Donald Jenkins, former curator of Asian art at the Portland Art Museum and a legend in the Portland art community and the larger museum world, died Wednesday, Aug. 30, 2023. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by Bruce Guenther, former chief curator at the Portland museum, who said that Jenkins died about noon with his daughters Jennifer Jenkins Gowacki and Rebecca Jenkins at his bedside.
For decades Jenkins, who as a young man considered a life as a poet, was a quiet and reassuring source of institutional energy in the halls and galleries of the Portland Art Museum, softly exerting his influence as he helped build the museum’s Asian art collection into one of its strongest specialties. He also helped lay the groundwork for the addition of one of the museum’s other greatest strengths, the Vivian and Gordon Gilkey Graphic Arts Collection, built on the notable collection of another eventual museum legend, Gordon Gilkey, who had befriended many European artists while serving as a “Monuments Man” assigned to lead efforts to minimize damage to art and architecture during World War II.
Jenkins was, in many ways, an old-fashioned gentleman, admired and beloved: Long and lean and amiable, he seemed to have time for everybody, and spoke with a soft and attentive voice that belied the authority of his accomplishments.
“A tall, lanky man with the reserve and propriety of a prep school teacher, Jenkins has fulfilled many roles since arriving at the museum in 1954, including jobs as an assistant, curator and director,” D.K. Row wrote in a compelling profile of Jenkins for The Oregonian in 2004. “He’s also presided over many of its crucial moments: As director, he helped save the museum from bankruptcy in the late ’70s. He oversaw the development of the Asian art collection and has been the museum’s most outstanding scholar of the past 30 years, cultivating an international reputation for his work with Japanese prints.”
Guenther stressed Jenkins’ importance to the growth and maturation of the Portland museum itself. “His great institutional achievement was bringing the Gilkey print collection into the museum and creating the Gilkey Center,” he said. “At another point he and Brian Booth, board chair, went public with a funding crisis at the museum and started the important dialogue about the museum’s place as a public cultural institution in the state and the need for widespread funding.”
Jenkins was also, Guenther noted, an important advocate for the building of Portland’s Lan Su Chinese Garden, and a fervent believer in the quality and beauty of Asian art: “He made the poetry of objects come alive and the spirit of the Japanese culture vividly present in his talks and exhibitions.”
Row, in his 2004 profile of Jenkins, underscored the quality of Jenkins’ curatorial work. “In the United States and Canada, there are three or four authorities” on Japanese prints, he quoted Bob Mowry, head of Asian art at the Harvard University Art Museums. “And Donald’s one of them.” Row then quoted Emily Sano, director of the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco: “He’s one of the best of the 20th century.”
Jenkins, who retired in 2003, spent almost a half-century at the Portland Art Museum. “Donald Jenkins was a talented museum professional and scholar,” Brian Ferriso, the museum’s director, said in a memoriam published on the museum’s website on Thursday, Aug. 31. “His passion and ability to create wonder for generations of Oregonians truly brought joy to our community. I am fortunate to have known Donald, and am extremely grateful for his many contributions, which continue to have a significant impact on our museum.”
The memoriam continues, in part: “Jenkins’s passion for Asian art began in 1964 and he pursued it by becoming fluent in Japanese, traveling to the country, and completing his graduate degree at the University of Chicago. Jenkins returned to the Museum in 1974 after some time at the Art Institute of Chicago, and just a year later assumed the role of Head of the Portland Art Association, the name that encompassed the Museum, the Museum Art School, and the Northwest Film Study Center. In 1977 he adeptly steered the institution toward solid financial footing after years of decline and remained helming the organization until 1981 … He served as Curator of Asian Art from 1987 until his retirement in 2003, with an additional role as Chief Curator from 1997 to 2001.”
Jenkins’ notability, Row noted in his 2004 profile, was built to a great extent on his personal qualities: “No one at the museum inspires the affection and praise that Jenkins does. And for good reason: When Jenkins left, so, too, went a particular attitude, a thoughtful, transcendental way of looking at life. It’s a direct and honorable spirit that has always served the museum well, though at times at the expense of Jenkins’ ambitions and happiness.”
For decades Jenkins lived on a small farm about 20 miles outside Portland, enjoying the rural retreat with his children and his wife, Mary Ella (Mel) Jenkins, who died in 2012. “Those who knew Jenkins knew that this piece of land was always his sanctuary,” the museum noted in its memoriam, “and he cared for it with the same vigor as he cared for the Museum, its collections, and its community during his long and fruitful career.”