and music companies. The new PSU art museum faces Southwest Broadway, downtown Portland’s main thoroughfare, with the South Park Blocks on the other side of the building. With its free admission and prominent location close to downtown workers and residents as well as students, it promises to help make PSU even more of an urban attractor than it already is.

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Vanessa German, no admittance apply at office, 2016, mixed media assemblage, 70 x 30 x 16 inches. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

A WEEK AGO, WHEN ART FOR ALL WAS MOSTLY INSTALLED but still undergoing some fine-tuning, I walked with Tesner through the new museum space. It includes two large open galleries on two floors of what used to be Neuberger Hall, with ample height and lots of natural light that can be blocked off. Together the two galleries have roughly 7,500 square feet of display space, which would make it a very large commercial gallery but is much smaller than most general art museums: the Portland Art Museum, for instance, has about 112,000 square feet of gallery space. Size is only one factor: the JSMA is comparable in gallery space to the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education in Northwest Portland, and has more actual gallery space than, for instance, the highly creative American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan – which also, as it happens, offers free admission. The PSU space is adaptable: It can house a single show on both floors, as it does for Art for All, or separate shows on each floor, as it will in spring 2020, when the upper gallery will feature work by Arvie Smith, the talented Portland painter of African American history and culture, and the lower gallery will be turned over to Daniel Duford’s John Brown’s Vision from the Scaffold, a project that won the Portland artist and writer a 2019 Guggenheim award.

Tesner, who was hired as interim director in August, has put together a compelling opening exhibition, all of it drawn from Schnitzer’s extensive collections (the show’s full title is Art for All: From the Collections of Jordan D. Schnitzer and His Family Foundation). It’s made up largely of work by artists of color, but also includes the likes of John Baldessari, Jim Dine, Elizabeth Peyton, David Hockney, Jeff Koons, Alex Katz, and Claes Oldenberg. And the eyes do follow you, like windows on the soul: sometimes haunted, sometimes guarded, sometimes angry, sometimes forthright, sometimes furtive. Hockney’s, in an iPad-generated self-portrait, are like a startled animal’s. Hung Liu’s, in a large, thickly textured, and strangely formal oil portrait, are … what? – open yet cloaked; revealing in their refusal to be revealed. In Kerry James Marshall’s etching of a young black woman the eyes are piercing, shielded, and defiant. Kiki Smith, in the intaglio and watercolor print Pool of Tears II (after Lewis Carroll), creates an eerily nonsensical scene in which a flock of floating birds stares down an oddly disembodied Alice, bobbing on the waves. The woman in Mikalene Thomas’s I’ve Been Good to Me is strong, beautiful, and sensual, with forthright eyes. A pair of Alison Saar’s African American portraits with their blank almond eyes are here, along with an arresting Saar sculpture of a reclining head with a pair of birds dangling from a long red-cloth tongue.

Jun Kaneko, Untitled, Heads, 2012, cast bronze, enamel paint and stainless steel bases. Left: 74 x 21 x 16 inches. Right: 74 x 20 x 18 inches. Photo: Spencer Rutledge, courtesy PSU

Schnitzer is mostly known for his collections’ concentration on prints, as Tesner noted, but she added, “He collects everything.” There are some marvelous sculptural pieces in Art for All, including a sharply witty assemblage by Vanessa German of a black woman holding a lantern, with cryptic and sometimes cutting commentary embedded in its many parts; a wonderfully sleek and stylized pair of large cast-bronze heads by Jun Kaneko, staring at each other like opposing pawns on a giant chess board; a large tableau of elegant laser-cut steel pieces by Kara Walker that you realize with a jolt depicts in part a lynching; a handsomely cobbled-together wooden bear figure by Rick Bartow; a witty feathered steam-iron sculpture by Willie Cole, who’s known for incorporating ironing boards into his images of African Amerian culture; and an elegantly curved, shimmering-blue open book structure by Anish Kapoor. The Vietnamese-American artist Dinh Q. Le has a large and moving print that includes a scene with Tom Cruise in a wheelchair and Willem Dafoe from the movie Born on the Fourth of July, with ghost-images of naked children fleeing in terror after being napalmed in the Vietnam War, borrowed from Phan Thi Kim Phuc’s shocking and politically potent 1972 photograph. Enrique Chagoya, Lorna Simpson, Robert Colescott (who taught at PSU for several years early in his career), the Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, and other contemporary masters show up with fine work.

