Dawson Carr, the Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art at the Portland Art Museum, will retire at the end of April after eight years on the job. Carr was the museum’s first full-time curator for the European art collection and hiring him was flaunt-worthy for PAM. Carr left a position at the National Gallery in London as the Curator of Spanish and Italian Paintings 1600-1800 to come to Portland. His resume also includes curatorial stints at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Hiring Dawson Carr meant that Portland was playing in the big leagues.
Carr arrived in Portland in 2013 to take charge of a comparatively small but solid collection of European Art. Even the press coverage from 2012 indicates that Carr knew he was in for “an adventure” in Portland. The Portland Art Museum may be among the toniest cultural institutions in town, but all things are relative. Portland is not London, New York, or Los Angeles, and the budget of the Portland Art Museum pales in comparison to those of Carr’s previous institutions.
I met with Carr a few weeks ago (over Zoom, of course) to talk about his time at the museum, and he acknowledged that the decision to come to Portland hadn’t been easy. “I knew it would be a huge challenge. I have never worked for a poor institution before … I always had a silver spoon in my mouth and I knew that it would be vastly different.”
Carr went into museum work because he saw it as “public service.” He was first smitten with Spanish art while working in the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University in Texas as an undergraduate student. The museum’s nickname is the “Prado on the Prairie.” For graduate school he moved to New York to pursue a masters degree and doctorate at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, and trained at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
It’s telling that Carr moved to New York in the 1970s just as Thomas Hoving, the director of the Met, was nurturing the concept of the blockbuster exhibition to fruition. Carr entered graduate school in 1975, the same year the Treasures of Tutankhamun, more commonly referred to as the “King Tut” exhibition, debuted. Carr’s approach to curating was shaped by this idea of “exhibition culture,” focused on engaging the public rather than working for a rarefied circle of academic colleagues.
Perhaps most indicative of this interest in exhibition culture and the community was Carr’s 2020 Volcano! Mount St. Helens in Art. Carr has always had a thing for volcanos. When he first came to interview in Portland, he expressed disbelief to Brian Ferriso and Bruce Guenther, the museum’s then-chief curator, that with volcanoes on its horizon, Portland didn’t have a painting of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The 2020 exhibition was initially intended to be a survey of volcanos in world art. But as research and planning for the exhibition got under way, it dawned on Carr that 2020 was going to be the fortieth anniversary of the eruption of Mount St. Helens. Accordingly, the exhibition pivoted to focus on the famous local volcano, both before and after 1980. Carr credits his curatorial colleagues with helping him to mount an exhibition so far outside his area of expertise.
Carr points to the 2015 show Gods and Heroes: Masterpieces from the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris as a personal favorite. The show, which focused on Western mythological and literary narratives from antiquity through the nineteenth century, included works by a number of “big” art historical names: Albrecht Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Jacques-Louis David. Carr was responsible for the layout of the show in the galleries and recalls it as a triumph “because we told such a wonderful story in a very comprehensive way.”
“It was a great deal of fun,” he said. “The way you saw it on the walls was not necessarily the organization that was built into the show from the start. I messed things up and changed the order and I think told the story a bit better. We were one of four venues in America and we were the only place that gave it the amount of space that we did.”
Among other exhibitions, Carr curated the 2017 Rodin show (Rodin: The Human Experience—Selections from the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Collections) and contributed handsomely to the museum’s “Masterworks” series by bringing in works by El Greco and Georges de la Tour. The latter, exhibited in 2019, was made possible by the fact that Carr “has known the curator for some time” and the fact that he knew the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the painting’s home, was going to be shut for renovations. The Portland Art Museum benefitted from Carr’s deep ties in the museum world.
But while Carr courted and exhibited works with a certain art-historical pedigree, he equally exhibited with a sense of whimsy. On his roster of exhibitions is Carl Kahler: My Wife’s Lovers, which readers may remember as an extremely large cat painting. The wife in question was San Francisco philanthropist Kate Birdsall Johnson, and the painting of 42 cats was initially exhibited at the Chicago World’s Fair. Carr points to this as something that is special about Portland: “You can do things like that [exhibit a cat painting] and not have people looking down their noses at you for it. You can respond to community interest, and there are a lot of cat lovers in Portland. I wish I could have done the same with dog pictures.” Carr clearly embraced Portland.
While exhibitions may be among the most touted activities of a museum curator, acquisitions to the permanent collections are more, well, permanent. Of course, Portland’s budget for acquisitions was smaller than he was accustomed to: “For me, the challenge was working at the opposite end of the art market in terms of acquisitions, because I’d been working at the tip tip top and now I had to work with very limited funds. But you know, one of the things working at the top, going through auction catalogs and the like, you’d see really good pictures by lesser known artists but at a place like the Getty, if it doesn’t have a lot of zeros behind the price, they’re just not interested, no matter how good the work is. So I knew there were good things out there at a lower level – that’s the challenge: finding exceptional works by less known people, and that’s basically what I’ve done.”
One of Carr’s first acquisitions was Vesuvius Erupting at Night by Francesco Fidanza, immediately remedying the museum’s lack of volcano representation. Marianne Loir’s Portrait of a Man Seated at a Desk was another major purchase, and one that added a work by a woman artist to the museum’s mostly male-dominated collections. Carr points to Felipe Diriksen’s Portrait of Infant María Ana de Austria as a personal favorite. The portrait purchased by the museum in honor of Carr’s retirement, Carlo Ceresa’s Portrait of Barone Ignazio de Pizzis, is of a similar size and orientation, and Carr foresees them being hung as a pair (albeit across the room from one another) to make a “big statement about ruler portraits.”
From a community standpoint, the acquisition that garnered the most attention is Giuseppe Bonito’s The Femminiello. The painting is the only known eighteenth century representation of a cross-dresser, and the charming scene of two figures is indicative of the acceptance and community embrace of practitioners in Naples. Later societal prejudice most likely explains the dearth of any similar representations. Carr spotted the work in an auction catalog. It had been poorly restored but he took it to the museum’s collection committee and “it was approved unanimously.”
“After I got it restored and it saw the light of day,” he recalled, “I had any number of colleagues tell me, ‘You’re so lucky. I wouldn’t have even dared to take that to my director.’ Most directors would have absolutely refused to take it to their board. … There is a conservatism among many board types – certainly in cities the size of Portland. … We’re really fortunate here. This is when the progressive side of Portland comes out, and is a hugely positive thing for the museum.” The Ross Family Fund of the Equity Foundation purchased the work for the museum.
Carr is leaving the museum at an odd moment in terms of the representation of European art in Portland. “European art, at the moment, is being denigrated and very self-consciously so by a generation that espouses cancel culture,” he said. “The colonial powers deserve to be punished, and this is kind of unfortunate when you’re dealing with the arts, but it’s there and it’s very very real.”
The curatorship at the Portland Art Museum, however, was endowed by Janet and Richard Geary, so Carr will have a successor, though he estimates that it will be at least 18 months before someone new is in place: “I hope it’s a young person with a distinct point of view and a lot of energy.” His awareness of the lag undoubtedly added to the pressure of wrapping things up. Carr went so far as to describe it as an “utter panic,” and his retirement date has been postponed a couple of times.
Carr’s Portland “adventure” seems to have been a smashing success: “I’m glad I did it. I’m very happy. The idea all along was to find a great place to retire. I found it and I think I’ve made a difference in the representation of European art in the collection.” The Portland Art Museum has been fortunate to have such a distinguished curator, so it worked out well for everyone.