The new museum is a part of the newly opened Fariborz Maseeh Hall, a $70 million renovation of PSU’s former Neuberger Hall. It’s named for a PSU graduate and founder of the technology company IntelliSense who donated $5 million to the project (state bonds covered $60 million). The museum is named for Schnitzer, who also donated $5 million, specifying that $4 million be used to create the museum and $1 million to create an endowment to hire a museum director.

That director is Tesner – for now. “I’m here to get the airplane off the runway,” she said cheerfully, and added that she has no desire to stay after next summer, when her appointment ends: writing, guest-curating, and other non-administrative projects beckon. PSU is conducting a search for a permanent director, who will have much to say about the museum’s eventual shape and personality. Tesner was an ideal choice to get the thing launched. A highly respected curator and administrator who’s held leading posts at Maryhill Museum of Art, as an assistant director of the Portland Art Museum, and for 20 years as director of the innovative contemporary gallery at Lewis & Clark College, she knows the artists and the ins and outs of running an organization.

Unlike most museums, the Schnitzer PSU museum has no collections of its own. That’s hardly an unknown structure – in the Pacific Northwest, for instance, Washington state’s Bellevue Arts Museum has been successful as a center for craft arts and design with no collection of its own – but it creates its own demands, including a sharp eye for what’s available and a keen sense of the kind of art and institutional image it wants to project. In a way, it needs to be a little more entrepreneurial.

And if it lacks its own collection, JSMA PSU has the good fortune to be able to call on Schnitzer’s extensive collections, which are contemporary and high-quality and smart. It’s no stretch to say that without Schnitzer, this museum-in-the-making might not exist.

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Foreground: Kara Walker, Burning African Village Play Set with Bog House and Lynching, 2006, edition 4/20, painted laser-cut steel. Back, from left: After Jean-Michel Basquiat, Portfolio II: Cabeza, edition BAT 1/1, 1982/2005, screenprint; Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes du Maroc #35, edition 3/10, 2006, chromogenic print; Jim Dine, Me Dangling, edition 2/3, 1999,
digital pigment print on canvas. Photo: Dan Kvitka, courtesy PSU

PORTLAND STATE’S NEW MUSEUM IS THE THIRD IN THE NORTHWEST to bear the Schnitzer name, joining Jordan Schnitzer Museums of Art at the University of Oregon, in Eugene, and Washington State University, in Pullman. In addition to serving their university communities, both are the de facto museums for their metropolitan areas – a not uncommon role for college and university art museums. The Hallie Ford Museum of Art, which is connected to Willamette University, is the art museum for Salem and its surrounding cities; the Schneider Museum of Art, part of Southern Oregon University, is the community art museum for the Ashland/Medford region. And Schnitzer’s influence goes beyond the region. In late October of 2018 the Jordan D. Schnitzer Gallery opened at Dieu Donné, an artists’ workspace and center for contemporary paper art in the Brooklyn Naval Yard.

“I love all mediums. Paper, sculpture … you name it,” Schnitzer said in an interview early this year. But the majority of his collection is concentrated on works on paper, and works from the immediate post-World War II era to today. “Artists in my opinion are always chroniclers of their time,” he said. “And these are the chroniclers of my time.”

Schnitzer, 68, grew up in Portland hanging around his mother’s legendary Fountain Gallery and going to museums, and much of his passion for lending his art and helping to fund museums derives from his belief that everybody ought to have access to art. “Unfortunately, all across the country there are millions of people who think art is for someone else. Some elitist few,” he said. “That is totally wrong. My mission is to fight against that idea. Art is for everybody.”

Schnitzer runs Harsch Investment Properties, a highly successful real-estate company, with properties up and down the West Coast. He’s been in the news in recent months as the latter-day owner of the Wapato Jail, a political and real-estate disaster that was built in 2004 at a cost of $58.4 million in Multnomah County bond money and state funding, but has never been used. The county tried for years to unload it, and finally sold it to a private buyer in April 2018 for $5 million. That buyer almost immediately resold to Schnitzer, who declared his interest in converting it into a homeless shelter. It’s a controversial proposal that has fierce advocates and equally fierce opponents, and little apparent support from the city or the county. Last month he announced that, with no agreement in hand, he would knock down the jail and use the land to build warehouses. That hasn’t happened yet.

Schnitzer loves the real estate business. And he loves collecting and sharing art, passions that he learned from his parents. In addition to building significant collections in Pacific Northwest and West Coast modernist and contemporary art and early Chinese art, Harold and Arlene Schnitzer gave away a reported $80 million in charitable contributions before Harold died in 2011. Their support ranged from health care and research to the visual and performing arts (the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland is named for Jordan’s mother, and the Portland Art Museum has been a frequent beneficiary) to Jewish charitable organizations.

Collecting runs in the family, and Jordan has extended the tradition with his own collecting and supporting of educational programs. College students, he believes, are of an ideal age and circumstance to make art a regular part of their lives. Housing an art museum on a college campus, he said, “is not a ‘nice-to-have.’ It’s a ‘must-have.’ … The dream would be that on every college campus across the country there would be an art museum; that every student would make going to the museum part of their experience.” That’s happening, he added, in Pullman, where he helped choose the location for the museum – a contemporary building with six galleries and 10,000 square feet of exhibition space, called “the Crimson Cube” – in a high-traffic spot between the student union building and Martin Stadium, where the WSU Cougars play their home football games. The museum “is now getting an average of 250 students a day,” he said. “And that warms my heart. Someone might say, ‘Why Pullman?,’ and I say, ‘Why not?’” It’s a major land grant university, he added, and a lot of its students come from smaller towns and rural areas where the chances to see art are considerably slimmer.

Prints and other works on paper appeal to Schnitzer because of their relative affordability: He could pay $5 million for a single painting, or buy many good and important prints for less. He likes the collaborative process in printmaking, with printer and artist working together. And, he noted, virtually every artist has made works on paper, and they all seem to love it.

From left: Jeff Koons, Gazing Ball (Manet Luncheon on the Grass), edition 5/20, 2019 (the blue glass ball reflects the viewer’s own image back); David Hockney, Self Portrait II, 14 March 2012, edition 10/25, 2012; Hung Liu, Visage I, 2004-12. Photo: Dan Kvitka, courtesy PSU

Between his personal collection and the family foundation’s, Schnitzer has more than 13,000 prints and multiples: the foundation calls the combined collection “the country’s largest private print collection.” A full-time staff of five cares for the collection. Schnitzer has been influenced by some significant people in building his collections. He’s had a long and fruitful relationship with Bob Kochs, owner and director of Portland’s Augen Gallery, who’s helped him shape his collection: “It’s been an absolutely perfect relationship of an art dealer and a collector.” And while serving on the Portland Art Museum board years ago he saw a print show assembled by curator Gordon Gilkey, onetime Monuments Man during World War II, significant collector, longtime university teacher, printmaker, and founder and chief donor, with his wife, of the museum’s expansive Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection. At the time Schnitzer was most familiar with Northwest artists, the focus of his mother’s gallery. Gilkey’s show included a lot of top New York artists, and “I thought, ‘Wow.’” Now, Northwest artists mix freely and easily with national and international figures in Schnitzer’s collections – a Frank Stella or David Hockney or Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat cheek to jowl with a Michael Brophy, Katherine Ace, Joe Fedderson, Sherrie Wolf, Rick Bartow, Sabina Haque, Lillian Pitt.

Both Schnitzer and Tesner mention the intriguing possibility of the three Northwest Schnitzer museums sharing shows built from his collections. He and the foundation lend works and often entire exhibitions to institutions across the country, on exceedingly generous terms, covering most costs and underwriting exhibition catalogs. More than 100 exhibitions of works from the collections have been presented in more than 80 museums across the nation. The works have been seen, Schnitzer noted, by “audiences of color, low-income families, older people with dementia, Native American groups. My mantra is, ‘Too many eyes don’t wear out the art.’”

A recent show of culturally and politically potent works by Kara Walker, for instance, traveled to seven cities, among them Boise, Idaho; Springfield, Missouri; and Laramie, Wyoming. People will tell him, Schnitzer said, that “it’s more important we have a show in New York. Ah, bullcrap. It’s more important that we have a show in Laramie, Wyoming.” So the artistic tour of America continues, with exhibitions in larger cities such as Chicago but also in smaller regional cities and towns: Omaha, Nebraska; Tulsa and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Casper, Wyoming; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Glens Falls, New York; Salt Lake City, Utah; Wichita, Kansas; Walla Walla, Washington; Billings and Missoula, Montana; Alexandria, Louisiana. Schnitzer broke into a broad smile: the tour has taken him to a lot of places he wouldn’t have seen otherwise. “I’m in the real-estate business,” he said. “Nothing I like better after an opening than driving around, looking at properties and land.”

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Alison Saar, High Yella’ Blue, edition 4/21, 2016, intaglio, pochoir, 11 1/8 x 11 1/4 inches. Photo courtesy Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

IF THE SCHNITZER COLLECTIONS OFFER the new PSU museum a solid core of art to call on, they aren’t the full story. Shows curated from Schnitzer’s holdings will be regular features, but there’ll be plenty of time and space for other shows selected by the museum’s eventual director and curator. And despite the Schnitzer seed money that has established the museum, it will be up to the university to continue funding, assure a strong curatorial and administrative structure, and keep the museum going.

The Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at PSU arrives at a welcome time in Portland, where the institutional art scene has suffered significant recent setbacks. The nationally prominent Museum of Contemporary Craft folded, its space eventually taken over by the Jewish museum. The Oregon College of Art and Craft suffered a painful death. The Art Institute of Portland, part of a national for-profit chain, shut its doors. The crucial contemporary-art gallery The Art Gym died along with its parent organization, Marylhurst University.

So the establishment of a new university art museum bucks a trend. Nationally, an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – the so-called STEM subjects – has pushed history and cultural studies to the academic sidelines. Public universities and colleges, largely left in the lurch financially by their respective state legislatures, follow the money by emphasizing programs that make them in effect trade schools for the business world. Private colleges, facing the same financial pressures and declining enrollments, are tempted to follow suit. The curtailing of arts and humanities programs, and thus interest and knowledge on the part of students who are learning to be citizens, begins early in the public elementary and secondary schools and works its way up the chain, stifling the sorts of cultural connections, historical depth, and inquisitive thinking that might be expected to energize a creative economy. The changes can be sudden and, within their own communities, catastrophic, as in the death of Marylhurst and orphaning of The Art Gym. Tesner knows that well: Late last year she was laid off, without warning, after 20 years as director of Lewis & Clark College’s contemporary art gallery, and her regionally noted programs were shut down in what most arts observers consider a short-sighted cost-cutting move. Hardly an arts instructor at any school and any level doesn’t live with the knowledge, either immediate or lurking in the background, that her program might simply disappear. Schnitzer’s enterprises, and PSU’s commitment to its new museum, are encouraging counters to such trends.

In the meantime, drop on down to PSU on Thursday or later to catch Art for All, the new museum’s excellent inaugural show: This could be the start of something big. And keep an eye on those eyes. They have stories to tell.

Kerry James Marshall, Untitled (Woman), edition 2/50, 2010, hardground etching with aquatint, 24 1/2 x 19 inches. Photo courtesy Jordan Schnitzer Family Foundation

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JORDAN SCHNITZER MUSEUM OF ART AT PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY

Grand Opening Celebration:

  • Thursday, November 7, 2019
    10:30 a.m.: Ribbon Cutting and Remarks
    11:30 a.m.: Museum opens to the public with inaugural exhibition, Art for All, continuing through Feb. 15, 2020
    5-8 p.m.: First Thursday Reception
  • Address: Fariborz Maseeh Hall, PSU campus, 1855 S.W. Broadway
  • Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; closed Sundays-Mondays
  • Admission: Always free

Coming Up:

  • Dan Duford, John Brown’s Vision from the Scaffold, March 5-May 9, 2020
  • Arvie Smith, 2 Up 2 Back II, March 5-May 9, 2020

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Briana Miller says:

    Learned a lot from this ample article. Thank you!

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